UNTITLED GOOSE GAME REVIEW – “HONK IF YOU LOVE CHAOS”

Any person who grew up near English parks knows that there is a strict hierarchy of power at play in every one. Starting from the bottom up, it goes: earthworms, woodlice, joggers, rats, pigeons, picnickers, wasps, creepy ice-cream sellers, ducks, foxes, wasps again, the scary Doberman who barks at everything, drunk groundskeepers, the damp porn magazines behind the bushes, more wasps, and finally the mighty goose. Well, at least until a cabal of swans show up and things get all Game of Thrones on you.

And developers House House have attempted to frame that superiority of honker versus human with the new Untitled Goose Game. No, that’s actually what it’s called. I guess naming things isn’t House House’s strong suit, as should be made clear by the fact that they called themselves House House.

Still, the game has become the hottest meme on the internet this week for its portrayal of loose-goose chaos in a quaint English setting, so I downloaded it for the Switch and decided to see how many goose puns I could think of for the review. I might’ve taken it to egg-stremes.

 

MOTHER (****ING) GOOSE

Untitled Goose Game starts off, suitably enough, with an untitled goose, whom the player controls from a high third-person perspective. Goose Springsteen pops out of the bushes, honks a few times – or a lot, if you play him like I do – then sets off into the neighbouring idyllic village to wreak meaningless havoc on the poor people who live there, including an elderly gardener, a small child and the befuddled patrons of the local pub. It really feels like somebody saw the swan subplot in Hot Fuzz and decided to make a game explaining what it was doing between fleeing Simon Pegg and mauling Jim Broadbent.

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One goose’s mission to ruin the English countryside is perhaps the most human and understandable motivation we’ve seen from a game protagonist in years.

None of the plot goes explained in any detail, but it really doesn’t need to – England has a proud history of wildlife that excels in being harmlessly but persistently irritating, and Ryan Gosling here is clearly just content to make his way through the world, sparking fury in his wake. The game itself is a series of small environments threaded together with a few NPCs moving around each one, and once you find a new area you’re given a checklist of tricks that’ll psychologically torment the local population. Wander uninvited into a garage sale and you’ll soon have a bunch of pointless cruelties to try – start stacking items into a shopping basket when the owner isn’t looking, steal somebody’s stuff and put it on the shelf so they’re forced to buy it back, or just run in circles around the aggrieved shopkeeper, honking and flapping your wings in a show of outrageous self-promotion.

It’s worth mentioning that I saw a lot of people comparing this to Goat Simulator, and I really don’t think that’s accurate. For one thing, I Love Goosey is a lot more structured, and more realistic – but in a way that makes it a lot more funny. The little town you come crashing into feels like a genuine place, which consequently makes ruining it a lot more satisfying as Goose Willis comes bursting out of the topiary with a cocky strut and malice on his mind. The village has a palpable sense of atmosphere and your antics somehow feel like both an extension and a cancellation of that same tone, as you run with somebody’s slipper held tightly in your beak, the owner hopping after you in desperate pursuit.

That being said, there is a big bald spot amidst these soft, downy feathers – the ending. Or rather, the time it takes to get to the ending. I managed to make it to the credits about two hours after I started playing, and though there are optional post-game challenges, that added up to about another hour of game. This would be fine if it cost about a fiver, but Untitled Goose Game cost more than fifteen pounds, which doesn’t lead to a great cash-for-value experience, despite the fact that the game is fun to play.

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Uh… this isn’t as dark as it looks, I promise.

It’s strange, because it seems to me that thinking of new areas shouldn’t exactly be hard. Three of the games four main locations are basically just variations on the theme of “garden”, and we never get to explore anywhere indoors – you know, where the greatest opportunities for chaos would definitely be. No kitchen level? No library? No schoolyard or village fete? Or what about the local am-dram, pecking at the heels of actors trying desperately to get through the next scene of Glengarry Glen Ross? There’s so much more room for this idea to breath, but it’s practically over before James Gander Beak has time to properly traumatise anybody. I worry that the comparative shortness of the game is really going to damage its reputation, because after the initial joke is over that’s the thing that looms largest in my mind.

 

THE WILDEST GOOSE CHASE

There are only four functions in the game besides basic movement – honk, pick things up, sprint and spread your wings, though I have no idea what the last one is for. Gannet Jackson can’t fly or even glide, so throwing your wings out just feels like an elaborate taunt that the game won’t admit is completely useless.

Still, the game makes the most out of the other functions. It turns out there’s actually a fair amount of stealth and chasing involved in being a goose, as you sneak up on an old man to knock away his chair, or hide inside a box Metal Gear Solid style to infiltrate a pub garden, waiting for the perfect moment to burst out like a stripper from a cake. There’s usually no way to win in a fight with a human being unless the game provides a context to do it with, but even then there’s no risk of death – they usually just shoo you away or snatch back whatever object you stole, gently resetting you to square one as you already begin to plan your next caper.

Where these mechanics fall down is in the fine details. It’s got the occasional programming error – it’s quite easy to run in circles around people and watch them spin in place, ironically paralysed by their pathfinding A.I.. Another time I watched someone carefully and painstakingly stack several bags of compost I’d knocked over, then immediately walk into them and send them flying further than I ever could. It’s also hard to say there’s any replay value here – the game is essentially a series of puzzles, working out how to orchestrate events to your advantage (and to everybody else’s disadvantage). Once you know the puzzles, you’re only really in it for the honking, though there’s always going to be a joy in showing it to other people and getting their bewildered first reaction.

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The simple cruelty of bewildering and irritating the people around you translates well into a layered gaming experience.

Still, the game makes the satisfaction of solving a puzzle palpable, the wing-spreading and frantic, exuberant honking a wonderful cherry on the cake. There’s something like a prank show about the experience, seeing somebody get sprayed with a sprinkler and having Goosey Liu explode out of the bushes to taunt them, whooping: “You just got GOOSED! Honkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonk-

And yet it’s also very zen despite that, weirdly enough. The clean, flat aesthetic and tinkly piano music that runs throughout the whole game keeps things feeling innocent and low-stakes, but with a good level of challenge. It’s relaxing, a Sunday-afternoon of a game best experienced with biscuits and tea as you sink into the sofa. It’s certainly not deep, but it is nonetheless clever, and is perhaps close to the best possible version of what it’s trying to be.

 

IS BIRD THE WORD?

I definitely enjoyed Untitled Goose Game, but it was a quick and fleeting thing, to the extent that it plays a little sour in my mind now. I feel confident in advising others to check it out, but I can’t suggest a full-price purchase unless you’re feeling especially flush. The adventures of Goose Willis won’t tide you over for a week, only an evening – though I can assure you that it will be a fun evening.

That being said, I’d like to elaborate briefly on something I noticed over the last fortnight. See, several “big” games have recently come out at time of writing – Gears 5, Borderlands 3 and Link’s Awakening among them, flashy triple-A titles promised for months, if not years in advance. And yet Untitled Goose Game is the one I keep seeing mentioned most, the one that’s gotten the most actual coverage and keeps cropping up on social media. And yes, this may just be a coincidence, but the game is definitely holding the world’s attention, with dozens of positive articles in major news sites over the last week, going above and beyond the obligatory reviews. How many indie games can say they got that? House House has given the world something it didn’t know it wanted…

.. So why does this all bother me as much as it does? Because it does bother me, it bothers me a lot. I don’t resent Goose Game’s success in any way, and I always love when an indie success eclipses the bloated mega-mainstream releases. No, I resent the media for focusing on it as much as it has, especially when superior games have only been flash-in-the-pan trends that lasted for a week and then died quietly. The comparison to Goat Simulator might’ve been what started those alarm bells – Goat Simulator was a game designed to be a meme, to be carved up into Twitter Gifs that fly around the internet like picture postcards. And yes, I’ll say again that UGG is better, but the internet is still largely approaching it on that level, and that’s the problem.

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Timmy is in the well, but only because you probably pushed him.

When Valve made Portal 2, co-writer Erik Wolpaw specifically made an effort to write dialogue that was difficult to make memes out of, and they were mostly successful (with the exception of Cave Johnson’s diatribe on combustible lemons). No more cake talk, no more deliberating on the Companion Cube. “We want to tell an interesting story,” Wolpaw told Gamasutra. “We didn’t jettison everything, but I absolutely do not want to try and resurrect a three-year-old meme. That seems like it would be kind of sad. It’s not a good idea.”

He was right. And yes, clearly Wolpaw was also just tired of hearing the same jokes over and over, but he wasn’t wrong about it being a bad idea. Memes are easy and accessible by their nature, internet in-jokes that anybody can get nonetheless. But what worries me is that indie games are going to start courting meme humour in order to get any kind of media profile, counter-intuitively taking the lower path for the higher result. I can’t even blame them for this – game development is a cutthroat industry, and if this sort of thing will keep the lights on, you might have to forgo depth for your own sake. No, the blame is with us for encouraging this sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible or even shallow once in a while, but all I can think of are the great indie games that eschewed meme humour or even humour of any kind – Return of the Obra Dinn, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Katana Zero – and I feel a little bleak about the fact that none of my friends knew what they were until I told them.

Still, it’s just a thought – albeit one that gives me goosebumps.


AN ENDEARING COUNTRY ROMP THAT ENDS ABRUPTLY AND WITHOUT MUCH FANFARE, UNTITLED GOOSE GAME AIMS FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF THE SIMPLEST POSSIBLE IDEA, AND IS MOSTLY SUCCESSFUL IN THE PROCESS.

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.

RED FACTION: GUERRILLA RE-MARS-TERED EDITION REVIEW – “RED PLANET IS A DEAD PLANET”

If you told me last year to pick fifty games that might be getting remakes, I don’t think I’d have even come close to putting Red Faction: Guerrilla on the list. Hell, I don’t think it’d have crossed my mind at all. Red Faction: Guerrilla? The third game of a four-part series, as a whole barely remembered by history, with no noteworthy fanbase, but still new enough that the graphics couldn’t be significantly updated, and still playable on Steam to this day?

Actually, it’s only the last of those that means I’m reviewing this thing at all, as the developers were at least good enough to send free copies of the remastered edition to anybody who had downloaded the original. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the Re-MARS-tered Edition, as somebody incorrectly thought it would be clever to call it. Personally, I don’t think I’ve heard a worse name since my cousin Earl’s ill-fated, nineteenth-century breakfast cereal, “Poli-O’s.”

But hey, who doesn’t want to hear back from a relic of the late 2000s, where gaming was in one of the least interesting periods it’s ever had in its whole history? And while we’re at it, why don’t we start reviving the music of 1990 and the cuisine of 1950?

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Alec’s story to blow up his own society in order to save it is… well, about as well-thought out as it sounds.

“OOH, BEING DISINTERGRATED MAKES ME ANGRY; VERY ANGRY INDEED!”

So… Red Faction: Guerrilla’s plot, story and characters are a load of absolute toss.

Alright, maybe that’s a little harsh. Howsabout let’s call it… I don’t know, Diet Toss? Toss Plus? Still kind of toss, though. You have to understand that we were still very much in the utterly-unaware, highly-grizzled, burly hero trend in 2009, as games like Call of Duty and Gears of War were leading the way in tedious protagonists (this being several years before the AAA industry would start sticking a grey-flecked beard and PTSD on every male character and partnering them up with a kid sidekick, like a crossover between Heart of Darkness and Last Action Hero).

Hence Alec Mason, our playable protagonist and a character who has all the scintillating personality of a bloodstained AR-15. In a distant future where Mars has been terraformed and now supports the dustiest, least interesting society imaginable, its citizens are being oppressed by a brutal militia, the Earth Defence Force; Earth having been utterly depleted of anything more valuable than sub-par Yu-Gi-Oh cards and therefore having to bully the next planet over for old scrap metal and handjobs.

That’s our premise, that Earth is picking on Mars for all its resources? Were we somehow short on gravel and off-colour stalactites? Seems a bit weird to me that the EDF considered a vast, dictatorial military campaign and frequent cargo trips between worlds to be a more viable option than just handing out the recycling bins, but I guess I’m giving this way more thought than the writers did.

So Alec shuttles over to Mars to work for his brother in the demolition business, and despite witnessing the EDF’s incredibly one-dimensional evilness the moment he arrives and big bro’s insistence that they should help fight the good fight, Alec TOTALLY isn’t interested in joining the resistance movement and liberating the Red Planet with a group of scrappy, racially-diverse freedom fighters against a totalitarian group of smirking, power-hungry stormtroopers in face-obscuring helmets.

Nope. Nuh-uh. Don’t care. Ain’t none of MY business, it’s not like the EDF have gunned down my beloved brother for no reason or anythi- OH NO!

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An emphasis on propaganda feels a bit lacking when the EDF act so cartoonishly evil. I don’t think any amount of catchy TV jingles are going to make the violent massacres more palatable to the population.

I can’t convey just how rushed this first bit is. You’re dropped into the tutorial mission, go off to test the hammer and trigger bombs on some nearby buildings, and by the time you come back less than five minutes later your brother is filled with more ammunition than an army supply truck. Alec then gets rescued by the resistance and the whole thing precedes as exactly as you expect it to, with him rising through the ranks to become the hero of the rebellion, and already I can feel my eyes flickering closed just thinking of it.

The real problem is the characters. Hell, the cliched plot might gave been tolerable or even amusing if Mason and his allies weren’t such a bunch of humourless prats, but there’s a clear sense that the story is a secondary, low-effort element when compared to just about anything else, existing only so far as to try and establish a sense of progression as we go to blow up even more buildings and goons in yet another sun-blasted wasteland. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why this story has to be taking place on Mars at all, as nothing in the plot really requires it to. There’s no aliens or spaceships that we can use, no sci-fi themes to explore, nothing unique to the landscape beyond a muddy reddish tint, three-quarters of the weapons are the standard shooter fare (shotgun, pistol, assault rifle, rocket launcher, other shotgun, etc), and on the whole it feels like nobody’s more bored with the idea of Red Faction than Red Faction: Guerrilla itself.

Lastly, I really don’t buy Alec as the de facto hero of the revolution, because history has taught us that such figures are charismatic, dynamic individuals able to inspire and motivate the underclasses, and Alec is about as charismatic and dynamic as a Roomba with a frowny-face drawn on it. He never interacts with anybody if he doesn’t have to, hardly makes jokes and doesn’t even think up plans for himself, all his objectives being given to him by supporting characters who clearly recognise him for the glorified attack-dog covered in explosives that he is. There’s a moment where he seems to lose motivation in the rebellion – gee, maybe our lifeless hellscape of a world ISN’T worth dying by the thousands over – and it’s clearly meant to be the act two moment of uncertainty, except I was just sitting there with arms folded, waiting for the moment where he would obviously leap back into the fray with more gusto than ever.

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“And stop trying to make the audience emote! We all know it’s a hopeless cause, so just give me more trigger bombs and we can get back to business!”

In short, it’s a plot that elicits so little emotion that it comes right back round to being annoying because of it. You’d think a game blending tropes from Flash Gordon, Mad Max, Doom and Les Miserables would manage to have a bit of spirit in there, but like so many games where plot is an afterthought, Red Faction: Guerrilla uses these elements without any seeming comprehension of what makes them fun, and thus the story can never be anything other than a series of checkpoints and mission briefings.

 

“WHERE’S THE KABOOM? THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN EARTH-SHATTERING KABOOM!”

One of the things I was wondering as I downloaded Guerrilla Re-MARS-tered was what kind of Re-MARS-tering I was in for. Was this the rare kind where the whole thing is rebuilt from the ground up, refining and tweaking elements to update it, like what they did with Leaf Green/Fire Red? Was it the Secret of Monkey Island or Leisure Suit Larry kind of reboot, where the updates are both cosmetic and stylistic in nature, also allowing you to switch back to the old graphics for comparison?

Nope, nope and double nope with a side of nein. Re-MARS-tered is little more than a texture pack, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Everything is exactly how you remember it, bar a minor update to the graphics (VERY minor, I don’t think I’d have noticed if nobody had told me), but what we gain on the pretty pictures, we give up for on the structural integrity. To put it simply, THIS GAME IS GLITCHY AS HELL.

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Graphics aren’t terrible, but it doesn’t really matter when the landscape – and those hammer pants – are so grim to look at.

Brief freezes were frequent and crashes were never far behind. Frame-stuttering was downright common, as the game struggled to keep up with anything as strenuous as Alec standing on his own by the roadside. NPCs glitched around the battlefield, firing at empty air in the moments when they weren’t getting stuck on the scenery. Vehicles were especially tricky; at one point an enemy was lightly tapped on the arse by an open door and shot up into the air like he was needed on his home planet, landing several seconds later without a speck of damage on him. Another time I tried to leave my own vehicle, only for Mason to be spat out like a watermelon seed and dashed to death on a nearby cliff, his nose leaving a wet smear behind him like a dog dragging its bum on the carpet. I tried to break open one of the collectible ore deposits for my free scrap metal, only for the damn to resolutely sit there, refusing to crack even when I started throwing trigger bombs at it. Whole buildings refused to fall down even when supported only by two matchsticks and a toaster oven. My controller vibrated ferociously even when nothing was going on. Now I see why they call this game Re-MARS-tered; telling us it had been normally remastered would feel like a classic example of flagrant false advertising.

And let me clarify that none of this is down to the rig I was running it on. My computer is a money-draining beastie that can handle any modern AAA game on the highest settings without issue, so I refuse to believe that a game from 2009 (albeit one that looks like a game from 2011) is somehow too much for the damn thing to handle.

 

“I’M GOING TO BLOW IT UP. IT OBSTRUCTS MY VIEW OF VENUS.”

Now without its gameplay, I would suspect that Red Faction: Guerrilla might very well have been the last of the franchise, and not Armageddon after it.

See, things break in Guerrilla. They break a lot. If it’s artificial, you can damage it. You can tear down buildings, blow up cars, collapse bridges, smash walls to pieces. Just about anything can break. You can crush it, detonate it, hammer it, dissolve it, grind it, attack it until you’re bouncing up and down on the rubble in impotent, spittle-flecked fury; a USP that we don’t see that often even today.

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A shot from the Nano Rifle eats away a section of wall like a very determined termite.

And to Guerilla’s credit, it lives up to that promise, as organic solutions to problems present themselves in the midst of the action. I’d find myself backed into a corner under a barrage of gunfire, and use my sledgehammer to punch a hole in the wall behind me and escape through that while whooping and slapping my bum at the enemy. Missions call for you to bring down certain, heavily-guarded buildings, so I’d lure as many guards as into the place as possible and trigger the mines I’d thrown around to bring the edifice down on them. The Nano Rifle that dissolves anything also does a lot to help, vaporising walls with laser beams and so on, though the game only starts you off with a fanny pack’s worth of ammo for the damn thing and you’ll be running dry after two minutes and change.

But beyond that… well, there’s not really much beyond that. It’s an open-world game where districts are only distinguishable from what faded shade of dirty red-brown the rocks are, with a third-person over-the-shoulder view that feels like Gears of War by way of the original Borderlands.

But the thing I found peculiar is that Guerrilla is a cover-shooter, except it isn’t. Or it might be? It’s more like it can’t decide. There’s the option to stick your hip to the nearest wall or vehicle in a manner of which Nathan Drake would be proud, but good cover is rare and enemies tend to swarm you from all sides, so running comme un poulet sans tête is the name of the game in most cases. There’s a jetpack you can get later on that theoretically should make fighting more interesting, but in reality it’s slower than running and usually leaves you hanging in the air like a clay pigeon launched over a rifle range, so poor Alec can only shriek in protest and drift about like a drunk Mary Poppins as the EDF tear his undercarriage to bits with machine gun fire. And the only weapon you can’t swap out is a colossal sledgehammer that nearly always kills in one hit, so I found the most expedient option when pinned down was to charge towards the enemy and pulverise them into the dirt like Thor playing Whack-A-Mole.

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Cover shooting is an option, but not an especially helpful one. About two seconds after this image was taken, a new threat started unloading into Mason’s back from behind.

And that’s it, really. There’s stuff beyond it, like the bouncy moon buggies you can drive around with optional gun turrets hanging off them, but that’s somehow nowhere near as fun as you might think it would be. Perhaps because you can’t drive and aim weapons at the same time, so it’s just a stream of ammo blazing out directly in front of you and you just have to hope anything you want dead is polite enough to stand in the way, at which point you may as well just run it over.

Oh, and there’s a mechanic wherein increased morale in a district might mean that civilians will come to help you out in a firefight, but there’s never anybody in the really dangerous areas where it might actually be helpful. And even then their biggest contribution is usually trying to headbutt bullets out of the air, or sitting on the grenades like farmyard hens with a strong work ethic. And then the game would tell me off for letting another batch of useless nosepickers get killed over half an acre of blighted rock quarry thirty-four million miles away from the nearest Starbucks, and all I could do was protest that not only did I not want them there in the first place, but remind it that this shit is going to happen when some schmuck runs into a battlefield with nothing more to protect himself than a bachelor’s in advertising.

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YOUR PUNY DRILL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO MIGHTY HAMMER, MORTAL!

But sometimes all these mechanics come together. It does happen and I won’t say otherwise. Enemy bases tend to be open-ended and approachable from any angle, and all the toys in the box can be rearranged to your needs and desired before blasting your way in. If there’s an office building that needs reducing to rubble, you can crouch from a distance and start picking off support beams with your Nano Rifle, try to firefight your way in backed by a team of confused accountants with potato guns, attack on your own with sledgehammer and trigger bombs, or just drive through the walls in a truck and try and knock the damn thing down with the undeniable cosmic power of a second-hand Jeep Cherokee.

So it can be fun… but then it’ll stop. Maybe it’ll be a glitch, or a boring, overly-long story segment, or a linear story mission that doesn’t make use of the open world properly, or just all the fun weapons running out of ammo, leaving you plinking at enemies with half a dozen pistol rounds and a whiffle bat. It’ll happen, and then you’re left with the distinct understanding of why this game was forgotten by time – it’s just not very exciting at its core, and no amount of weak revolutionary rhetoric or destruction physics can really change that.

 

“I’M NOT ANGRY. JUST TERRIBLY, TERRIBLY HURT.”

As some of the more savvy of you might have realised, I’ve used the opportunity of this review to puncture the whole thing with quotes from Marvin the Martian, Looney Tunes’ beloved extraterrestrial terrorist. And to be honest, it feels like the perfect retaliation to a game like this: something funny, likeable, with recognisable stakes and wit – all things that Red Faction: Guerrilla lacks. The gameplay can appeal on a moment-by-moment level as you drive your hammer through heads and concrete alike, but it’s fleeting and hampered by a thousand annoyances and trials to get over in the meantime.

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It’s not so much LAWS of physics as… general suggestions for physics.

Meanwhile, the plot can’t do anything to make up the shortfall, barely making the effort to show up and just scratching its arse when it does. Why do we care about Mars and the EDF? Mars itself is a featureless desert, the population are boring non-entities, and Mason’s brother leaves so little impact in the nanoseconds before he’s butchered that I can’t even remember his name. For all my snark about the Papa Bear/Baby Bear themes that now swamp modern AAA narratives, at least they’re trying to have an emotional impact.

But in a lot of ways, Red Faction: Guerrilla feels like an early adopter of the modern sandbox formula. Liberate the districts, kill the goons, spiced up with a single gimmick to try and make it more palatable, in this case the destruction physics. I don’t hate this game, not even close, but I don’t think it did itself any favours by coming back and demonstrating how badly it’s aged in the past nine years.

And that’s the sad truth – whether you call it a remastering or a re-MARS-tering, the implication is that the game you’re bringing back was, at some point, mastered at all. Yeah, sometimes that’s true. Shadow of the Colossus was mastered and remastered. Zelda: Wind Waker was mastered and remastered. Bioshock was mastered and – er, well, it was mastered the first time, that’s my main point. But Red Faction: Guerrilla was kind of a scrappy game (pun not intended) even when it came out, and there’s no avoiding that fact now, as all the mediocre texture packs and bugs can’t hide poor plotting and gameplay that never really surpasses ‘functional’, and struggles to reach even that lofty goal.

COMPARATIVE RATING: KEEP SPLITTING ROCKS AND THERE’S A CHANCE YOU’LL STRIKE GOLD – BUT YOU’LL MORE LIKELY JUST EXHAUST YOURSELF GETTING THERE.

GOD OF WAR (2018) REVIEW – “BOY-OH-BOOOOOYYYY!”

Tell me, dear reader, what kind of relationship did you have with your father? Perhaps it was caring and full of love. Perhaps it was sternly repressed and patriarchal. Or perhaps you struggled to get past your dad screaming at you to shoot the undead monstrosity attacking him before his insides were pulled out onto the forest floor.

No, I’m not reviewing The Last of Us again, though in a sense I suppose I might be, and will probably have to keep doing so for a very long time. It’s well-recognised now that the rather dodgy “save/avenge romantic partner” narrative that dominated gaming narrative for a while is slowly being upended and replaced by an arguably more understood motivation – namely, protect a kid from things that want to kill the kid, at least until the kid can grow up and protect its own damn self. Previous entrants include the aforementioned zombie-poppin’ game from Naughty Dog, as well as Telltale’s: The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite, Dead Rising 2, Witcher 3, and that new Wolverine movie.

And now to that list we can add the new God of War, the sequel that’s also a soft reboot, filled with all the stuff that makes for the usual big-budget, critically-acclaimed AAA exclusive title – but perhaps it can be good despite that?

 

SIT BY THE HEARTH, PICK UP YONDER MEAD FLAGON, AND I’LL TELL YE OF AN ANCIENT LEGEND…

I was never a huge fan of the previous God of War games, but let me give you a refresher for anybody who isn’t familiar with the series. Our protagonist, Kratos, is a Spartan warrior from a hyper-mythical interpretation of Ancient Greece where all the related legends and old religion are completely true, working on a “Clash of the Titans” level. Unfortunately Kratos got bamboozled by the god Ares into accidentally slaughtering his own family, and rode the resulting wave of vengeful aggression for several games, to the point where he’d killed most of the Olympic pantheon and became the new god of war in the process, while finding out along the way that he was Zeus’ secret son. With me so far?

Right, because now we’re dragging a whole new mythos into this story – the Norse gods, Odin, Thor, Baldur, Freya and so on. It turns out in the time since the last game that Kratos skipped town after his run of aggravated deicide and fled to the world of Viking myths and gods to hide out in secret, where he fell in love with a woman named Faye, gave birth to a son, Atreus, and also grew out a big ol’ survivalist beard. Faye then drops dead of… I don’t know, plot-necessitated absence, right at the same moment Kratos is attacked by a mysterious stranger with powers that match his own.

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Kratos returns after a five year absence to come and try out the whole Beowulf thing, armed with a large axe and a small son.

And that’s how the game starts, but frankly this is one of those stories where the plot’s mechanics feel a bit secondary to the character arcs; namely how terrible Kratos is as a father and how badly both he and his son are dealing with Faye’s death. See, you might notice all the other examples of games I mentioned above have father-daughter relationships, but God of War is very clearly not just about fatherhood, but about masculinity as a whole. Kratos comes from a culture where locking your emotions down so you can do unspeakable things is just part-and-parcel of being a Spartan, but both characters are clearly struggling with their feelings anyway and no amount of repression will make it stop, no matter what Kratos thinks. Add to that a violent warrior mentality and that Kratos feels obliged to make his son into a fighter as soon as possible after the attack, and this is clearly going to be the worst road trip since that Vacation remake a few years ago.

Now I have a few issues with this concept. Firstly, while the whole idea of hyper-masculinity is absolutely ripe for deconstruction in the games industry and certainly needs bringing down a peg, the problem is that this whole things takes place in Viking lore, where the only measure of worth is how big the horns on your helmet are and how many villages you can burn down before lunch. A scene where Atreus must try to hold back his emotions as he uncertainly cuts the throat of a deer would certainly make sense in any other situation, except, well… he’s starving to death! The writers seem to have crafted the only world where all of Kratos’ bullshit masculinity lessons actually do apply, and it heavily undercuts the overall message. Yes, Atreus has to kill animals or he’ll have nothing to eat. He has to kill the human bandits or they’ll try to eat him. And he has to shut down his emotions to a certain degree when confronted with the corpse of somebody he’s killed falling over onto him, else he’d go into shock and get more easily picked off by all other threats.

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Friendly NPCs are few and far between in the wastes of Midgard, and can occasionally be a bit too quirky for the game’s more serious tone.

Do you get what I mean? The game spends all this time musing about how wrong Kratos‘ behaviour is, but they all make sense in this very specific situation. I can’t help but feel this dynamic would work better in a time of peace and prosperity, where all of this cold-hearted warrior nature isn’t needed anymore.

Not to mention that the actual engine for storytelling feels contrived and a bit weak – Faye wanted her ashes spread on the highest mountain in all the universe, and rather than cough awkwardly and say “how about just under that tree in the garden instead,” Kratos and Atreus decide to go along with it, and it takes them forever. At one point you think they’re going to accomplish it halfway through the game, but then somebody says “sorry, wrong mountain, the one you’re looking for is over in a locked-off dimension nobody can ever get to,” and you can almost hear the characters groan as they realise that this one job still isn’t over.

All that being said, there is some story stuff I really like. The game’s quite good at the “hell yeah” moments when Kratos or Atreus do something awesome, the changes the two characters go through are solid (if a little rushed at times), and I appreciate the attempt to undercut masculinity in a medium that usually venerates it. I also like how Kratos’ flaws are honestly addressed, and it’s very clear that Atreus is strong in all the places where Special K doesn’t really know what he’s doing, i.e., anything that doesn’t need brute force. At the beginning it feels like the kid is a hanger-on, but by the end of the game they do feel like a team, reflected well by a gameplay system that allows you to upgrade Atreus and his weaponry until he’s a formidable ally in combat.

The only other flaws are those that come as a result of it being a AAA game with marketing obligations. The ridiculously big (and therefore cinematic) world serpent Jormungandr takes up a lot of the promotional material and even gets the lion’s share of the box blurb, but I don’t think he’s involved in the plot for more than thirty minutes tops, and usually to divulge a bit of exposition. There’s also a slightly limp ending that has a very cool fight in it, but then peters out and meanders on for another half hour, with a whole group of promised villains we haven’t even seen yet (presumably planned for the inevitable sequel), and a twist reveal that’s… I don’t know, important, I guess? It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, but it all feels a bit anti-climatic after bringing down supergods a while earlier.

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Though stunning in the sense of scale evoked, SuperSnake feels a little over-promoted by the marketing when he ends up being little more than an excuse for raising and lowering water levels in a lake. No, really.

GAZE UPON THE GLORY…

Yes, of course I’m going to tell you God of War has good graphics. You know it has good graphics, it was always going to have them, what with being a big budget game that’s largely sold itself on spectacle. The rest of it could’ve been absolute pigeon guano and the graphics would still be top-notch.

That being said, what works here is what you’d expect to work on any God of War title – a palpable sense of scale. Things can look very, very big when they need to, whether it’s the world serpent looming into view, his distant tail coiled around mountain ranges, or the incomprehensibly huge corpse of giant dominating the landscape, every beard hair looking like a bridge cable as you get closer and closer. Not only that, God of War wisely doesn’t devalue this by breaking out the super-big monsters every five minutes. In fact, I’d almost wished there’d been a few more beasts of that size, but there’s still moments that make it work. One early fight designed to remind us of just how much power Kratos has within him is particularly effective, destroying the landscape in dramatic, spectacular ways as he clashes ferociously with an opponent of equal power.

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Kratos’ trademark rage is still with him, serving him well in his efforts to brutally pummel anything that looks at funny.

There’s also some decent sound design in there. Kratos is very ably voiced by Christopher Judge, channeling the character on a level that reminds me a little of Darth Vader, and snapping effectively from rumbling monosyllabic speech to furious screams as battle frenzy takes over. Even Atreus himself is voiced pretty well, though I can’t help but feel that there was a conscious effort made not to tax his actor with any overly-emotional scenes.

Mind you, I’ll have to buck the trends a little and say that I’m not wowed much by the art design. It’s not bad, not in the slightest, but there’s not a lot that really captures my attention. The ogres look like ogres, the giants look like giants, the world serpent is just a big snake and little more than that, and everything looks like how you’d expect it to look, with a couple of exceptions. Some of it is very beautiful presented – the landscapes, for one – but the issue I have is that there’s very little that seems original or sticks in my mind later on, compounded by a penchant for repeating character animations (you’ll notice that one pretty quick).

I also think the game fails pretty hard in making a lot of the world make sense. This is a particular bugbear of mine, but I can’t stand it when games don’t bother to contextualise the puzzles within their games, such as the silly traps in a lot of Zelda. Atreus can waffle on about how these desiccated ruins we stand in used to be a thriving market, but there’s nothing here to suggest that, and all these traps and puzzles with spikes and trapdoors have no reason to be here. They’re not bad or unsatisfying to beat, but they’re complete nonsense in the world provided to us, almost as bad as the puzzle disconnect in games like Resident Evil.

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Impressive vistas and the promise of satisfying battles make exploration seem both necessary and desirable.

THE GREATEST WARRIORS IN ALL THE REALMS

So here’s my issue with the easy comparison between God of War and The Last of Us: the latter has a decent story, but the whole enterprise is made a little sticky by slightly drab and uninspiring gameplay. Contrarily, Kratos can butcher draugr like an absolute – well, God, appropriately enough – and the hack-and-slash/brawler fighting is actually rather fun, enough to easily paper over any other cracks in the whole enterprise. Gone is the wide selection of weaponry from the previous games, instead brought down to three tidy, well-designed separate forms of attack – an axe that can be summoned back to your hand after you chuck it, rapid fist-fighting that allows you wear down enemies for powerful finishers, and a third weapon that I won’t spoil as it gets introduced later in the game.

But honestly, it’s the first of these that’s the real winner. The Leviathan Axe is fun to wield, freezes anything it’s lodged in, and can be pulled back to your hand at any point just by pressing the triangle button. I’d see a pair of monsters baring down on me, throw the axe at one, holding it in place, unleash a barrage of devastating punches on the other, then duck around behind it and whistle for Old Slicey, watching it scythe through the air, decapitating hel-spawn along the way until it smacks satisfyingly into Kratos’ palm. Along with this is an EXP system that allows you to buy new powers and attacks, most of which I’d forget about immediately until pulling them off by accident and wondering why I didn’t use them more often. And at the same time, Atreus is hanging around with a bow to pick off anybody you tell him to. And though his early attacks are naught but the soft pecks of an emaciated woodpecker on reinforced concrete, he becomes an invaluable asset over time, a nice use of ludonarrative synchronicity to show how he’s growing as a fighter in both mechanics and story.

 

Not to mention that it’s all open world now. It happens suddenly and quite out of nowhere, but about a quarter of the way through the game you look around and realise that you’re in this big lake with paths leading off to explore, secrets to find and many, many more monsters to kill. And I happily did, engaging in just about all the extra stuff I could. I like doing the side-quests because they provide good rewards and usually have some story tied into them, even if it’s just a bit of byplay between Kratos and son. And I like the puzzles, which though contrived and a bit too “video game-y” are still satisfying to beat, usually using the Axe’s throw-summon-freeze functions in some way. Take note, designers, this is how you make an ability really effective in a game: make sure it has applications both in and out of combat.

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Though not as big as they once were, Kratos’ and Atreus enemies are more fun to fight with a system that encourages creative weapon use blended with raw skill.

Mind you, the open world isn’t quite as open as it could be, with linear routes leading off key locations. In fact, nowhere is the freedom/restraint clash more obvious than the main hub location for travelling between realms, featuring a detailed map showing all the wondrous, incredible places we can’t go, and will never go.

It’s really very odd, trying to select the fast travel option for Asgard and seeing a little message telling you that you’ll never set foot there. And this isn’t uncommon either, there’s about four separate realms out of nine that we never get to even see, despite them constantly being mentioned, and out of those five we do get, three of them are too small to be meaningfully explored, two of those have to be unlocked through side-quests, and one just exists for a single, extendable cutscene where you can’t do anything but follow a single path and then leave again. I suspect this is all to tease us with the possibility of DLC – “The Trials of Svartleartlheimmunjorgunbjork” and so on – but I don’t even feel cheated, just confused.

But I guess it doesn’t matter too much, when Midgard is plenty big enough on its own, filled with all sorts of things to discover, and you know it’s a good sign for a game’s quality when you can smell the ending coming and start doing optional stuff just to delay it. In fact, God of War is the first game in a while that I found myself planning for when I wasn’t playing it, which is always a good sign. “Hmm, I guess next time I’ll try to beat the next stage in Muspelheim, free that dragon I heard about in the north, find a couple more stones for my talisman and then get killed by that Valkyrie Queen again, because Gods only know what else she’s there for.”

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AAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHH

VERILY, WHAT SAY YE?

In sum, God of War is a good game, almost verging on being a great one. I know it might not sound like that from the amount of things I’ve been ragging on it for, but all the imperfections can’t impede too much on a rock solid core of combat and decent characterisation. The only really significant flaw it has is being too slow, as our two poorly-groomed heroes shrug their shoulders and go to spend another ten hours fighting gods and monsters so they can dump mama’s ashes on the mountaintop, but on a moment-to-moment experience it can really work, and certainly reminds us that having pretentious story ambitions doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice honest gameplay fun.

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: ALL THE VISCERAL SATISFACTION OF BITING INTO A THICK STEAK, AND ALL THE CULTURAL FULFILLMENT FROM KNOWING HOW WELL IT’S BEEN COOKED

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 3: SUPER MARIO KART – “A GRIM RACE/WAR”

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INTRODUCTION

I had a bad feeling about this one before I even began. See, Mario Kart as a franchise was always one of those slightly dodgy series in my mind, not innately bad but with a few gaping flaws in the formula, like a waterslide which nobody remembered to add water to. I mean, even if you like these games you must be able to see it? Like the fact that dealing with the blue shell is obviously bullshit because there’s no way to defend against it, the way that item distribution means that races become more boring the better you’re doing, and the fact that every installment usually has about two or three fun tracks and the rest are just not worth the effort.

Which isn’t to say they can’t have their charms, only that even the best Mario Kart games come with a string of asterisks so long they look like a constellation map, and some of them have more caveats than they can bear. So yeah, bad feeling overall when coming to the first of the line. I hope to proven wrong.

STORY

There is no story in Super Mario Kart – or any Mario Kart, that I know of – but screw it, I’m going to invent my own. Wealthy, vacuous, airheaded dilettante that she is, Princess Peach decides that she’s grown bored with her rule of the Mushroom Kingdom (and why wouldn’t she be bored, she never does anything but bake cakes) and in a decision born of years of consequence-free living and too much rosé wine, she decides that she’s going to gift the royal crown to whoever can win a series of bloody death races in weaponised vehicles, a la Mad Max via Wacky Races. Meanwhile, Peach herself will retreat in obscene luxury to live in a series of beachside villas and holiday mansions, spending the rest of her life being serviced by moustached gigolos and dead-eyed servants.

Side note, who the hell actually are Princess Peach’s parents? There must’ve been a King and Queen Peach at some point (not including those being Mario’s nicknames for her buttocks), and either they’re still alive and ruling, in which case I feel we should hear about them more often, or they’re dead/abdicated/kept in a living state of torturous hell in one of Bowser’s dungeons, in which case Peach should be an actual Queen, not just a Princess, right?

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Old tracks manage to be just as lethal as the new ones, if less flashy.

Oh, whatever. Her challenge is accepted by over half a dozen lunatics each with their eyes on the nation-spanning prize, and each with their own different motivations. Princess Peach is racing herself, of course, because she needs something to do between her 11.00 AM manicure and 2.00 PM appointment for vacantly staring out of the window, but a series of allies and enemies have also appeared on the starting line. Mario is in the pocket of Big Plumbing and also wants to instigate prima noctae, Luigi hopes to have his brother executed, the lowly Toad wishes to make a communist utopia and massacre the bourgeoisie, Bowser wants a totalitarian state through which he can carefully begin his extermination plan of the Toads themselves (spoiler alert: it’s a frying pan), Yoshi and Donkey Kong Jr. each want to dissolve the governmental system in preparation for a primal, survival-of-the-fittest world where the advantage goes to those with the ability to swallow objects larger than themselves or the ability to throw barrels respectively, and that one measly Koopa Trooper who showed up just wants to create a fair, just state where personal freedoms are balanced equally against sensible legislation to protect the disadvantaged, which may go some way to explaining why he never, ever wins. No, seriously – NEVER.

Now the race is on to see who can claim several thousand square miles of fungus farmland for themselves, as they battle to the death on weaving race tracks covered in more death traps than an Indiana Jones temple, slinging scavenged munitions, old fruit and whatever else they can find at each other until everyone is dead or until the final flag flutters across the burnt, bloody battlefield and somebody can stagger onto the victor’s podium.

Well, then, let the games begin. Ave Imperator Peach, qui nos ad lapsum ariera salutant!  (Which I think translates as “Hail Peach, we who are about to slip on banana skins salute you.” I’m sure the Latin Nazis will leap down my throat if there’s any of it wrong, and I’d like to retort by reminding them they bothered to learn Latin.)

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Oh boy howdy, I’d forgotten about the visual horror of that period in time where 3D polygons weren’t around yet, but everybody was still trying to do 3D anyway, using 2D sprites arranged on various planes to awkwardly move around each other like the world’s most complicated line dancing routine.

Which is not to say early 3D polygons necessarily looked better (they were usually just as bad, giving the appearance that you were being attacked by origami horrors from the land of the geometry people, see Ocarina of Time for a prime example) but two-and-half-D, as it’s often referred to, comes with its own batch of problems, namely the perspective. Playing 2.5D games makes me feel like somebody stole my glasses and one of my eyeballs to boot, so judging relative distances with any kind of precision is an exercise in futility and optician bills. Judging when to fire your green shell is so inaccurate that you might as well just shoot it into the lava pit straight away and save yourself the bother, and none of the character models feel like they any kind of depth, looking like cutouts wobbling around the track on tiny little Roombas.

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Environments and characters don’t even look especially good for SNES era graphics, missing out on any distinctive style or flair that isn’t eye-gouging.

None of this would be as bad if the actual visual design looked any good, which it doesn’t. Nintendo, what the hell happened to the gorgeous, arresting, and above all else clean style of Super Mario World from the previous year? All the character models look too small for their own good, meaning there aren’t enough pixels for any elegant design, and the landscape is a garish, swirling, weaving vortex of primary colours, like pouring several tons of food colouring into a whirlpool and trying to sail across it without drowning or getting seasick. And though the music’s actually quite good in a chipper sort of way, it’s hard to hear when there’s a sound effect triggered every other second, not to mention the constant hairdryer whine of everybody’s go-kart beetling around the track.

GAMEPLAY

Like I said, I went into Super Mario Kart with a notable sense of unease, but after playing half a dozen matches with a close friend and coming out the other side with a smile on my face, I realised I was having fun! Yes, finally! Maybe I’ll get lucky and have it happen more than three times this year! I already saw that hedgehog get run over on my way back from the cinema, so there’s been two solidly enjoyable days in 2017 already.

Unfortunately a thought occurred and I tried playing Super Mario Kart on my own, and within ten minutes my smile had frozen and warped into a stiff-lipped expression of startled disappointment. Because hanging out with friends is fun all on its own, and Super Mario Kart… well, not so much. After all, it’s basically impossible to review any game objectively when you’ve got the bonds of companionship elevating the overall experience. Having somebody on hand to share the trauma of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties might’ve lessened the horror considerably, but that doesn’t make it good. Likewise, I used to think that Grand Theft Auto V was fairly solid, up until the point where I played it on my own and realised it was basically a string of loosely-connected rich-kid’s toys strung weakly together by witless humour and low intentions.

But Super Mario Kart isn’t bad in the same way, it’s just kind of dull, with relatively stale track design and items that don’t really have any punch to them. I’m not really angry about this because I know I’m looking at a very old game that’s had years of upgrades and sequels since it came out, but here’s the thing: Nintendo are still charging money right now to play it, so yeah, it has to be judged on how it holds up against other, current games. After all, it’s operating in the same market as those sequels at time of writing, and anybody who’s browsed the retro games section on the Nintendo market has almost certainly felt that sharp intake of breath when they see the slightly outrageous pricing on games from over twenty years ago.

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Aw, split-screen. Remember split-screen? Remember how you could play games with people without having to go online and pay a subscription fee? Good times.

I think the word that best describes Super Mario Kart gameplay is “drunkenly.” Everything feels a bit unwieldy and tends to slide around more than you want it to, probably partly due to the aforementioned perspective problem caused by the graphics tech of the time. I never feel like I’m actually up against the other kart racers, because their AI is so simplistic it could be out-strategised by a patch of dry rot. What you’re actually battling is the controls and simple physics, and that’s not quite the same thing, nor is it necessarily as enjoyable. It feels like I’ve been sabotaged before the race began, having my tires replaced with icy cylinders with all the gripping power of an arthritic seal. As a result, all the items and little shortcuts exist for me not to battle equally with my enemies, but to hamper the other racers long enough to let me catch up, like adding a fat guy to the Olympic 100 metre dash and claiming it’s fair because he’s got a stun gun.

The long and short of it was that once I got a handle on how to compensate for all the sliding around, the game became so insultingly easy that no difficulty increase could compensate. I know that’s like saying “once I became the world’s greatest marksman, all those archery contests were a doddle,” but I’m rubbish at driving games, and the gap between being an inexperienced crap-out and becoming the apparent reincarnation of Schumacher took less than an hour, which coincidentally marked the point at which I found my patience beginning to seriously wane with Super Mario Kart. Because if all the items are boring, and the courses don’t feel meaningfully different, and the challenge was quickly evaporating, and there was nothing else to build up towards because everything’s unlocked from the start, then what was I playing for? When the answer didn’t really provide itself, I realised it was time to stop playing.

CONCLUSION

I still struggle to say Super Mario Kart is bad, because I’m not sure that it is, I just think it’s suffered quite a lot over the passage of time and been surpassed more often than is really good for it. I’d probably be recommending this back in 1992 (you know, if I’d been born), but standards of what to expect from racing games has changed in the quarter-century since then and some things just don’t apply anymore. I’ll give Super Mario Kart this, the more reasonable items and low-tier attacks make it feel like there’s more focus on racing than just pulling the right weapon from random crates, but it’s lacking a certain panache that would definitely come from the later games like Double Dash.

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE BUYING A BURGER AND DISCOVERING THAT IT’S GOT ALL THE WORST FILLINGS AND SAUCES, EVEN IF THE MEAT ITSELF IS BASICALLY FINE.

THE MINI SNES SAGA 1: MEGAMAN X REVIEW – “X-CITING, X-TREME, X-CRUTIATING”

INTRODUCTION

So recently I was fortunate enough to acquire one of those oh-so-unreasonably-rare Mini SNES’s, mainly through a combination of insomnia, cosmic good fortune and the kind of reflexes more commonly associated with professional gunfighters, only a lot less useful/cool.

And it provided me with an interesting opportunity both to see how Nintendo’s back catalogue holds up over twenty years later, but also to see what I missed from the decade that I was born in, the dark era documented in tattered scraps of persevered history as the Nineties. Sure, I remember playing video games as early as four years old, but even by then it was 1998 and the SNES was dutifully making way for the approach of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation (not to mention whatever the hell Sega was putting out, I think it might’ve been the Saturn).

So most of what I know about the SNES had to be retroactively hunted down in the years hence. I’d played a few of the Mini SNES library before – I not sure you can call yourself a gamer without playing Street Fighter II at least once, and I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the best platformers of all time – but I hadn’t tried all of them, and the one I went to first was something that had slipped me until now: Megaman X. As a matter of fact, I’d never even played a Megaman game before, but certain infamous box covers had led me to believe it concerned the adventures of a wonky, middle-aged man dancing in the middle of a Dubai firefight. Time to see if I was on the money.

 

STORY

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Megaman X, because I’m not convinced the game itself is entirely sure. To begin with there’s a rather prolonged Star Wars text crawl that dumps a ton of information on you, most of which I glazed over and forgot within minutes. I was genuinely trying to pay attention and I can usually swallow some of this stuff, but it’s a mish-mash of uninteresting science-fiction ideas on a glaringly ugly background without any humour or pictures to lighten it up.

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“Take that, Mecha-Moleman! My 80’s hair compels you to return to whence you came!”

At some point you’ve seen something like it, either in games or film. IN THE YEAR 20XX MANKIND HAS CREATED WORKING ROBOT SLAVES THAT CAN THINK AND FEEL AND FOR SOME REASON HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONRY AND NO OFF-SWITCH AND THEY MIGHT GO EVIL, AND APPARENTLY ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS ARE PROGRAMMED IN, BUT THEY’RE MORE LIKE PLAINTIVE SUGGESTIONS THAN ANYTHING REALLY CONCRETE, SO I GUESS THE PROGRAMMERS BUGGERED THAT UP ROYAL, AND I’VE MADE THIS NEW ROBOT CALLED “X” THAT NEEDS THIRTY YEARS OF HAVING HIS BALL-BEARINGS TWIDDLED BEFORE HE’S PROPERLY FUNCTIONAL AND NOT EVIL, SO SOMEBODY SET THE TIMER PLEASE SO WE CAN HAVE HIM BLOW STUFF UP WHEN HE’S DONE.

I found this whole concept slightly weird, and more than a little nonsensical, even getting past the robotics and sci-fi laser fighting. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create artificial, autonomous life that is sentient and can make choices is a perfectly serviceable premise, but I’m not sure it’s much of a choice if “X” has to spend three decades having all the nastiness wired out of his robot brain. You go to all the trouble of building an AI with self-determination, and your first instinct is to try and undo that? And why are they being mass-produced when they could all potentially decide NOT to do whatever we want them to, and just become an enormous problem to be dealt with? Oh, guess what’s happened now.

Whatever, I leapt into the game proper, and then became even more confused, especially when I started going on the internet for clarification. The first thing we get is a rather nifty tutorial stage with X running along a highway blasting robots, but the Wiki page went on about the ruins of a research lab and the enemies being called “Mavericks,” a name which I don’t think I saw anywhere in the game whatsoever. I’m guessing this is all found in a wider continuity from cartoons and manga that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole on the end of another, longer barge pole. I ain’t reading “Baby’s First Philip K. Dick,” no matter how confused I get.

So I’ll stick to the stuff I did comprehend, like the first mission. X leaps into the fray and bounces through several highways laying waste to various robo-thugs, but then has the bad sense to leap into a supposed-to-lose boss fight with a guy named Sigma, who looks like Shovel Knight got dragged into the Marvel 2099 continuity. Sigma promptly pounds X into the floor and is about to permanently send him to the big blue error screen in the sky, whereupon some ostentatious git named Zero leaps in to save him with the power of his blonde ponytail and 80’s fashion sense. Sigma flees back to his fortress and Zero says, “Blimey, you arsed this up. Maybe we should meet again when you don’t suck quite so much and have another go at this, hmm?”

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X chooses his next target for destruction, much like Agent 47 would…

And that’s the storytelling engine, such as it is. X goes around defeating robot bosses and scavenging their parts to add more weapons onto himself, and one thing I actually really like is that you can tackle the bosses in whatever order you want, which feels like the “X has a choice” concept actually coming into gameplay in some fashion, so good work there. Admittedly the bosses aren’t narratively developed in the slightest beyond an animal theme and some incidental height/weight stats (including the bewildering news that the ten-foot tall metal elephant somehow only weighs seven hundred pounds), but I still want to beat them, because I want to eat their processors from their crumpled chassis, and gain their courage and strength for myself. Besides, once I’m done I’ll get to beat up Sigma properly and show up Zero to be the ponce he is, though spoiler alert: that hair-swishing bastard will still find some way to hog the spotlight, whatever it takes.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Call me a sucker for well-crafted pixel art, but I really liked how Megaman X looks, with a few X-ceptions. It’s bright and vibrant and colourful in that way that most SNES games are, though at times becomes a bit too much and gets into that slightly garish level that feels like it’s taking the top layer of skin off your pupils (which presumably would be your eyelids).

But this feeling was generally quite rare, and in most cases each location has a good colour scheme that doesn’t feel overly obtrusive, though the artist might’ve eased up on the use of gunmetal colouring. When even the trees have cybernetic parts hanging off them, you might want to ease up a tad on the concept.

That being said, I’m not as enthused about the music, though it’s not bad by any means. As a matter of fact, I went back to listen to it afterwards, and it’s actually fairly solid, if a little unmemorable in that “can’t really hum it” sort of way. But I never really noticed it in-game, for two reasons. First of all, the crazy-stupid difficulty means I’m diverting all the brainpower I have just to keep blasting bots, so there’s nothing left for the music appreciation club, and secondly it’s that X’s charge attack generates a horrible, high-pitched whine that makes me want to turn the volume down and obscures the music anyway. Between combat sections there’s no reason not to have your blaster charged and ready to fire, but you have to deal with the noise of a mosquito in an echo chamber as a result.

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By the power of Greyskull!

Overall Megaman X does come across as rather good-looking even now, sleek and detailed in a way that some artists still struggle to match. In comparison to the games of its time, some of which could barely create an aesthetic tone to begin with, it’s nearly a Da Vinci painting, achieving things the likes of which other titles couldn’t conceive of without limitless ambition and a couple of hallucinogenics.

 

GAMEPLAY

If you’ve played Megaman before, you know the core of what to expect. It’s a 2D platformer in which you are a little bionic Boy Blue who’s had one arm turned into a giant death cannon, because Doctor Light is many things but he never approved of masturbation. You’re teleported into a mission to do what you always do in platformers: keep running to the right and don’t stop until somebody puts you back into the map screen. If something gets in your way, you blast it, and if it drops something that isn’t rapidly flashing red, you pick it up. This particular instalment ups the ante by adding optional powers and the ability to wall-jump from the start, which certainly helps with exploration, but it’s a shame that everything that made Megaman X feel unique at the time has been copied and recopied to death by thousands of other games in the decades since then, sort of like what happened with fantasy books and Lord of the Rings.

But you know what was really stupid of me? The other game I was playing this week was Bloodborne. Jesus, I do myself no favours. I’d get squashed by Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, and think “this is getting to me, I’ll play some Megaman to cool off.” Then I’d get pummelled into the dirt by that sodding chameleon and think “God damn it, I’ll go and relax with some Bloodborne.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking a lot of caffeine, or I think my heart would’ve physically torn itself from my chest in abject rage and frustration.

Yes, Megaman X is hard, and whilst I’m normally OK with that, there are bits of it that come across a bit cheap. Actually, a lot cheap, and that bird boss is somehow the least of it. I think it’s the movement speed that provides the biggest problem. Fighting regular enemies is usually fine, but most of the bosses seem to have been designed for a protagonist about thirty percent faster than X, and with a bit more manoeuvrability; not to mention that they have the agonising tactic of backing you against a wall and forcing you to take damage again as you push through them to escape. And god help you if you decided to play Percy Penguin’s Icy Igloos after all the other levels, because without the dash ability you get there, you’ll really struggle against all those nimble bastards who will try and sit on you if you stop for even a second.

But the idea of armour mods is innately a very cool one. You always get a new weapon at the end of every level, but actual modifications to your core armour and abilities are optional unlockables, hidden throughout certain levels. Some of these are boring (a contextual ability to smash the right kind of brick with your head, snore) but some are a lot more exciting, like the power to charge up your main weapon even more and fire the Curly Purple DNA Helix of Death, which’ll instantly destroy anything that doesn’t get its own theme music. One armour mod even halves all the damage you take, which seems a bit much, especially considering that it’s very, very easy to miss most of these. I hope you’re not scaling the challenge on the assumption that I have all these trinkets, Capcom, because that’s one hell of an assumption to make when you’re hiding the Master Blaster behind an entirely unintuitive path that demands a fiddly pixel-perfect trick jump using an ability the player probably doesn’t have yet, you bastards.

WiiUVC_MegaManX_02_mediaplayer_large

Take THIS, Lonesome George!

And oddly enough and in contrast to common sense, the difficulty actually goes down as you progress. All the levels, potentially consumed in any order, therefore have to provide the same level of challenge, so whilst they do start off hard eventually you’ll get lucky and come out with a new weapon. Then it’s a matter of finding which of the bosses is vulnerable to that weapon (there’s always one) and finishing him off. Now you have two new weapons, and things are really starting to snowball now. By the time I was picking off the remnants of Sigma’s henchmen, I was just hanging on the edge of a wall and firing homing rockets at anywhere there was room for them. The last level against Sigma himself ramps up the challenge again (partly by being longer than one of those desert super-marathons, and about as physically draining), but it’s still easier than those early missions that’ll slap you around like they’re being paid to do so.

 

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, Megaman X is still good, which is something it should be proud of. It’s certainly aged better than one might’ve hoped, and I think part of the reason for that is the conspicuous absence of the very kind of story I was dreading. The game almost seems to know that its narrative is the most eye-rolling kind of hokum, and as a result I think there’s about a dozen text boxes over the course of the entire thing. Maybe that was the point of the plot dump at the beginning, getting it out of the way so we can enjoy some running-shooting-jumping action.

Because it is enjoyable, and that’s easier to explain. Despite being difficult, the fact you can pick your levels from the start means you’re never stuck in one place, because you can say “sod this” and go kill somebody else halfway across the world. And whilst the core gameplay is almost too simple, the game knows how to drag every scrap of potential out of it that it can, testing the player’s reflexes, strategy and skill all at once and not relenting until you’ve really earnt your robo-killer badge.

So Megaman X is a really solid game both then and now, a little less unique and certainly not world-changing anymore, but neither is The Three Stooges and I won’t tire of eye-poking and nose-tweaking any time soon.

And now I’m done, I’m going to cool my frayed nerves by playing something less challenging. Hmm, how about this… Contra III?

 


8/10 

Megaman X remains a favourite of the era today, and it’s not hard to see why. Now a bit less special but still designed incredibly solidly, the game justifies its teeth-grinding difficulty with a sense of freedom and advancement that’s not easily found in a 2D platformer.