INDIANA JONES AND THE EMPEROR’S TOMB REVIEW – “WORLD’S GREATEST HAT RETRIEVAL SIMULATOR”

You know, it’s games like this which remind me why I like my job, which I’m sure is an opening statement that’ll endear me to nobody. I know that getting paid to play games and write about them sounds about as gruelling as licking the back of your teeth, but anything can lose appeal given time and a sense of obligation. Getting hired to perform creative and passionate lovemaking with the finalists of a Miss America contest on a daily basis would probably be pretty sweet to begin with too, but after six months you’ll have an unavoidable sense of ennui that can only be matched in intensity by the third-degree friction burns on your genitals. Such is life.

But it’s little moments of delighted surprise like this one that help remind me that games are still supposed to be fun, which is easy to forget when you’re only thinking about publishing schedules and what jokes might put you in court for libel. And sure, there’s occasionally a cruel, vengeful glee that can come from writing poison at a game that wasted your brain cells, but that’s still dependent on you playing something crappy beforehand. Remember, you still have to get bitten by the dog before you can enjoy kicking it up the arse in return.

But this here is a really good game that I just want to rant about, partly because it has personal significance to me and partly because it’s pretty damn good. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb was a PS2 game from 2003 that actually manages to trump the first three Uncharted games in terms of quality. It might trump Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure as well, but I haven’t played that one yet, and I ain’t going to comment on the standards of games I haven’t played, not until IGN are happy to send me a monthly paycheck.

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Indy’s adventure for a lost Chinese gemstone goes relatively unremembered when compared to The Fate of Atlantis or The Infernal Machine.

See, I played The Emperor’s Tomb back when it came out, when I was just a nine-year old kid with a big love for Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. I had all the films on VHS, I had toys based around excavating worthless plastic trinkets from blocks of clay, and I even got my own bullwhip, which I was very dismayed to learn could NOT be used to wrap around protrusions like a makeshift grappling hook. But my love for all things Indy hung around, so when I saw a few days ago that IJATET was available on Good Old Games and for less money than the average pair of underpants, I double-checked that my threadbare Y-fronts were in no danger of turning into O-fronts during the next week and promptly snapped up this classic, curious to see if it still held up after nearly a decade and a half.

To go into more detail, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is an action-adventure game by LucasArts for the PS2, one that was basically trying take back everything that Lara Croft had co-opted. A world-trekking, swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, Nazi-punching, whip-cracking adventure, in which Indiana Jones is tasked by the Chinese government to find the “Heart of the Dragon,” a mythical black pearl from the Qin dynasty that has the same kind of ancient, vaguely nebulous magic that the Ark of the Covenant would approve of. Needless to say that the Third Reich have also got an interest in having a power level of over nine thousand, so now it’s a race against time as Indy must find the key that’ll open the tomb and allow him to take the pearl himself, either before either Hitler’s goons or a villainous Chinese Triad leader can get their hands on it.

On the surface it certainly sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, and that’s probably the greatest strength of The Emperor’s Tomb – it feels like we’re playing through a hypothetical fifth movie of the franchise, a film that just never made it to the silver screen.

Oh sorry, am I supposed to say it’s the hypothetical fourth movie? I forgot, it’s impossible to refer to this series without making some silly token reference to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being crap. Yeah, welcome to Nerd Culture 101, people. Do you also want me to mention how Aquaman has useless powers, which he doesn’t, or how “Vader” is German for father, which it isn’t?

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In combat every punch feels like it has real weight behind it, and the improvised, unplanned way fights tend to go make them feel wonderfully authentic.

But that’s boring to dwell on when there’s tasty, tasty violence to be discussed. One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that The Emperor’s Tomb is superior to anything Uncharted could throw at you is that the combat engine is far better than the cover-based tedium that Nathan Drake seems to believe passes as a genuine gunfight. Instead, there’s something wonderfully scrappy and brutal about the way the fighting works here. The world is full of objects that can be picked up and used to clobber your way out of a situation, from a sturdy table leg to a ceremonial spear, and the always-accessible whip allows you to yank the enemy’s weapon out of their own hands for you to pinch, a technique that never fails to be impishly satisfying. And if there’s nothing solid to hit the villains with, you could always just draw your revolver or settle it with your own two fists.

It really is a testament to what a bit of careful character animation can offer to an experience. Indy fights exactly like how he should – like the underdog, using every means possible to overcome whatever forces are stacked against him, and consequently the game is all too happy for you to punch enemies in the balls or kick them when they’re lying down. Another wonderful little detail is that your hat can be knocked off your head if you’re struck in the right way, and you have to manually retrieve it yourself if you don’t want to keep looking at Doctor Jones’ PS2-era Lego man hair. There’s no mechanical reason why you need to get it and you can go on without it just fine, but the trope of retrieving his Fedora after a dangerous escape or fight sequence is such a staple of the series that it’s wonderful to see it become an organic part of the world.

The whole game is careful to keep the movies’ jubilant tone throughout, right to the point where you could understandably accuse it of perhaps not being as creative as it could’ve been. Every level practically has an equivalent moment in the films that you can draw a direct link to, and not just because the game is doing the classic scene transition of drawing red lines on a sepia-tone atlas. You start the story off in a trap-filled jungle temple a la Raiders, then there’s a scene with a rain-soaked Nazi castle straight from The Last Crusade, followed swiftly by some more Raiders when Herr Jackboot brings us to a bustling market city in the desert, then we go stealing from the Temple of Doom for a skirmish in a Chinese city, before we finally bounce back to Raiders one more time for an assault on the secret island base in a Nazi uniform, and we’re not even in act three of the story yet.

I’ll also say that the voice acting is a little dubious. Late actor David Esch has the unenviably tricky task of trying to recreate Harrison Ford’s dry monotone, and I’ll confess that he did a good enough job to make me wonder at first whether it really might be Han Solo in the driver’s seat. But the big problem is that he can’t keep the tone convincing whenever he has to show genuine panic or surprise. Indy’s disinterested cry of “whoa” when a giant crocodile shows up is about as convincing as two children in a tall coat, and the other voice actors can only aspire to that level. The chap playing Von Beck (the one-eyed, blonde-haired, scar-faced, monologuing leader of the Nazis, totes serious) is clearly putting more ham in his performance than the average ploughman’s lunch, a fact made all the more startling by the knowledge that the fella has been in cultural landmarks like Frozen, 24, Lost, and one of my favourite animated shows, The Critic. Though considering he played a European stereotype in that show too, maybe it’s not too hard to see the connection.

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Indy’s adventure leads him from Ceylon, to Prague, then to Istanbul, Shanghai and a dozen other locales – and yet none of it feels especially new.

But I can’t stay pissy at the voice acting for too long, because I’m still riding the high that comes with hearing a faithful adaptation of the original John Williams Raiders’ March over the top of some daring action sequence. I’d leap out of cover, gunning down goons before bringing out the bullwhip and knocking back an enemy with a vicious sting of woven leather. Then before you could say “it belongs in a museum,” I’d snare Fritz’s back-up goon with a swing of said whip and yank him in close for a solid punch to the jaw, cutting off his yells of “schnell, schell, die amerikaner,” and all the while grinning as the theme music bombastically pays tribute. It’s so enthralling that you want to punch the air and just shout out the words “hell, yeah!

But those are moments for combat, and smacking around the Hitler Youth is only half the game, and the other half is puzzles, traps and platforming. And I’ll even give credit to some of the puzzle design, it does have clever elements involved – at least when it’s not cartoonishly easy to decipher. The early stages of the game really do treat you like an idiot, going into a cutscene whenever you enter a new location and having the camera carefully pan over to the solution before you even know that a puzzle is coming up in the first place. With retrospect I’m a little disappointed not see some equivalent of the third movie’s Grail Diary popping up to play around with (another thing that Uncharted and Tomb Raider pinched from the series), but instead we do have competent, though generally unremarkable puzzles that don’t stick with you for very long, connected by climbing around and the occasional secret item hidden behind a waterfall, because there is ALWAYS a secret item hidden behind a waterfall in video games.

I actually managed to beat The Emperor’s Tomb within a couple of days, and this surprised me, eventually coming across as both longer and shorter than I thought. Like I said, the game is choc-a-block-full of colourful locations and backdrops, taking every opportunity it can to yank us to a new location halfway across the globe, but I’ll confess that you’ve had all your A-Grade material once you get past the section at Nazi headquarters. That’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s still twenty-five percent of the campaign to go. It’s not bad, by any means, it’s just… Lesser.

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Any action-adventure game eventually give you a turret section, and The Emperor’s Tomb is no exception to that rule, including at least three moments where you get rooted to the floor and shoot at enemies who are foolish enough to come within a two mile radius.

Frankly, it’s hard to say why it loses steam after that point. Perhaps it’s because Indy gets a weird spinning blade weapon that makes combat less interesting than just slugging dudes. Perhaps it’s because the environments become more enclosed and claustrophobic after that, consequently losing all the wanderlust and majesty you’d hope for in a world-trekking game. Actually, it might just be that the checkpoint system and camera controls are both clearly in league with the Krauts and out to get you, and the last act of the game won’t let you forget it.

I’m not kidding here when I say that this might be the biggest failing of the game overall, something that takes The Emperor’s Tomb down from true greatness to just being really solid. I’d punch my way through a horde of Chinese ghost zombies, swing across a ravine full of hungry crocodiles, duck and weave between the jets of fire shooting out of the walls, at which point the camera would suddenly lurch awkwardly as I tried to do a precision jump between pillars, leaving me suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. One stream of profanity and a respawn screen later, and I’d find myself back at the entrance of the dungeon with the last fifteen minutes of progress lost to time.

But I suppose it is good for building tension and the desperate urge not to get killed. Trying to out-swim giant crocodiles has honestly never been so nerve-wracking when any of them could appear at any time to go all Lake Placid on your ass, coming with the terrifying knowledge that a couple of errors on your behalf could lose you progress equal to an episode of Frasier. And speaking of which, that Kraken in Istanbul can go and shove a trident up its bum (or whatever else it’s got instead), what with the way it constantly shoots jellyfish minions at you and scores an instant kill if you get in the same postcode as one of its tendrils, but you still need to get close to plant explosives that’ll turn him into calamari, yet the explosives always have more of a range on them than you’d think and can kill you weirdly easily and RAAAAAAAAAAAARRGH DAMN IT.

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The world design generally has good character and atmosphere to it, even if the technical quality wasn’t even impressive back in the mid-2000s.

The more I think about this game, the more I wonder why I like it so much. It certainly has things that are wrong with it – I haven’t even gone into the rail-shooter sequence on the rickshaw – but I think the errors only gall me so much because they distract from the core gameplay, which certainly kicks ass and does so in a series of attractive settings, all backed up by a rocking soundtrack. I guess if I was pushed for one more comment I’d admit that the graphics weren’t especially impressive, even back for 2003, but if you’re willing to shell out on a game that’s nearly fifteen years old then you’re probably not expecting something that’ll tax your computer hardware for that perfect photorealism.

But the other thing that I like about Indiana Jones is that the titular character is still pretty unique, even to this day. Yeah, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake stole the basic idea of looting artefacts for themselves, leaning harder on tiger-fighting and nineties snark respectively, but Indy was always something a bit different than that: a lovable grouch with understandable motives. He’s a little bit cynical and a little bit sceptical, rolling his eyes at every amateur who passes his way and that inevitably gets killed by their own ignorance. Yet at the same time he’s always filled with childish glee at every new discovery and piece of history that unfurls before him, exactly the kind of contradictory character you’d expect from a man who spends half his time in a University library and the other half trying to disable ancient Aztec home security systems.

It’s obvious that I’m going to finish by recommending this game, but I’ll also make an impassioned plea to whatever Disney-brand Overlords that now keep LucasArts as one of their many hoarded trophies, displayed on some mahogany plaque just before Marvel movies and the Muppets. You guys like money, right? Of course you do, that’s why you keep making live-action adaptions of your old movies that do the fashionable post-modern thing of pissing all over the originals. Well, if you want money, make a new Indiana Jones game, a really good one. Not an adaptation of the old films, we’ve seen those before and they already exist via the Lego games. No, make a bouncy, rollicking jamboree of an adventure that could fit anywhere in the original trilogy, where Indy has to punch villains, escape traps, grab treasure and make an exciting escape at the end of it all. The name brand will get you a whole heap of sales to begin with, and the formula does work on both a narrative and gameplay level.

Think about, is all I’m saying. Iron Man has to run out of marketable new suit designs eventually, right?


8/10

A legitimate lost treasure whose strengths have held up very well over time, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is a curious time capsule that pushes past its flaws by doing exactly what you’d want it to do – feel like an Indiana Jones film. Combat is punchy (pun not intended), puzzles are decent and hearing the whip-crack echo out over the Raider’s March is still a nostalgia trip to rival any globe-trotting adventurer.

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GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

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The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

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Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

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Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.

HAYDEE REVIEW – “BEEP BOOB”

Well. That was… Something.

In light of the controversy surrounding Haydee, it almost feels pointless to offer a critique of how it holds up on the level of gameplay. After all, everybody who’s played it or seen footage of the titular protagonist (and I choose that word very carefully) has already formed their opinion. Either you hate it for being sexist, you admire it for being subversive, or you love it disproportionately because a group you don’t like hates it. Or, contrarily, you hate it for the same reason. Or maybe you just have a fetish for women with buckets on their heads. Que sera, sera.

The point is that writing around the subject feels somewhat irrelevant, but that never stopped me before. So I’ll come right out and say it – a few gameplay ideas in Haydee are basically OK. Doesn’t matter if the main character is a sexist throwback or a powerful gender-icon when it comes to that angle, any more than Hideo Kojima’s sub-par writing skills change the fact that it’s fun to choke Russians in MGSV.

The game prides itself on insane difficulty, and that is certainly warranted. You meander around the sexbot research zone of Aperture Science Laboratories, and a number of things will contrive to kill you before you find the way out, or at least locate a loose, comfortable sweater. Evil robots, lethal drops, your own stupidity – given time, one of them will finish you off. At their best, these deaths usually feel like challenging but justifiable failures, in the manner of my lovely, lovely Dark Souls. My masochistic urge for a game that won’t put up with any nonsense is well-documented, and I was kinda hoping that Haydee would scratch that itch between sessions of Super Meat Boy.

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<THE AUTHOR DOES NOT FEEL BRAVE ENOUGH TO WRITE A COMMENT OF OBSERVATIONAL HUMOUR REGARDING THE ABOVE IMAGE. PLEASE SUPPLY YOUR OWN HUMOUR AS NECESSARY.>

But at their worst, the deaths feel cheap and frustrating. I’m happy to admit that when some long-limbed android rattles towards me and I put five bullets in the wall next to his head, the fact that he proceeds to kick my notably ample arse is only because I wasn’t good enough to stop him. But when his brother sidles up alongside me with no warning and caves in my head before I know he’s there, that feels cheaper than a pre-sucked penny sweet. And with save points being few and far between, getting mangled unexpectedly is almost as annoying here as it is in real life.

Which is to say nothing of the camera breathing down your neck the whole time, because god forbid you find yourself unable to examine Haydee’s body at any point in the game. I’m sure that’ll mitigate the rage of being tackled to the ground by HAL 9000’s big brother, especially when climbing up platforms is done in two stages – the first one of which ends with Haydee awkwardly bent over the surface, just so we can see right up her exhaust port and embarrass ourselves when somebody comes into the room.

But I realise I get ahead of myself, and must describe the core gameplay ‘ere I ramble off into total irrelevance. Well, it’s not easily summarised. I suppose I get flavours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with a tiny bit of ‘dat Dark Souls added in and some classic elements of old Metroidvania, all set in locations from Portal that were considered too boring to be included in the final product. You scrabble around a clean underground lab in third person, picking up every gun, medkit, keycard and bit of ammo you can find. You also climb and jump around from platform to platform (which as mentioned, manages to feel more uncomfortably pornographic than Debbie Does Dallas) in order to move on and explore non-essential areas for more equipment that’ll help later.

The story is far less comprehensive. Our hero, presumably named Haydee, is seen in an enormous science facility, where the only inhabitants appear to be aggressive robots and dead, mechanical blow-up dolls. There are some elements we can piece together, for Haydee herself is one of these buxom sexdroids, and the fact that her unmoving predecessors can be found up ahead, all damaged from some sort of attack or fall, implies that you are not the first to try and find your way out.

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But which one of us is really in a cage? Oh, it’s the robot. Seems pretty obvious now, but it’s quite hard to see with no eyes.

Or something like that, I guess. The game honestly didn’t seem to give a rotten fig about the possibility of narrative for the time I was playing it, and the broken iHookers only seem to exist to highlight which areas are fatal to fall into. The game clearly has its own opinion on what demands more attention than story – namely white panel walls, removable ventilation grates, and jiggle physics. Lots and lots of jiggle physics.

But there are things about the game I can appreciate. The minimal HUD feels nicely unobtrusive, and clearly somebody took inspiration from Dead Space and stuck Haydee’s health bar on the back of her helmet, making it an organic part of her design. Well, not organic, strictly speaking – oh, you know what I mean.

I also appreciate the fact that the game has some genuine ambition to present real challenge. Sure, I’m not too hot about the infrequent save points and the fact you have to hunt out the items needed to unlock them, but I always love a game that actually asks that the player wake up and pay attention in order to succeed. And though some deaths feel cheap and unwarranted, most of them do feel like my error and not the game’s.

And of course, I am completely on board with an emphasis on exploration, which demands the player make note of their surroundings and return to previous areas in order to be as well-equipped as possible.  Yeah, you can charge ahead and try to smother enemies with your ridiculously-sized chest, but you aren’t likely to succeed if you haven’t been snuffling around for ammunition like a Texas-born truffle hog. There’s also something rather effectively creepy about the robotic enemies, which silently move on you with clear purpose in mind, in a manner that can only be described as “advancing.” They even generate a few organic jump scares as they lurch into view, so I can’t say the game didn’t effect me.

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Day 3 in the Kardashian manufacturing facility…

That being said, the things I don’t like are more frequent, and start to get on my plums pretty quickly. The too-close, lecherous camera is one bugbear, and the unwieldy controls are another. I also don’t appreciate the fact that the plain, unremarkable environment gets old to look at very fast, and that there’s something rather unfinished and lazy about certain aspects of the game. Character animations are few and far between, the creators seem unwilling to give the player any information about what’s going on or how to play, and the lack of story feels less like a stylistic choice and more like nobody could be bothered to properly contextualise the events.

Is that everything? It is? Because I can’t think of anything else to address before we OH FINE I’LL TALK ABOUT IT.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Is this game sexist? Well, for a while I didn’t want to think so, partly because I was still kind of enjoying the gameplay and didn’t want to be seen to associate with something unseemly. After all, I have a paltry façade of a reputation to vaguely maintain. What could be more important than that?

At first I was mainly wondering if Haydee were some subtle, elaborate satire. Our protagonist is literally a set of sparsely-covered curves with no head, voice or obvious agency. Most notably, the heroine is sporting a blank plastic panel instead of a face, which in itself is so absurd as to imply self-aware, wink-wink acknowledgement. It comes across as ridiculous to consider, so defiantly backwards in tone that it makes me wonder how seriously this was all being taken. For god’s sake, the two difficulty modes are named “hardcore” and “softcore.” Could it be that all those sputtering Tumblrites were getting their piercings in a twist over nothing more than a simple satirical statement? It wouldn’t be the first time that people on the internet went insane for something that didn’t really matter either way.

But on reflection, I’m not convinced that Haydee is a satire. It’s actually not outrageous enough to come across that way, and with no story to tap into that parody potential, it feels more genuine than anything else. When I saw that the keycards all had pictures of topless women on them, I realised that this was exactly what it looked like to begin with – an unremarkable game with a few titillating elements added to draw people in. Whether that’s fine or not is up to the individual. You might call it harmless exploitation of the kind all entertainment has been engaging in since cavemen could first draw blood and nude stick figures on rocks. Or you might call it a regressive, demeaning fantasy that we should’ve gotten over around the same time. I can understand both, but it’s probably not empowering either way. But maybe it’s not trying to be. Maybe it’s happy to be stupid, sexy fun. Maybe it’s at too high an ethical price to be worth another depressing female archetype. Honestly, I’m starting to lose interest in both this subject and the game as a whole.

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It’s an easy joke, but somebody had to make it.

Which can act as my closing point. Haydee is a little too rough, a little too minimal and a little two unimpressive to be anything more than a time-waster, unable to capitalise or develop the good ideas that dwell within it. I couldn’t be bothered to play beyond a certain point, so maybe it picks up later – but I don’t care. I have limited recreation time in my life, and I ‘aint putting those valuable hours into watching Cave Johnson’s secret fetish fall into pits and perform revealing gymnastics routines. Maybe pick it up if you see it on sale, or find yourself attracted to mannequins. Otherwise, I can’t really recommend.


4/10

Haydee is a somewhat solid premise that isn’t refined enough to hold up on its own terms, so it throws in the headless Playbot as the heroine and hopes the bouncing jubblies will distract you from your growing boredom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

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.