DEAD BY DAYLIGHT vs. FRIDAY THE 13th: THE GAME – “SMASH BROS. FOR HORROR ICONS.”

INTRODUCTION

It’s always interesting to see when two games are held as direct competitors, even if they don’t want that. Ever since the Genesis supposedly did what Nintendon’t in the 90s, there’s been a whole history of “my X is better than your Y”. Mario versus Sonic. Call of Duty versus Battlefield. Fornite versus PUBG. It’s even more painful to watch when the winner is obvious, such as when Overwatch did to Battleborn what a hungry fox does to a baby rabbit.

And one of the more recent sudden slapfights in gaming memory was between Dead By Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game, which on the surface does make some amount of sense, both being asymmetrical multiplayer games in which a bunch of teenagers try to sneak around a hungry murdered controlled by another player, all until they either escape with their lives or end up as a small aperitif.

And though having played both before, it was only in the wake of the last Steam Sale that I found myself in possession of both titles, curious to see which was the superior time-killer (no pun intended). I’ll admit right away that I wanted Friday to be better, partly because Jason has always been my favourite movie slasher, and also because the internet seemed to have collectively given up on it, and I’m nothing if not a stalwart contrarian. Either way, let’s put them in a series of arbitrary competitions in order to see which one is the fresher kill.

 

PREMISE

I know nobody cares about plot in a multiplayer game except for me, who as ever is determined to find context where none exists and frame the ever-looping cycle of butchery as something more profound than a constant grinding of in-game resources, but for what it’s worth both games do have something of a backstory, though take very different approaches to it. Dead By Daylight is a nigh-incomprehensible jumble of vaguely Lovecraftian lore assembled to explain the contrived nature of its own gameplay, focused around some sort of spider god and multiple serial killers with way-too-long text boxes in the menu explaining their particular origins, histories, motivations and favourite pet, as well as the victims’ different thoughts, fears, relationships and preferred show to binge watch…

… Whereas in Friday the 13th, there are a bunch of campers by a lake, and Jason would rather they not be there, so he decides to murder them.

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“Ma, I think we need to talk about the monthly candle budget.”

I said it was different approaches, didn’t I? Neither is great, either eschewing detail or bloating on it, and in both the gameplay barely seems informed by the plot in the slightest. Sure, Dead By Daylight can go on about how Punky Tank-Top secretly likes the Dresden Files or how Snivels Stumblebum once got his tongue stuck to a lamppost, but none of the survivors really play any differently but for a few minor perks. And even despite not having a proper plot, I don’t think Friday really needs one, with over ten movies establishing the franchise and the basic movements for three decades in advance. So all Daylight can do is regurgitate prose at you in the waiting lobby and hope some of it sticks, which it doesn’t.

But why doesn’t it? I think part of the reason is Daylight seems very low on truly original ideas. All the playable killers have obvious one-to-one equivalents in the world of horror: knock-offs of Leatherface, the Ring girl, a Bioshock splicer, the Silent Hill nurses, even a Jason duplicate, and when they ran out of new ideas they just gave up altogether and started putting in famous horror characters via DLC, like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers; this all leading to the odd realisation that both Leatherface and his dopey, just legally-distinct clone both share a game. Even the game’s title is a barely-changed reference to the Evil Dead.

The result of all this rampant “homage” is that there’s nothing new left to sink your teeth into, and you don’t think about the plot the moment the game stops actively showing it to you. Give this one to Friday, and next we’ll do a category that people actually care about.

 

MURDERER GAMEPLAY

So I fired up Dead By Daylight, slid into the shoes of one of several murderers and sat for about five minutes waiting for a match and twiddling my thumbs. Turns out when half the world wants to be a character type only permitted in ratios of 1-to-5, the waiting times can also be bloody murder.

Nonetheless I finally broke through into slasher central, set loose on the world with axe in hand, and immediately realised that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as it should be. Daylight’s murderers vary in powers and strengths, each one affording a somewhat different experience, but still all have one goal – chase and knock down the squishy humans, then pick them up and drop them onto any nearby hooks so Spider-God can have a nibble. They can be rescued by nearby friends, but if they spend too long waiting or get hooked too many times, they’re goners.

It’s a simple, carefully-refined system designed to have a certain amount of variation while never straying too far from a core set of mechanics, which is all good. It’s also not that fun to play, which is… well, less good.

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Moments of organic terror are common for Dead By Daylight‘s survivors, yet only annoyance and frustration awaits the killer.

The big problem is the human survivors. I get that developers don’t want to weigh things too far in favour of the killer, but it seems all too easy for players to do the run-around on a bit of wall like something from the Benny Hill Show, hooting and slapping their backside, the killer impotently swinging at them with fury in their eyes. Things get even worse when they find the flashlight item that can be used to blind you and force you to drop any player you’re currently carrying. I admit right now that I wasn’t very good as a murderer – art doesn’t always reflect real life, it seems – but that was mainly because I never enjoyed it enough to keep practicing. The whole experience seems to assume that the survivors are acting cautious, timid and are prone to panic, much like people actually being chased by a psycho, and when that is the case the whole thing is a lot more enjoyable, watching them scatter like mayflies as you come charging round the corner with bloodlust behind you.

But the moment they start acting like douchebag trolls playing a game of “keep-away” with their own organs, the gameplay becomes a lot more frustrating than fun, trying to slap down annoying little titnibblers who wield design flaws as weapons, rather than actually engaging in a stimulating challenge. And of course, half of them just up-and-quit the game the moment they get caught, which is like spending twenty minutes trying to reel in a fish only for it to inexplicably explode when you pull it out of the water. I eventually found myself playing solely as the splicer lady with the throwing axes, purely so I could split some skulls without having to physically catch the bastards.

On the other side of the court, Friday has a similar problem, but in reverse. Whichever form of Jason you pick (and no option to be Cyborg Jason from the tenth film, appallingly), you’re gifted with multiple superpowers and abilities that make dealing with sex-crazed campers a doddle. Teleportation, stealth powers, concealed bear traps, lethal grab moves, throwing weapons, another kind of teleportation, ripple effects on sounds, X-ray vision and a choice of affordable drinks and finger foods, all of which means that when some little twerp gets cocky and starts trying to do the kitchen-table runaround, you have a hundred methods just to end him in the next ten seconds. I’ve seen fighter jets that were less dangerous.

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Jason’s killing power would rival John Wick’s – so what hope do a bunch of lolloping teenagers have?

It’s the teleportation and x-ray abilities that end up being the real problem. When Jason picks a player to hound eternally there’s really very little they can do to shake him, as hiding is almost impossible and the only way to get rid of him for good is to lure him to other players and hope they look tastier than you do. You know what they say: if you and your friend are trying to escape a bear, you don’t have to run faster than the bear does – just run faster than your friend. And honestly, I started feeling a bit unengaged after a while, watching Jason hack his way effortlessly through jocks with the bored detachment of a substitute teacher on the last day of school.

So playing Jason is more of a hollow power fantasy, whereas getting shoved into a Daylight killer’s boots is akin to playing whack-a-mole with slow reflexes. Both games have their moments, but usually depend having the right kind of survivors. I like how Daylight’s smaller arenas offer a greater chance of random encounters and have more variation in design, but I also like how Friday’s mechanics double down on fear and constant paranoia. Call it a close thing, but I’m reluctantly tempted to hand it over to Daylight, because spittle-flecked, violent rage is at least more involving than passionlessly pulling heads off.

 

SURVIVOR GAMEPLAY

Even before I started either game I knew the one thing I didn’t want – I didn’t want Jason or Daylight’s butchery brigade to be killable, because I knew every match would immediately devolve into half a dozen knobheads going at one brute like the third-act musical number in Shaun of the Dead.

Thankfully, both games seemed to be very much on the same page, as the emphasis is always on finding an escape rather than putting the villain’s head on a plaque. Admittedly I’m told it‘s possible to kill Jason and end the match prematurely, but I never saw it happen even after half an hour of whaling on him with baseballs bats and shotguns, so either the person telling me that was lying or the Crystal Lake Killer is as hard to kill here as he was in Jason Goes to Hell.

However, the means by which you’re encouraged to escape in each game are very different. Daylight might have lots of maps, but the means of escape is always the same – find five generators spread out over the arena and repair them to unlock the exits, avoiding any murderers along the way via careful stealth and cooperation. Friday, on the other hand, presents multiple routes to victory but bumps up the individual difficulty and randomness associated with each one. Survive for twenty minutes for an automatic win, sure, but you could also try to fuel up a car or fix a boat to get out early, or even just repair a phone and call the cops to come rescue you, scavenging for parts distributed among the map and hoping that you can cobble together some form of exit strategy.

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Patching together generators is Daylight‘s only means of escape – but it never quite stops being tense and unnerving.

Let’s talk about the latter, which sounds clever on the surface but falls down when it comes to execution, much like how Jason does when one of his environmental kills glitches yet again. The randomness and absence of clues as to where to actually look means there’s no real strategy involved beyond just combing the world for petrol cans and batteries, and the fact that most of these escape plans require some level of teamwork means that you’re really screwed if you’re the last man standing, gormlessly wandering about the forest with a fan belt in one hand and your last will and testament in the other. It’s all a lottery, hoping against hope you’ll happen to stumble upon whichever functionally identical cabin just happens to have stockpiles of weapons and engine parts.

Daylight does the smart thing by taking the power away from the RNG and giving to the players. Generators don’t need anything to be repaired but your own two hands, but there are items to be found to give you an edge or an advantage in any situation. And even when everybody else on your team has gone up to that great big cobweb in the sky, you can still piece together an exit or find the special escape hatch that only opens up for the last survivor – provided the killer hasn’t found it first and sealed it closed.

If it sounds like I prefer Dead By Daylight’s system… yeah, that’s because I do. It feels more tightly designed, making up for a lack of variation with a core gameplay loop that’s easier to engage with, and changes the focus from fingers-crossed scavenger hunts to constant, calculated stealth. Jason nearly always gets his target the first time they meet, making things feel less frightening than inevitable, but Daylight allows you to be recover from failure, to use the environment in clever ways or find hiding spots in crucial places. There’s no tension higher than sprinting round a corner, doubling back into a closet and silently praying as something lumbers past only inches away, eyes glowing with bewildered, hateful anger… Until there’s the distant bang of somebody bollocking up generator repair, and you can almost see the monster’s ears prick up as it launches itself back into the mist, ready to begin the hunt anew.

 

TECHNICALS

Let’s get this right out of the way – as alluded to, both games have balancing issues that go beyond the small fry and end up as big fish. In Daylight’s case this is due to certain items and perks that allow the players to treat the killer like matadors abusing an angry bull, whereas Friday makes Jason a truly unstoppable killing machine; and consequently it’s barely worth trying to escape the bugger. Neither is forgivable, but there’s at least two minor mitigating factors in Daylight’s favour: 1) these offending items and perks have to be unlocked and equipped over time, not to mention requiring a bare minimal amount of skill, and 2), the game is still being patched and rebalanced from time to time, giving hope it might be fixed, whereas Friday is apparently trapped in some sort of lawsuit that means only minor alterations are being made to it, if at all.

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Friday‘s bleak, shadowed world is as quietly atmospheric as it is annoyingly glitch-ridden.

When it comes to graphics Daylight takes it again – Jason’s victims all look laughably like late-era PS2 models – but I’m reluctant to say it has the better visual and level design. Camp Crystal Lake feels like a real place, artfully designed to be eerie and unnerving, whereas the hunting grounds of Daylight just feel like video game arenas, full of chest-high walls, copied assets and no real logic or sense to the layout or environment. A better designer might’ve embraced a dreamlike sense of surreality, but this just feels fake, and consequently it’s hard to get truly immersed.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, Friday glitches like a cut-price Gameshark. Trying to perform an environmental kill always made Jason freeze like he had a bad case of stage fright, only for an awkward twenty seconds to elapse before the survivor managed to wriggle free of his grip and sprint for the horizon, loading screens would crash, and the world geography kept snagging players so often that it felt like a universe made of fishing hooks. Daylight had no such issues, cheerfully chugging along with proud, workmanlike tenacity, and consequently there’s no contest here.

 

VERDICT

Like I said at the beginning, I really wanted Friday to win this one, but to pronounce it the superior game would just feel dishonest. It has solid ideas, but feels patchy, like an early beta prototype that somehow made a full release. Daylight feels less ambitious, but better refined, with thought given at nearly every level and lots of nuances built in to make the challenging premise work. Giving the killer a first-person viewpoint and putting the survivors in third-person to emphasise observation versus situational awareness? That’s a good choice. Having sprinting survivors leave a temporary trail of scratches that can be followed to their location? That’s a good choice. Hiring Bruce Campbell to reprise his role as the bumbling, badass hero of Evil Dead? That’s a VERY good choice, and I can’t deny there’s something kind of brilliant about watching Ash “Hail to the King” Williams trying to evade both Freddy Krueger, the Saw killer, and Leatherface. It’s like Smash Bros. for horror icons, though sadly with no unlockable chainsaw hand to even the odds.

All that being said, I still don’t think Friday is without its charms, and also has a few really good ideas that Daylight could learn from. The way the chat volume tapers off the further you are from the source is genius, the environments somehow manage to be a lot more eerie through simple, silent, ominous subtlety, rather than smashing obvious horror visuals together until the whole place looks like an over-budgeted ghost train. Dead By Daylight is the better game, but either one might afford a fun few evenings – provided you can find the right people to play them with.

 


DEAD BY DAYLIGHT DOES WHAT FRIDON’T, WITH A MORE CAREFULLY DESIGNED SET OF MECHANICS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE THING FEEL A LOT MORE REPLAYABLE. JASON MIGHT BOAST THE BETTER WORLD AND AESTHETICS, BUT SOMEBODY’S STILL YET TO PUT A REALLY GOOD GAME IN IT.

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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 MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.

BIOSHOCK REMASTERED REVIEW – “GRAPHICS CAN SINK, TOO”

So Irrational Games remastered the first two Bioshock titles as part of a big package deal, and those playing it on Steam promptly flipped their lid with regards to the actual quality of those remasterings. Which immediately goes to say something about player gratitude, considering that everybody who owned the original versions got the update for free. That’s like harassing the waitress for the quality of the free after-dinner mints, isn’t it?

But I was down for a return to Rapture either way, daddy-o. The original Bioshock was something of a critical darling upon release, for its atmospheric and interesting story set within a unique setting that managed to blend claustrophobic survival horror with… Oh, you know all this, don’t you? It’s Bioshock, it’s what it’s always been. Joe Schmoe’s plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean circa 1959, and he stumbles across a mysterious underwater city. A city which seems to be designed with the aesthetics from Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, yet based around the mentality and politics of Ayn Rand, only with a lot more monsters in diving suits than either of those ever expected. Can’t say anybody saw that coming.

Now I admit I got a bit nervous when I was waiting for it to download and saw that the Steam reviews were less cheerful than the waiting room of Dignitas, with people growling about frame rates and optimisation issues. But I seemed to avoid the worst of it, though not without a few hiccups along the way. Occasionally the game would stutter when I tried to go into the weapons menu or while hacking a vending machine, and the one crash I experienced lost me half an hour of difficult, late-game progress, but generally I found it functional and rarely noticed myself grumbling about it. So either the fanbase is completely unappeasable or I just got lucky – frankly, either seems possible.

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Hmm… This may upset somebody.

But what disappointed me about the remastering was that it doesn’t look very mastered. I suppose there have been some graphical improvements, but only to the extent where it seems to have evolved from the original 2007 quality to… I don’t know, 2010 maybe? Which certainly makes the allegations of technical shoddiness a little hard to defend. Sure, I reluctantly understand when something like the new Doom makes my poor laptop slow to a rattling chug. There’s more particles there than the average desert, and so things can’t help but get a bit strained.

But Bioshock isn’t anywhere near as detailed as that. I admit it’s a more worthwhile improvement than Fable Anniversary, something that looked so horrific that I had to back away from the screen hoping that the villagers wouldn’t savage me, but I won’t say the game looks like a 2016 release. And here I was, hoping for the riper, richer Rapture we saw in Burial At Sea. Something sleek, elegant, detailed, dripping with stylistic beauty. But no – it’s just Bioshock as before, but the textures are a bit less fuzzy. Hope you weren’t anticipating it to look any better than the game that came out three years ago, because you’re right out of luck.

But putting aside the tedious matter of technicals, the remastering provided the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves how Bioshock holds up after nine long years and with two sequels, both of which built on and developed the original concept. Arguably. Sort of. Maybe. If that’s your bag. Because I remembered the original being really good, but it had been a while since I played it, long before I’d started down the long, bloody path of professional nit-picking and dream-ruining.

And right away I found myself noticing a few things that haven’t aged with particular grace. The hacking mini-game is as tedious as ever, and also deserves a second bollocking for inspiring every game since to represent the complexities of computer code as a broken sewage system and some slowly-flowing blue sludge. And with the cutthroat difficulty of a game that demands you take every advantage offered, ignoring the benefits of hacking the drones and racist ammo dispensers is like declining to use the option to turn to the left. You can probably get through the game without it, but it’s going to take a lot longer and you’ll die a lot more in the process.

So hacking is a major part of the game that’s forced onto you, never sufficiently evolving and losing its initial lustre after ten minutes. I also found myself getting annoyed at my inability to make an efficient melee attack, which Bioshock Infinite and every other AAA game released since had taught me to take for granted. When some genetically-warped goon is quickly advancing on me with a rusty sickle and I’m running low on ammo and superjuice, what I need is the option to just smack him away like a little bitch, switching to a new gun or power whilst he briefly reattaches his jaw. But all I can do here is cycle through my various firearms like somebody picking out a flavour of Frappuccino, hoping against hope that I can spin my way to the melee option before the villain finishes pulling my guts out. Alternatively, I can pause the game entirely to pick the wrench out manually from the weapon menu, a choice that doesn’t come to mind naturally in a panicked state, manages to break the flow of gameplay and also runs the risk of making the whole thing crash again, as that was what did it the first time.

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And this DEFINITELY upsets somebody.

But let’s talk about that panicked state, because it was something I’d forgotten how good Bioshock was at doing – inducing absolute reactionary terror. Not in the style that one might experience in something like Alien: Isolation, but more along the lines of how it might feel to be lost in an airport car park with a scheduled flight in thirty minutes. It’s that tense, nerve-wracking feeling that every mistake is costing you, yet you’re also aware that you can’t stop to think about what you’re doing. You really don’t have the time for luxuries like rational thought.

Part of that is the fact that everything you do has some sort of notable price. Using your gun wastes ammo. Acquiring ammo uses up your cash. Using your plasmid powers drains Eve. Restoring health uses up your medkit supplies. Nothing is done for free, and all of these resources drain very quickly in a fight, meaning that any prude who’s above scrabbling in the rubbish for old bags of crisps and individual bullets will find themselves in deep trouble the next time a Big Daddy comes along. And with guns and plasmids specifically being inaccurate by design, losing your cool and spraying the wall above your target’s head with machine-gun fire is both common and deeply concerning.

Mind you, it does mean that an annoying little paradox is established within the mechanics. On the rare occasions I find myself weighed down with shotgun shells and bandages, it’s a lot easier to take the risk of exploring in order to find more loot and audio logs, meaning that in classic Rapture style, the rich start getting richer. But when I was clutching at the rags of my weakened health bar, trying to hold off the splicer hordes with half a pint of napalm and a single fistful of magic bees, it’s a lot harder to work up the courage to go marching into the unknown, and I’d usually just slink to the next mandatory objective, trying not to catch the eye of anybody in a bunny mask.

But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to go hunting regardless. Bioshock’s library of discarded diaries does make for some compelling world-building and character development, as we scoop up every recording made by an increasingly concerned and unstable population who didn’t have the luxury of Twitter to pour out their hearts onto. Without its expert writing, Bioshock would only be remembered as a decent survival game with a pretty backdrop, because it’s the rock-solid plot and world-building that holds everything together.

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I got this! I got this! I’m going to be fine! Wait, what’s that stomping sound?

So it was always a great shame when that rock-solid plot stepped out for a couple of hours to have some lunch, leaving us with the efforts of a rather surprised and unready intern. The game loses energy completely after a certain bathysphere explosion, trying to distract us with new characters and inconveniences that don’t really have anything to do with the story overall, until we finally push through to Ryan’s office and everything picks up again. Demented artist Sander Cohen is perhaps the low point of the game, missing out on either the subtle nuance and complexity of a character like Tenenbaum, but also failing to be really scary like Doctor Steinman was in the early chapters.

At their worst, the Bioshock cast just feels like third-rate Batman villains based around vague political ideologies, and everything in the shopping centre and farmer’s market certainly feels a lot shallower and less intellectual than the rest of the game. When Cohen shows up, warbling over the intercom and spinning spotlights everywhere like a drunk circus ringmaster, he always seems ten minutes from chortling “hello, I’m the living embodiment of a distorted philosophical concept pushed to its logical extreme with no thought for human compassion. How are you, darling?”

But when I said the shopping centre is the low point, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing. Every game ever made technically has a low point, and they do usually occur in the second act, so I won’t give Bioshock too much shit for that because it’s sandwiched between some gold star writing talent. The introduction was one of the most compelling introductions to a video game in history, to be outdone only by its second sequel six years later, so well done there. And when I said earlier that the game gets its mojo back when you finally confront Ryan, what I meant to say is that it gets enough mojo to make five decent games, and crams it all into one scene – now one of the most legendary moments in the medium of gaming.

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That’s a classy response to your city exploding. Here’s to your impeccably stylish and demented brain, Andrew Ryan.

Admittedly the ending is oddly brief and underwritten, going from “final blow landed in the disappointingly easy boss fight” to rolling the credits just two minutes later. Perhaps the writer was being lazy and Ken Levine locked him in his room until he finished, and two days later the poor chap just really wanted to use the bathroom and decided to rush the last bit. Whatever – it’s a small complaint, like a pockmark on a supermodel’s toe.

Bioshock isn’t escaping without a hearty recommendation, but I do think it might’ve been a little over-praised when it comes to the quality of the raw gameplay. It’s certainly not infallible, and little balancing issues and problems permeate the game to the point where they can’t be ignored. But that doesn’t change the fact that once I started playing, I didn’t stop for a while. And then I came back again. And again. And again. And again, until I had powered through the whole thing and was stood atop the needle-filled body of a certain semi-Irish scoundrel who was in need of a damn good thrashing. It’s a great game that has stood the test of time, so come and join me in Rapture, won’t you? No? Would you kindly reconsider?

Good. Then let’s go swimming.


 

9/10

A master chooses, a slave obeys, but only an idiot turns his nose up at one of the most absorbing worlds and stories that gaming history can provide. Whilst the remastering isn’t anywhere as near as mastered as we’d hoped, it is still Bioshock in heart and soul, and consequently it’ll be one of the best things released this year.