Sunday, January 14, 2018

In which I somehow narrow my favorite games of 2017 down to ten

We survived 2017. Good for us. I sincerely believe that 2018 (aka The Midterm Year) will be better, but just in case it isn't, let us reflect on the one thing that can be relied upon to provide us with endless, joyous escapism: the games.

Since there were far too many exceptional titles to squeeze into a mere ten this year, I'm devoting this entire intro segment to the honorable mentions, which are extensive. Firstly, I'm not an easy lay when it comes to the narrative adventure genre (I'm trying to go cold turkey on the term "walking simulator"), but there were two class entries this year: What Remains of Edith Finch, a whimsical yet heartbreaking exercise in visual storytelling that only occasionally lets its narration get in the way, and Tacoma, a sci-fi mystery in which the twists take second fiddle to well-sketched characters and authentic-sounding conversations.

Also, since one of the qualifiers for my top-ten list is that I need to have actually finished the game (since you never know when something's gonna pull a Final Fantasy XV), here are a couple of excellent titles that I'm still working on. Golf Story ranks as one of the year's biggest surprises, a charming and often hilarious RPG that's also a perfectly solid golf sim. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is essentially XCOM without all of the stuff that made me quit XCOM. Finally, I've only just started Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but I'm already more invested in it than I've been with any other JRPG in ages.

A few other standouts from throughout 2017: Sniper Elite 4 is the best Nazi-killing game of the year (yes, to my great surprise, beating out that other one), Snipperclips was a delightful slice of old-fashioned couch multiplayer, Gorogoa is odd and creative and difficult to describe, Arms is maybe the best use of motion controls ever in addition to being one of the few fighting games I actually understand, and LawBreakers was a fantastic throwback to Unreal Tournament that would easily have made my top ten if the servers had been well-populated for more than a few weeks.

And at the end of the day, I do want to give a shout-out to both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Super Mario Odyssey. While I'm not as head-over-heels with them as the rest of the gaming community is, they're both fine titles that would certainly have been top-ten contenders in a less stacked year.

By the way, I was on the GameCritics Game of the Year 2017 podcast, so go listen to that if you want to hear more of my thoughts.

Now then...
10. Distrust (PC)

"Don’t play Distrust anticipating a playable version of [John] Carpenter’s cult classic [The Thing]. Play it, instead, for being an intelligent strategy-survival game that’s atmospheric and tense as hell entirely on its own merits... Distrust is a roguelike, though it’s the good kind where there’s a valuable lesson in every failure... A terrific engine for emergent thrills, often due to the player’s own negligence... It’s the sign of intelligent and well-considered mechanics that something as inherently repetitive as Distrust never once felt tedious to me." (Review.)

I thought I'd grown allergic to the word "roguelike," but it turns out that I'm only repelled by the side-scrolling action/platformer variety (of which we have most definitely had our fill by now). Distrust is a near-perfect exercise in the roguelike subgenre. Nothing about the game is overtly cheap or unfair, which lends leeway to the permadeath mechanic, and while there are numerous rules to be learned, they're both logical and consistent. Each run leaves you more prepared for your next, and the game is inherently unique enough (survival that channels at least the tone and aesthetic of The Thing) that I took pleasure in dipping back in even as I was partaking in randomized variations on the same handful of tasks.

I used to think that the only way for a roguelike to hook me was for me to carry some degree of progress from one run to the next, for a death to not wipe the slate completely clean. And although that usually helps, Sundered, my least-favorite game of 2017, demonstrated how unrewarding a roguelike can become when it's entirely about grinding for accumulated stats, with nothing to actually be learned. Though it took many tries for me to finish Distrust, I left the game with the satisfaction of having mastered something with zero hand-holding. It's a brutal game, but exquisitely balanced.
9. Prey (PC)

Well, this was certainly a nice surprise. Arkane Studios' world-building-first outlook on narrative design has made me increasingly less interested in their Dishonored series, in which the finer details are wasted on stories and exchanges so devoid of wit or energy that I can't be bothered to care. Prey turns out to be a far better use of their talents, as its setting is its story, and by keeping its most important characters off-screen for the majority of the game, whatever plot developments that may have come off as unconvincing if presented to us directly instead unfold in our minds as we explore the magnificent Talos I station and piece together the mysteries surrounding this magnificent imaginary environment, a place that existed long before our main character arrived.

This Prey reboot (which, to my knowledge, shares its title and literally nothing else from the 2006 release) owes a lot to both System Shock and BioShock and yet is, to my mind, far superior to either of those franchises. It beats System Shock by not mistaking complexity for depth, building systems in which players are rewarded for genuine resourcefulness (like the ability to break down any item into raw materials which can then be re-purposed, ensuring that anything the player picks up is theoretically useful). And it beats BioShock because its attempts to narratively justify its more fundamentally game-y elements succeed, because why the hell would anyone in Rapture have the need to set other people on fire?

I daresay that Talos I is the best setting of any video game this year. If someone were to collect this station's collision data and assemble an interactive 3D map the way someone did with Dark Souls, I'd be stunned if the whole thing wasn't geographically correct, if each piece didn't fit together perfectly with the rest. But beyond that, it's the little details, like how each corpse throughout Prey is attached to a specific name that can be found in the employee directory, or that the tabletop games and nerf gun shootouts these people were involved with can be scrutinized for no other reason than to give life and substance to this fictional world. Prey is full of things that didn't need to be there, which is precisely why they did need to be there.
8. Future Unfolding (PC)

The most important thing I can tell you about Future Unfolding is that it isn't Proteus. I say this because it'd be awfully easy to play this game for a couple of minutes, fail to see the point, and dismiss it as one of the countless pretentious "art games" that flash colors in your face and amount to nothing if you're not on the exact wavelength as the people who made it.

The thing about Future Unfolding is that it tells you nothing. It drops you into a strange, vibrant world with a set of two verbs - dash and interact - and forces you to decode the abstract but consistent rules by which this place abides. It asks you to be curious, to observe and experiment. It asks you to be a scientist. As the world of Future Unfolding begins to make more sense, it'll become increasingly clear what your objectives are, and that this is very much a game with a point and purpose.

There are two famous sequences in Super Metroid in which players become stuck and are informed of their own capabilities to escape by observing what the local wildlife does in the same situation. While that's not exactly what you'll be experiencing in Future Unfolding, the same brand of wordless, purely visual tutorialization is on constant display within. It's not for everyone, and certainly not for those hoping the final cutscene will be any less ambiguous than the game that preceded it, but for those with the patience, it's beautiful, odd, and richly rewarding. Thanks to the folks at the Computer Game Show podcast for pointing me toward this overlooked gem.
7. Snake Pass (Switch)

A couple of months ago on Twitter, I saw a montage image of all of this year's 3D platformers, and wondered aloud why the best of the lot, Snake Pass, wasn't included. A friend asked me if Snake Pass even qualifies as a 3D platformer, to which I replied that of course it does. Just because a game doesn't sport a jump mechanic doesn't mean it breaks the spirit of pushing players through acrobatic challenges for the express purpose of collecting shiny things.

If anything, Snake Pass's lack of a jump function is precisely what makes it such a standout in the genre. We know how to jump. We mastered it generations ago. Snake Pass gives me the pleasure of mastering an entirely new mechanic, in which I must tuck, wind, and squeeze in order to maneuver a snake through obstacles which are more often than not constructed from shafts of bamboo. It's one of those games where you could watch it and think that no control scheme imaginable could give players the ability to perform such complex tasks in any intuitive way, but Snake Pass's commands are simple enough to make you feel comfortable before cranking the difficulty to ludicrous levels in its final two thirds. Many won't be up for the challenge, but I devoured every second.

I also want to give Snake Pass credit for being one of the first quality third-party titles on the Switch, and only the second release after Breath of the Wild to truly win me over on the system. It was, in fact, Snake Pass that helped me through what would otherwise have been a torturously long wait for my car to be inspected. Great title regardless, but hey, making my life outright easier wins it a few extra points.
6. Torment: Tides of Numenera (PC)

"The 'challenge' comes from the amount of information that players are expected to process while piecing together this alien world and finding the outline of their morals. It’s a mentally taxing game – one that I endured with many cups of coffee – but as with its predecessor, it’s ultimately a puzzle worth solving... Every conversation is a new journey... It's the perfect follow-up to Planescape: Torment, as thought-provoking, mature and challenging as its predecessor. For those who like their sci-fi more than a little weird, I can’t recommend it enough." (Review.)

I'm gonna go bold here and state that Torment: Tides of Numenera is a better game than its spiritual predecessor, Planescape: Torment. Part of that is just personally preferring a sci-fi setting over a fantasy one, but I'm mainly talking about the fact that Numenera's combat is both decent and completely optional. You played Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale because you wanted to be challenged on the battlefield; you played Planescape because you wanted to be challenged intellectually. Bringing that front and center, and allowing players to use dialog choices to sidestep confrontation, is a natural extension of that.

That's important, because Numenera, even more so than other entries in the recent CRPG resurgence, feels like an old game. There's barely any voice acting and the menus look embarrassingly archaic. None of that particularly matters unless it creates a barrier for newcomers, but the important thing is that for as much as Numenera channels the games of the past, it doesn't repeat the mistakes of its influences. Instead, it's an homage that is simultaneously reaching to bizarre and thought-provoking new places.
5. Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do it. In an almost overachieving effort to make Resident Evil relevant again, Capcom has taken the core ingredients that have served the series well previously (the small, contained environments of the earlier entries; the set piece-driven pace of RE4), disassembled what's never worked and rebuilt it from scratch (the story), and injected the whole production with the look and feel of some of the most successful contemporary horror games, the ones that have proven it's possible to disempower players without constricting them to tank controls.

As I write this, I'm currently playing through some of the earlier Resident Evil titles starting with the remake of the first and working my way up. Though I continue to love them from a design standpoint (the way they get the most out these small, contained environments by unraveling them in a Metroid-like manner and constantly giving new relevance to areas you're forced to backtrack through), there's a lot, mechanically, that doesn't hold up about them: the confusing camera angles, the limited number of saves a player is permitted, a combat system that's borderline unworkable against faster enemies (like those damn dogs).

What a joy it is, then, to get a Resident Evil romp that channels the series' early days without being bogged down by such annoyances. The scale has been brought down considerably from the Michael Bay-sized mess that was RE6. The game takes place almost entirely on a single estate, but every inch of it is used effectively, in such a way that I could simply refer to "the kids' room" or "the basement" and another fan will instantly recall the segment and know what made it special and memorable. It may not be an innovator, but it's a collection of the most effective horror techniques used in video games throughout the generations, and marks everything this medium is capable of in regards to this genre. It's one of the series' absolute finest, second only to the unbeatable RE4. (Podcast.)
4. Battle Chef Brigade (Switch)

Here's one of those ideas that's so unlikely to work that it circumnavigates the globe and winds up on the opposite end of the spectrum, working beautifully. You know how developers will sometimes come up with a head-to-head mechanic so ingenious that they design an entire universe in which every conflict is resolved through said mechanic, the way Pokemon envisioned a world in which cockfighting was the only sustainable industry? That's Battle Chef Brigade, in which citizens settle disputes via Iron Chef-esque cooking competitions.

In each match, players venture into the wild to hunt for ingredients via side-scrolling actioner segments reminiscent of George Kamitani's games (Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown). Once they're stocked, dishes are prepared through a match-three mini-game in which ingredients manifest as blocks with multiple flavors. The weirdest thing about Battle Chef Brigade is how much this mechanic actually does feel like cooking - the acts of stirring, simmering and seasoning all have match-three stand-ins, and the game even emulates the stress of having to present dishes to multiple people at once, each in the mood for something different.

It's so good, and so completely unlike anything else I played this year, that my only criticism of Battle Chef Brigade is that I desperately wish it included competitive multiplayer to extend its value. The single-player campaign is both charming and hearty, but the only thing resembling an online component is the "daily cook-off," in which players compete for high scores under new parameters each day. Imagine a full-on multiplayer mode with randomized judges and theme ingredients. It'd be amazing. Then again, if my only complaint about a game is that I want to play it forever, well, that's a good position to be in.
3. Divinity: Original Sin II (PC)

"Original Sin II left me consistently amazed not simply by the number of options, but by its ability to make every path special... Since nothing respawns, experience points are a limited quantity and everything that happens throughout the game is a unique, one-time experience... That’s how an adventure like this is as entertaining in its closing moments as it was during its earliest, and how a 125-hour game can still leave me wanting more by the time the credits roll." (Review.)

I can't really go any higher than third for this one, since its predecessor was my Game of the Year back in 2014, and this one's only a marginal improvement. That having been said, I've often called the first Original Sin the best RPG I've ever played, so for its sequel to be any kind of improvement at all is a gargantuan accomplishment. It is a staggering triumph for a single-player game to last me 125 hours and for not a single minute to feel wasted or redundant, for every quest to have its own quirks and memorable takeaways, for every combat scenario to be unique, for each area to be fun to explore. It's an overwhelmingly complete-feeling RPG, bolstered by its complete lack of grinding.

The only thing missing is technical stability. Review codes for Original Sin II (a game that ultimately took me 125 hours to complete) didn't go out to anyone until a day or so before release, not because Larian wanted to avoid critical scrutiny - this game has been bombarded with praise - but because they really needed all of the time that they could get to tighten the screws. A few more months not only would have resulted in an arguably perfect RPG, but also would have pushed the release to a less busy period. I remain the only person I know who's finished Original Sin II, and in fact, I know a number of people who want to play it but are afraid they don't have the time. All I can say is that however long it winds up taking, the journey's worth every second.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

"Breath of the Wild’s shakeups make it feel like the series’ most substantive step forward in nearly two decades, and it’s been a long time since a Zelda release was such an event... Whereas too many open-world games boil down to endless waypoint-chasing because they lack the guts to truly turn players loose, Breath of the Wild restores a sense of discovery to a genre that should be defined by it... It embodies the vision for the series that Miyamoto and Aonuma have never been able to realize until now. It’s a game three decades in the making." (Review.)

I'm sure it's an eye-roller to begin one of these things by asking, "What else needs to be said at this point?" Yet the way Breath of the Wild has been scooping up year-end awards - I honestly can't name a single major website that hasn't named this their Game of the Year - kinda makes all of the praise I want to heap upon it redundant. It reinvigorated an important but aging series. It led the charge on Nintendo's wildly successful Switch, which has since become history's fastest-selling console in North America and sported easily the most impressive first-year lineup I've ever seen. It's been making developers re-evaluate even though it's Nintendo's first true foray into the open-world genre. Breath of the Wild is amazing. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.

All I can add is that I'm just old enough to remember when 3D graphics were a relatively new thing in the gaming world, meaning I was lucky enough to appreciate how revolutionary certain titles from the N64/PS1 era were. Though Ocarina of Time is often criticized by its detractors as being a formulaic entry in a franchise that itself wallows in formula, that undercuts what a pioneer it was in the use of 3D space. We've moved both forward and backward in the nearly two decades since its release - we now have (to use Assassin's Creed as my punching bag) the technology to render entire cities from historical periods in exquisite detail, yet it's wasted on tiresome waypoint-chasing that gives us no reason to appreciate them. So I'm thankful that the series that made me fall in love with 3D worlds has finally made me fall back in love with them.
1. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PC)

"It’s the rare game that has no intention of being 'entertaining' in the traditional sense. Its goal is not to exhilarate or empower us, but to baffle us, wear us down, and beat our senses in... The world doesn’t seem to abide by a consistent set of rules and Senua is often on the run from thinly-defined (but nevertheless lethal) threats... It takes guts for a game developer to deliberately forgo traditional entertainment value in order to make a broader point... Hellblade is one of the game industry’s few genuine dramas – a dark, uncomfortable experience that makes players suffer alongside its protagonist... One of the boldest and most important artistic endeavors games have seen in quite some time." (Review.)

By early March, I thought this contest was already a wrap. But at the end of the day, no matter how much Breath of the Wild re-lit its series' fire and gave developers of other open-world titles something to think about, that'll never hold the power of a game that connected with me on a level no other game has. There are a million terrible low-budget indie games on Steam that address mental illness, attempting to fill a hole that no triple-A developer really has until now. Ninja Theory aren't scrubs. They have the resources to exhaustively research their subject matter and the budget and talent to bring their world to life. They've worked with Andy Serkis - twice! - to ensure that their motion capture technology is the best in the business, recreating every nuance of Melina Juergens's performance as the title character in breathtaking detail.

And they use all of these tools at their disposal to create a world not in which we're happy to get lost in, but from which we're desperate to escape. And because of that, I want to challenge anyone reading this to play Hellblade the same way I did: in a single sitting. I realize that for many adult gamers, plowing through a seven- or eight-hour campaign with no intermissions isn't feasible, and for plenty more, it's undesirable. But Senua's constriction to a peril from which there is no true escape, and Ninja Theory's efforts to entrench you in her universe, won't connect completely if you're able to pull yourself away from the screen, take a long break, and reflect on what you've seen. Experience her confusion, frustration, and horror - and then see it all paid off in the most enlightening way.

Most overrated: Hollow Knight
Most underrated: Torment: Tides of Numenera
Most overlooked: LawBreakers
Most visually striking: Cuphead
All-out best-looking game: Horizon: Zero Dawn
Best story: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Best writing: Tacoma
Best character: The Red Prince (Divinity: Original Sin II)
Best original soundtrack: What Remains of Edith Finch
Biggest surprise: Prey
Biggest disappointment: Yooka-Laylee
Comeback of the year: Resident Evil 7
Most enjoyable bad game: The Surge
Least enjoyable good game: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Best free game: OLDTV
Game that I spent the most time with: Divinity: Original Sin II
Game that I spent the least time with before dismissing: TumbleSeed
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Hand of Fate 2
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but still haven't: Kindergarten
Best game that I still haven't finished: Xenoblade Chronicles 2
All-out worst game that I played: Sundered
Best non-2017 game that I first played in 2017: Wolfenstein: The New Order
Best remake/re-release: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Most anticipated game this coming year: Monster Hunter World

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Three-paragraph reviews: Prey, The Surge, Nioh

Hi. I have a new installment of Review Shots coming up soon, but first, I wanted to dive just a bit more deeply into three games that warrant a tad more conversation. Allow me to put my opinions of these games on record.

Prey (PC)

I expected this game to ride the Doom train from last year, since that was always my image of the original (with which this reboot apparently has nothing in common). As much as I'm thirsting for more Doom, I'm glad Arkane didn't go that route. Prey's gunplay is hardly the best thing about it, and a level-based structure would have done a disservice to all of the world details that only emerge when players are forced to look carefully. To my mind, that's the mistake that Arkane's Dishonored series made by focusing on linear storytelling, which the studio just isn't good at. Even the Hollywood-grade talent that they always bring on board can't elevate the listless dialog they're regularly cooking up.

Prey succeeds because it is a game about small details. Talos I, the space station on which Prey is set, will likely be the most believably-realized video game setting of the year. The game features decades of alternate history backing this place up, and its layout is arranged in such a way that it could easily function as both a living and working space. The station's hundreds of employees are all in the game and accounted for, and countless email conversations and bits of environmental storytelling build a world that didn't just start existing when we arrived there. The entire exterior of Talos I can even be freely explored; if someone were to collect the game's collision data and assemble it all into an interactive 3D map, as was done with Dark Souls, I'd be surprised if there was any geographical cheating involved. It's that convincing.

What it amounts to is a BioShock clone that's better than BioShock - deeper, richer, more open to experimentation (in both navigation and combat), and with moral choices displaying shades of grey. It runs 25-30 hours and could easily have lasted me far longer. In fact, my only real issue with Prey, though it is a major one, is the rushed and underwhelming manor in which it concludes, hurrying through a high-stakes finale for a final twist that severely undercuts the complexity of the game's world-building. That sour final note dampened my enthusiasm, but nevertheless, this is one of 2017's mot\re pleasant surprises so far. 8/10


The Surge (PC)

I'd like to be constructive about this one. Lords of the Fallen released when we were still regularly getting new Souls games, and as such, there was little room for a surface-level mimicry that utterly lacked the depth and finesse of the series that inspired it. But now that From Software is taking a break from these sorts of games, I expect more developers to take up the mantle and cater to this niche. Deck13 Interactive has made another attempt, and while it's not great, it's a step in the right direction and, I mean, hey, now we know that they're really serious about this, so I'd honestly like to see them continue to fine-tune their take on the formula.

The Surge offers two major improvements over Lords. The first is that the combat is not only functional (i.e. what you expect to happen actually does, and collision doesn't suck) but actually offers its own new twist - players can use the right stick to target individual body parts, either to deal more damage to unprotected areas or to harvest pieces of armor. It's a neat hook that works well. Secondly, rather than just flatly copy the Souls series' dark fantasy aesthetic, Deck13 sets this one in an industrial future that looks more than a little similar to Neill Blomkamp's films (specifically Elysium, to which there is an unsubtle reference). So it's the rare Souls clone that doesn't feel like a straight rip-off.

They still got a few things wrong, however. The final third of the game feels incredibly unbalanced - the last two bosses are beyond tedious, and the concluding level is full of enemies who don't seem to abide by the same rules regarding stamina that players do. Objectives are also unclear sometimes. While that's a characteristic of Dark Souls, it's a poor fit for The Surge's world design, in which backtracking isn't particularly intuitive. Finally, the story is terrible, despite some clear attempts at political commentary regarding corporate greed. So keep tightening your screws, Deck13, and hire some real writers, and your next release might be a real winner. For Souls fans seeking a fix, eh, this one's worth checking out when the price drops. 6/10


Nioh (PS4)

While I've never been a fan of Team Ninja, they're a major and experienced developer, and the first AAA studio, to my knowledge, to attempt a Souls clone of their own. Nioh has the polish and the sheen to drastically outdo The Surge in the presentation department, and the core combat feels excellent. It's also one of the rare console games to offer a 60fps option at the cost of some slight graphical fidelity, which a framerate junkie like myself appreciates. All good first impressions, and yet I ultimately walked away believing The Surge to be the superior game. How can that be?

Well, for one, Team Ninja seems to believe that the combat alone made Souls great, and ignored that series' penchant for rich lore and intricate world design. Nioh's plot is drab nonsense. Its setting apparently has basis in Japanese history, and most of its characters are actual figures from the 17th century, but Team Ninja makes little effort to fill in the details for Western players who aren't as knowledgeable on the subject. Nioh is also level-based, meaning the labyrinthine structure of the Souls series is lost. The visual style looks interchangeable from Koei Tecmo's other big franchises (particularly Toukiden), and the levels, mostly quaint Japanese villages and forests, run together after a while. And the majority of the game is just too damn dark, set mostly at night despite no element of horror. Sunlight is a thing, Team Ninja.

These aren't inherently major flaws, but I need something, some unique hook. Nioh presents no substantial new ideas, while its annoyances pile up. In particular, while the game's stamina system works well at a glance, certain bosses and powerful enemies are given way too much of it, leading to battles where I have to constantly stop for breaks when my opponent doesn't. It completely throws the balance off, and had my friend and editor Brad Gallaway not alerted me to a slow that drastically slows enemy movement, I might have lost patience. For 50 hours it drags on, with uninteresting levels, only a handful of standard enemies and nothing in the narrative department to keep me engaged. I don't know who I'd recommend this to outside of loot fanatics. 5/10

Friday, May 5, 2017

A single-paragraph review of Outlast 2, followed by a longer, spoiler-laden one

Outlast 2 is scary, so much so that when my father stayed overnight last week just after the game's release, I had to actually keep myself from playing it because I was worried that my screams would wake him up. So if your measure of a horror game's quality it how terrifying it is, Outlast 2 is a rousing success, though it comes with two caveats. Firstly, it's schlocky, over-the-top, and utterly unconcerned with whether or not it's offending you. It seems determined to figure out what it is that makes you lightheaded, and impressively, in my case, it was successful. Secondly, the state of stealth-based "defenseless" horror games has progressed over the last few years, and so an Outlast sequel of level quality is not necessarily an equal. 7/10, and I recommend it if you have the stomach for it.

And now, since I stand to make zero profit from this review and don't need to justify a score that will wind up on Metacritic, I'm now going to discuss Outlast 2 in more explicit detail, so be warned: spoilers beyond this point.
The original Outlast came along at the perfect time for me. An indie release called Amnesia: The Dark Descent had been bouncing around for several years and laying the groundwork for what I call the defenseless horror genre, in which players are matched against enemies that they can't kill and thus spend most of their playtime running and hiding. It's a pure and effective method of generating panic, but while I've enjoyed Amnesia's influence, I always found its actual design too obtuse. I'd longed for a game to strip the concept down to its bare essentials, unimpaired by the ambition of being something more complex than it needed to be.

Outlast, for me, was that game. Simple, straightforward, serving no purpose but to make you feel helpless in an insane asylum full of grotesque things that want to mutilate you. It was so scary that I could only play it in short bursts. That it arrived just as the AAA horror scene was burning out (with heavy-hitters like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 abandoning all pretense of actually scaring people) was a bonus, and the genre's been on an upswing since.

So where else have we seen this? Well, after Aliens: Colonial Marines became one of the most notorious disappointments of the modern era, Sega gave the makers of the Total War series the opportunity to channel the original Alien film and base an entire game around evading a single, unkillable xenomorph, and the resulting Alien: Isolation is one of the best uses of that license ever (bloated and overlong as it may be). Meanwhile, P.T. made such an impression that it's regarded as a contemporary classic even though it's technically just a demo for a cancelled game, and Capcom took some obvious cues in rebooting Resident Evil, an experiment that worked shockingly well earlier this year.
So where does that leave an Outlast sequel? Well, disappointingly, developer Red Barrels' answer seems to be "make it more disgusting." I don't want to undercut the many ways in which Outlast 2 is an effective horror game, but the torture porn element has somehow been cranked up even higher than that of its predecessor, as if Red Barrels knew that only the most thick-shelled of gamers would demand more of what they got the first time and set out to find everyone's "trigger." If there is anything that makes your stomach turn, and it's not represented in Outlast 2, don't tell Red Barrels. They'll be disappointed in themselves.

Here's mine. I went to a Catholic school (like this game's main character, and we'll get to that), and as I'm sure you know, Christians are obsessed with crucifixion. Whenever I had to endure a gruesome explanation as to what a person goes through when they're crucified, I got lightheaded. Lo and behold, there is a scene in which the protagonist of Outlast 2 is nailed to a cross. The unbroken first-person perspective forced me to imagine, more so than I ever had before, what it felt like for the person that this was happening to. It's one of the most brutal things I've ever witnessed in a work of fiction. I'm... kind of impressed.

But for as rampant and gratuitous as Outlast 2's violence is, it's ultimately a game about avoiding having such violence inflicted upon you. Again, this formula works, and I daresay that for as commonplace as low-budget indie horror titles are, this sort of genre benefits, more than most, from high production values. I want to jump every time a shadow dances in front of me. I want to hear ambient sound effects to my sides that could be approaching enemies. I want to be immersed. Outlast 2 looks and sounds great. It's an absorbing experience, one that had me nervous while playing it and feeling like I needed a shower afterwards.
Again, though, we've seen this all before, and the supercharged schlock factor is something that I imagine will shoo more people away than it will lure in. One particular disappointment is that Outlast 2 still feels narrow and linear despite the switch to an outdoor environment. I get that claustrophobia is key in games like this, but Outlast is a stealth franchise, and it often feels like you don't have enough room to maneuver through enemy routes. And when you're caught, the areas are so small that there's often nowhere to go. In some situations, if an enemy spots you, that's it.

The one incredible exception is a sequence set in a large, open cornfield, where vision is limited on both sides, and while there are plenty of places to run and hide, doing so could ultimately screw up your sense of direction. It's a brilliant moment, and Outlast 2 could have used more of them.

But the game's real missed opportunity is the plot, on multiple levels. Only tangentially connected to the first game, Outlast 2 is about a pair of married journalists who find themselves stranded somewhere in rural Arizona where a crazy Catholic cult wants to... well, they're split into factions and everyone seems to have a different goal. The preacher running the main village seems to believe that the wife is pregnant with the Antichrist, a dwarf out in the woods is reenacting the Stations of the Cross (hence the crucifixion scene), and some weird pagan lady, uh, wants to take off her clothes, smear herself in mud, and chase the protagonist around an old mine?
I'll be honest: When I finished Outlast 2, I hadn't the slightest idea what the game was actually about, what I'd just witnessed. It was only after, reading a synopsis, when I learned that a single hidden document (one of dozens in the game) reveals a key plot detail: that the enormous burst of light you keep seeing throughout the game is an experimental mind-control device, run by the same company responsible for the wrongdoing in the first Outlast.

So that's it, really. A machine is turning everyone in the area violently insane by convincing them that they're living in the biblical end times. This eventually applies to the protagonist himself, whose hallucinations more and more take center stage as the search for his wife continues, culminating in a trippy-ass final act in which he appears to completely lose his grip on reality. There's some striking imagery late in Outlast 2 - apocalyptic lightning storms, blood raining down from the sky - but the game's lack of a message or a point discourages discussion on what's real. Did the wife really birth a child? Is she actually dead? Did the cult really commit mass suicide? I can't work up the energy to stew over these questions if no one in this story seems to have a clear-cut arc either way.

That's the other thing: Outlast 2 dumps a lot of time into character-building and symbolism that never, to my view, pays off. The game doesn't really explore Catholicism on any thematic level - it's all just window dressing - and the constant flashbacks to a tragic incident from the hero's childhood are both repetitive and needless. We're never given a clear answer as to what exactly happened (if a priest accidentally killed the girl, why are we also constantly seeing images of her hanging from a noose?), nor is there any clear connection between the flashbacks and the present-day stuff. And even if there's a point that I'm missing, these sequences didn't need to be nearly as frequent, bloating a game that's longer than it should have been.
And that's my final criticism of Outlast 2, that it overstays its welcome. Horror games, by and large, benefit from brevity - the moment this becomes routine, it stops being scary. In addition to the school flashbacks, the game's last hour or two could have been trimmed significantly, as there comes a point when the developers don't have anything new to show me but nevertheless drag things out in a repetitious series of underground tunnels. Again, P.T. is widely regarded as a horror masterpiece and it lasts, what, 20 minutes?

But this is all just a way of saying that Outlast 2 is neither as tight or as relevant as its predecessor. Yet that game made such an impression on me that its sequel can afford to be several steps down. If you want a reliable scare fix, wait for the sun to go down, turn off the lights, put on a pair of headphones, and play some Outlast 2. For whatever the game gets wrong, it does what I paid it to do.

(P.S. One final observation. Outlast 2 features a miniature rogues gallery of distinctive villains. We want to see them get their comeuppance, of course, but since this is a game in which you can't attack, they all just sort of... accidentally off themselves in increasingly Tucker & Dale-esque ways. Not really a complaint, just amusing in hindsight.)

(P.S.S. The gravelly-voice pickaxe lady dies in precisely the same manner as Father Brennan from The Omen.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why 30 minutes of Nier: Automata was enough for me


After sitting in a GameFly envelope for something like a month while I polished off Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon, I finally gave Nier: Automata a spin last night, eager to learn whether or not the civil unrest over my editor Brad's unenthusiastic review of the game was justified. My reaction to the original Nier was mixed (to put it charitably), but reactions to its follow-up have been far more universally positive, and the involvement of PlatinumGames always fills me with hope, Star Fox Zero notwithstanding.

I will now walk you through my experience.

I boot Nier: Automata up and the first thing it tells me is that the game doesn't have an autosave function. Okay. Hopefully that won't be an issue.

The game opens with a straight-up vertically-scrolling shmup sequence as my character pilots a jet. Okay, fine. The original Nier drew a lot of influence from bullet hell shooters so it's fine that the sequel is being more direct about it. This sequence switches perspectives rapidly - one minute it's scrolling vertically, then it's horizontal, then the camera is stationed behind my craft, then I transform into a mech and can fire in any direction with the right stick. This is all fine.

This is a very grey game, at least based on this opening level and every damn screenshot I've seen of it. It's particularly bad timing that Automata should be released so soon after Zelda and Horizon, two games which taught us that robot-infested post-apocalypses can be lush and vibrant. There's some talk about the "Old World" and I've had enough of this sort of thing lately.

My character begins fighting on foot. The game is still switching perspectives a lot, and it's all very high-energy, but man is this some shallow, bog-standard character-action-game combat. Your quick attacks, your strong attacks, your dodge move, your pea shooter ranged attack with unlimited ammo. I remember the combat in the original Nier being just as dull, but I'd hoped Platinum would expand upon it, since this is the one thing they consistently do well. Alas, it is not to be.

So I spend quite some time wandering through bland industrial environments, hacking through what must be at least a hundred samey robots, all while my character tells her partner that emotions are forbidden. This game doesn't have a lot of personality so far, but there's a brief mini-boss against a giant buzzsaw arm that's moderately entertaining. Later, I have fight two of them at once, and my character clips through one of the buzzsaws, gets stuck inside, and dies horribly.

Then I remember that the game doesn't have an autosave function, and learn from a few Twitter friends that you have to complete this lengthy intro without dying, which is tough to do when you can just clip inside a mini-boss and die with no chance to recover. The game gives me a fake-out ending, which makes me wonder if my death was staged and the game's pulling a meta-trick on me, but nope - I'm back at the very start and have to slog through that whole dull opening level again.

Except I don't want to. One of the controversial features of the Nier games is that they must be completed multiple times to unlock all of the story content. I don't see the appeal of that, and it's something that's made me hesitant to jump into Automata. And here I am, struggling to work up the energy to replay just a single 30-minute chunk of the game. How will I later justify replaying the entire thing, or at least substantial pieces of it?

I won't. Not on the tail of so many other massive games that took hold of me far more readily than this one did, not when major new releases are happening at such a rapid-fire rate that I can't afford a time sink that isn't meeting me halfway, not when I still have yet to touch Yakuza 0 or Persona 5, not when I've still got plenty of Nioh left. As a critic, I have no obligation to play Automata, so I can only approach it as a game-loving adult with limited free time who must determine, in a busy release season, which games just aren't clicking for him. Automata is going back to GameFly and that's the end of that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review Shots: April 22, 2017

So that was a hectic month or two, huh? I imagine most of us still aren't out of the wild yet, in fact. I myself still have a ways to go in Horizon: Zero Dawn (I still can't get a clear answer on whether a colon belongs in that title or not), Yooka-Laylee just came out a couple of days ago, and my GameFly copy of Nier: Automata is still sitting next to my TV, untouched. It's a good thing I'm not into Persona or this would still be full-on busy season.

But the release schedule is about to cool down considerably, which gives me time not only to catch up on the games I haven't had the chance to release yet, but to do some short write-ups on all of the releases I've played but haven't been able to discuss in detail. So, it's time for another round of Review Shots, a set of rapid-fire takes on whatever I haven't reviewed elsewhere. And since my shiny new Switch has dominated my attention over the last month, this installment will be largely devoted to what I've been up to on that thing.

P.S. I wrote this intro a while ago, so as of the time I've posted this, I've finished Horizon, Yooka-Laylee has been out for a couple of weeks, and I've dipped into Nier: Automata and determined that it's not my thing.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PC)

January was when I finally mustered up the courage to return to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and sure enough, as soon as I'd gotten back into the game's rhythm, I couldn't get enough. I'm still working my way through the game's second DLC, but Hearts of Stone ranks as perhaps the best self-contained story in a game full of great self-contained stories. This thing is a cavalcade of good characterization - Shani is a great romantic match for Geralt (and his, erm, "other side"), the often-despicable Olgierd's dip into immortality makes him bizarrely humble and sympathetic, and Gaunter O'Dimm is easily the series' greatest villain yet, a fearsome and mysterious force. Two of the dungeons late in this quest (one set in a painting, the other in a riddle) are a bit of a chore and an obvious attempt to get players more involved in what is largely a hand-off piece of storytelling, but this is a worthwhile addition to a base game that wasn't exactly skimpy on great content to begin with. 8/10

Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This is several months old now, and although I never formally reviewed it, Dan and I did rave about it for an hour and a half on my first and likely only stab at hosting the GameCritics podcast. Still, since this'll get serious consideration on my best-of-2017 list far down the line, I want to put it into writing that Resident Evil 7 acknowledges the ill-fatedness of Capcom's attempts to recreate RE4's magic, and therefore turns Resident Evil into a horror franchise once again, disempowering the player and scaling the setting almost entirely to a single estate. It's almost a return to form, except it's smarter, scarier, and more fluid than the originals ever were, and it tells perhaps the first story in series history that can actually be taken somewhat seriously (though the protagonist is admittedly a bit of an emotional vacuum). After Resident Evil 6, I would've been ready to call it a day on this franchise, but Capcom really turned this thing all the way around. Buy it if you've got the stomach for it. 9/10

Super Bomberman R (Switch)

There is absolutely no circumstance in which a new Bomberman game, in 2017, should cost $50, no matter how long it's been since we've played a proper Bomberman title, no matter how eager we are to wash the taste of Act Zero out of our mouths, no matter how much we're itching to make use of our pricey new Switch consoles. At its absolute best, Super Bomberman R is a repackaging of the same formula that's seen, what, 33 iterations? The trouble is that it's often not at its absolute best - the single-player campaign is pointless (despite the cute animated cutscenes), and at least half of the online matches I've played have been so laggy as to make the game nearly unplayable. (Both Splatoon 2 and Fast RMX have had perfectly adequate online functionality, so the problem is with the game, not the service.) Were this a bargain-price eShop download, I'd still be hesitant to recommend it. At $50, well... I can't say I expect better from Konami. 3/10

Blaster Master Zero (Switch)

As a fan of the original Blaster Master (though not enough of one to have known that there were several other follow-ups before this one), I expected to like this more than I did. It's certainly faithful to the series formula, which mixes side-scrolling, exploration-based action-platforming in a tank with top-down linear bits on foot. Weirdly, my biggest issue with Blaster Master Zero has more to do with the Switch hardware - specifically, the left Joycon's lack of a true d-pad, which makes retro-style 2D games such as this one rather awkward to control. Maybe this is something I'll grow used to as I spend more time with my Switch in handheld mode and Zero was unfortunate enough to be the first guinea pig. Also, while the tank segments are fun, the top-down sections feel way less inspired, and that's unfortunately where the bosses tend to be set. It captures the look and feel of the NES classic, but I guess I wasn't as hungry for this as I'd imagined, and it's probably the Switch release I've spent the least time with. 6/10

VOEZ (Switch)

Even amongst Switch's thin launch period lineup, VOEZ is already shaping up to be one of the console's most overlooked titles. I only picked it up (a) out of desire to get more use out of my Switch now that Zelda's been shelved and (b) because my embarrassing attachment to the Hatsune Miku titles means Japanese rhythm games may actually be my thing. VOEZ was a good investment - its presentation is both attractive and minimalistic, and its song selection exceeds a hundred, all of them available right from the start. Mechanically, it's nothing terribly unique, but I like that it forces you to play with two hands at once, mimicking the sort of multitasking required to, say, play the piano (something I've always been in awe of). Plenty of variety in the music, as well - it's not just J-pop, but also violent rave electro and some delicate symphonic tracks. It's a mobile port, but don't let that scare you away - VOEZ is worth buying if you're into this sort of thing. 8/10

Dark Souls III: The Ringed City (PC)

A year ago, I was still fully on board the Souls train, confident that From Software could keep it running forever, yet these final two DLCs, purportedly the last Souls-related content we'll be getting for the foreseeable future, have done a lot to sour my good will toward the franchise. This one is marginally better than Ashes of Ariandel, mainly for its visual appeal, but way too much of its challenge is derived from having players jump from cover to cover while invincible enemies fire projectiles on a strict timer. It reminds me of the bits in Demon's Souls where you had to dodge dragon breath, and I hated those sections. The bosses are decent on paper but have way too much health, a lazy method of inflating the game's difficulty, and it's a twist of the blade that this DLC's story ultimately links back to Ariandel when I'd rather have just forgotten about that whole affair. A huge disappointment as the swan song of Dark Souls, and if Miyazaki and crew are really this out of good ideas, maybe it's time for a break after all. 5/10

Snake Pass (Switch)

This is one of the most unique 3D platformers I've ever played, and has stolen an awful lot of Yooka-Laylee's thunder, if you ask me. Since you control a snake, the objective is to navigate levels not by jumping, but by contorting your body, looping around objects and creating a tight enough grip that you don't fall. The controls are a major adjustment but super consistent once you grasp when to raise or lower the snake's head, or when to tighten or loosen your grip. Some of the acrobatic stunts the later levels ask you to complete are pretty grueling, but only a handful of Snake Pass's collectibles are mandatory; the rest are there if you're looking for an extra challenge, as I was, enamored with the game's charm and originality. The camera is an occasional nuisance, especially since your right thumb won't always been free to move it around, but otherwise, this is one of my surprise favorites of the year. 9/10

And now, for some actual reviews:

Diluvion
For Honor
Hollow Knight
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Torment: Tides of Numenera

And hey! I was on the latest GameCritics podcast, in which we discussed the Switch and Zelda.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A scoreless review of Fast RMX


It is easy, relatively speaking, to make a racing game look good and run well. Most of the scenery is far out of reach, players can't study it anyway because they're moving too quickly and focusing on the road, and not much is actually happening - it's just happening very quickly. The flash factor is why a good launch lineup usually includes a racer. When PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both went on sale several years ago, Forza Motorsport 5 was the prettiest title across both platforms, and briefly fooled me into thinking that the Xbox One had a bright future ahead of it. Oh, the naivete.

So while Zelda is certainly a stunner on the tiny Switch, the most immediate demonstration of the tablet-sized console's power to produce big boy visuals is unquestionably Fast RMX. On a TV, running in full 1080p, it looks comparable to your average budget-level current-gen release. In handheld mode, though, this thing dazzles. It runs at a rock-solid 60fps while the Switch's brilliantly bright screen showcases its wonderful color palette. Again, it's largely due to the genre, and I wouldn't go about expecting every Switch game to look this good - I mean, Zelda often struggles to hold 30fps - but man oh man is Fast RMX gorgeous.

It's a remastered version of Fast Racing Neo, a Wii U release that several people recommended to me last year when Redout reinvigorated my interest in futuristic, ant-gravity racing games. (I'll come back to Redout later. It's important.) This edition packs an impressive 30 tracks and is available on Nintendo's eShop for $20.

If that sounds like a suspiciously good deal for a blazing technical showcase with a generous heap of content, know that at its core, Fast RMX is a relatively basic affair. It's arcade fluff, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact, its compatibility for short play sessions makes it an ideal fit for the Switch's handheld mode. But Fast RMX is mechanically shallow and short on variety. It's a budget release; don't go in expecting more.

When assessing an AR racer, the question inevitably comes up: Which of the two big genre staples - you know the ones - does it more closely compare to? Fast RMX cleanly falls into the F-Zero camp, borrowing both its overwhelming sense of speed and its dated-even-in-the-'90s hair-metal cheesiness (complete with an announcer who says things like, "Totally awesome!"). It's particularly at home on Nintendo consoles, where the absence of an actual new F-Zero game grows increasingly frustrating by the year. It's been over a decade now.


Fast RMX's one unique mechanic is an Ikaruga-like color polarity system, where players must alternate between orange and blue to take advantage of boost pads and jumps. If you touch an orange boost and you're blue, it'll actually slow you down. Likewise, hitting a jump pad of the wrong color will just send you tumbling downward. It's not a bad idea.

Unfortunately, there's little else to Fast RMX on a mechanical level. Sliding has virtually no use, and beyond that, it's simply a matter of pointing your craft in the right direction and hitting the gas. If you're wondering what else I could possibly want out of a racing game, well, put that question on hold for just a few more paragraphs.

Fast RMX is also skimpy on modes. There are bog-standard tournaments with three difficulty settings, as well as something called Hero Mode, in which vehicles can actually take damage and death means game over. Good concept in theory, but it's hurt by the game's camera, which is positioned so low that it's often difficult to see incoming obstacles. And since crashing into something can mean instant death, well, you can see how it gets frustrating. The camera also has this habit of sometimes - not always, but sometimes - staying level with the ground even when your vehicle hits a steep bank. It's weird and uncomfortable, and when playing in handheld mode, I was often involuntarily tilting my Switch to try to compensate for it.

So it's... fine, I guess. It's a functionally bare-bones AR racer that somehow manages to get camera control wrong, but it's gorgeous, good in small bursts, and sports enough track variety to not be a waste of time. I think $20 is a fair price, especially now, when we're desperate to make the most of our shiny new Switches and so little else is available for the system (though I'd sooner recommend VOEZ, a lovely little J-pop rhythm game that I've been enjoying considerably lately).

But! Remember Redout, that game that recently reinvigorated my interest in this genre? It's currently exclusive to PC, where it doesn't seem to have much of an audience (hence why I'm probably the only person you'll presently hear raving about the game). As luck would have it, though, later this year, Redout will be making its console debut... on the Switch.

Which raises the question: Can I recommend the average but affordable Fast RMX when a far superior AR racer is right around the corner? I guess that's up to you. My Redout review from last year can hopefully fill you in on why I consider it to be the top of its class. Maybe timing will be a factor. Maybe it'll come down to price, since Redout will cost twice as much. I say it's worth the wait and the price, but perhaps Switch fans aren't as picky as I am. Or maybe, Nintendo fans as they are, they're just starved for something to fill the F-Zero-shaped hole in their lives. Fast RMX does a solid enough job of that.

(P.S. Fast RMX makes pretty neat use of the Joycon's "HD rumble" function as your craft interacts with the environment. On a desert track, for example, passing through a whirlwind actually causes a sort of spinning sensation to ripple through the controllers.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Let's predict the Oscars or whatever


Best Picture: La La Land
Best Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature: Zootopia
Best Documentary Feature: OJ: Made in America

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Costume Design: Jackie
Best Documentary Short Subject: The White Helmets
Best Film Editing: La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Star Trek Beyond
Best Original Score: La La Land
Best Original Song: "City of Stars" (La La Land)
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Animated Short Film: Piper
Best Live Action Short Film: Sing
Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Some stray notes:

• Best Actor is a close race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Affleck deserves it - his performance was more understated, and Denzel's already won twice before - but I already have Manchester by the Sea beating out La La Land for writing and I'm trying to minimize my disappointment, so I'm putting Denzel.

• I don't have Arrival winning anything and that sucks. It at least deserves to win Sound Editing, but that one tends to favor war movies. It's also more deserving of Editing than La La Land, but that movie's gonna win just about everything, so what can you do?

• Sound Mixing always favors musicals. As many have pointed out, the sound mix was one of the few universal complaints about La La Land, so it's dumb that it's going to win this category, but here we are.

• Also, am I crazy, or was "City of Stars" not that great?

Suicide Squad is up for Makeup and Hairstyling. The makeup was one of the few aspects of that movie that didn't suck, but I'm putting down Star Trek Beyond because I can't bear the thought of Suicide Squad winning an Oscar. Plus, Star Trek 2009 won this category.

• I could see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them pulling an upset in either Production Design or Costume Design.

• I liked La La Land just fine, but jeez.