Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Game of the Year 2015: The Final Three

It’s surprising to probably no one that my decision to revisit and review my ten favorite games of 2015 was a hubristic one. Yet here on this twenty-ninth day of March in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I’d say it’s about time to sit down and seal the deal on the old year to get on with the new, even if that means giving the biggest players the shortest shrift. So without any further foot-dragging, my top three games of last year:

3. 80 Days
Inkle, 2015 (PC and iOS versions reviewed)

Inkle are national treasures. Well, someone’s national treasures, anyway, since I’m not a citizen of their native UK, but thank god for these guys and their ability to breathe new life into the text adventure genre so many of us adored as kids. They got my attention with their conversion of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series into a brilliant open-ended mobile RPG some years back (now available as a PC port), but they won my heart with their more recent Jules Verne tribute, 80 Days.

80 Days looks simple enough at first. You are the beleaguered Jean Passepartout, dragged into a globe-spanning adventure by your new master Phileas Fogg’s gambling proclivities. Turns out, though, this isn’t quite the Victorian world you remember from Verne’s novel, but one in an alternate steampunk reality where gyroscopic airships have taken to the winds, mechanical horses pull mechanical carriages across vast distances, and AI-driven automata have begun to encroach upon the livelihood of the late 19th century working class. As Passepartout you will have to chart your and your master’s course across the continents by these transit and means and more, deciding how far you will go and what you’ll be willing to do to ensure your master makes it home to London and wins his money in the eighty days allotted. Or, at least, to ensure he makes it home alive.

High concept flourishes aside, it’s on the personal level where 80 Days thrives. Your adventure unfolds both on a delightfully animated globe and on a series of dialogue and city screens wherein which Passepartout can chart a course, explore the town, bargain for travel implements and services, and (more than anything) spend time talking to the colorful cast of characters he encounters on the way. I can’t stress enough just how terrific the writing of these conversations is. Sure, a few familiar faces and iconic scenes show up from Verne’s novel, but the vast majority of this content is original and utterly engaging. You are constantly choosing dialogue options that shape Passepartout’s personality and tendencies in ways unique to each playthrough, and the sheer breadth of available encounters is reason enough to keep coming back to the game and finding different routes to your destination - or anywhere else, should your Passepartout decide to take his master’s adventure off the literal rails.

A core element in each of these interactions is your relationship with Fogg and just how attentive a servant your choices make Passepartout out to be. Will you head out into the New Orleans nightlife to seek transit opportunities and expand your horizons, or will you remain at the hotel to see to Fogg’s needs and secure your finances for the journey ahead? Do you take a chance with the experimental flight option offered to you by someone with whom you had a midnight tryst, or stick with the safer and slower rail route you had already planned to follow? Do you get involved in the plight of a politically persecuted group seeking to overthrow the local tyranny, or place your loyalty to Fogg’s mission about your personal morals?

The narrative possibilities of 80 Days aren’t endless, but they can often feel that way, and Inkle has even added tremendous new content and destinations to the game free of charge since launch. It’s a lovingly crafted and uniquely personal experience that (at least for now) is like nothing else out there. I can’t wait to see what this team will do next, but I have a feeling I’ll still be discovering fresh and exciting things about 80 Days by the time their next title drops.

2. Bloodborne
From Software, 2015 (PS4)

If there was any doubt that director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s absence was the key element that left Dark Souls II a more hollow experience than its predecessor, albeit a technically tighter one, Bloodborne seems to clear it up. A vast gothic labyrinth of Lovecraftian nightmares, Bloodborne exchanges Dark Souls’ profound loneliness and quiet dread of the world’s end with a more visceral terror that there might be things worse than death waiting beyond.

Some things have changed - combat is less a cautious duel in Bloodborne than a frenetic brawl, the Estus healing system has been replaced by an unfortunately grindy consumable alternative, and the central teleporting hub from Demon Souls makes a return - but Bloodborne retains all the best of Dark Souls’ atmospheric detail and the thrill of exploring its twisting, secret-laiden landscapes. There are a few missteps here and there, an inevitably unfair segment or two and the occasional deadly bug, but as in Dark Souls every nook and cranny (other than the optional randomized Chalice dungeons) drips with craft and intentionality. However indebted this series may be to predecessors like Castlevania and King’s Field, and despite the mixed attempts of imitators, there are no action RPGs out there at quite the caliber of Miyazaki games, and Bloodborne is as great as any other of his Souls.

1. Undertale
Toby Fox, 2015 (Mac version reviewed)

Undertale remains as difficult to talk about as the day it launched. Describing exactly what makes this little indie JRPG so much more than the simple Earthbound tribute it appears to be at a glance is almost impossible without spoiling some of its biggest surprises - especially since its first hour reflects the most tired, frustrating aspects of that game and its genre. But Undertale is more.

I can sing a few of Undertale’s praises without spoilers. It’s genuinely hilarious, with a sense of humor simultaneously so broad-ranging and esoteric that it had me laughing aloud more frequently than any game last year but Tales from the Borderlands. Its characters, despite all being broad cartoonish caricatures of video game and geek tropes generally, reveal themselves to have rich emotional lives and cores so genuine it’s damn near impossible not to fall in love with all of them. Its bullet hell combat, while challenging to the point of frustration at times, keeps encounters fresh and encourages creative problem solving in a way few JRPGs ever bother to. Best of all, Undertale tells a story I hadn’t heard before, a story that unfolds in drastically different ways based on not only overt player decisions but on the little choices made moment to moment and battle to battle.

It feels a little odd to extol a game I can only talk about in the most obnoxiously vague ways - especially a game I’m calling my favorite of 2015. But lemme tell ya, in the most obnoxious way I can, man you gotta play it. Gems like Undertale don’t come around every day - or even every year.

- Honorable Mentions -

There were, of course, a lot of games I missed last year, but I thought it worth mentioning those I played after originally deciding on this Top 10 that probably would’ve made the cut had I gotten to them sooner.

SOMA is flawed as hell - I got so tired of its “boss” sequences breaking the flow of the story that I used a fan mod to alter their behavior -  but it’s nonetheless an enthralling piece of existential horror that’s stuck in my brain for months since my playthrough. One about which I’ve got a lot more thoughts to share here one of these days.

I played Dark Souls II on console back in 2014, and I only ultimately jumped into Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin on PC this year to co-op through with a friend. It’s a great update to an already great game that, while failing to measure up to Dark Souls or Bloodborne as a complete world and narrative, stands nonetheless a head above every other action RPG out there.

Divinity: Original Sin: Enhanced Edition is also both an update to a 2014 title and a fantastic co-op RPG, one that I haven’t yet had the time to give the attention it deserves.

I’d also love to spend a lot more time with the brilliant systems of tactical espionage RPG-ish thing Invisible Inc. before rendering a final verdict.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is the brain-bending party game to end all brain-bending party games, and I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.

- Dishonorable Mentions -

Most Disappointing Game / Best Child Neglect Simulator: Fallout 4
Most Broken Thing I Didn’t Even Want But Got for Free with My Video Card: Batman: Arkham Knight
Most Morally Repugnant Murder Porn, AKA the Jack Thompson Game of the Year Award: Until Dawn
Most Pretentious Execution of a Genuinely Cool Concept: The Beginner’s Guide
Most Frustrating Lack of Split-Screen Multiplayer: Halo 5: Guardians
Most Abusive Digital Marketplace Pricing Practices: the entire Nintendo eShop

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Cabin the Woods

Game: Until Dawn
Supermassive Games, 2015 (PS4)

There’s a lot to admire in Until Dawn’s ambition. Technically it’s a stunning achievement, even if the PS4’s hardware isn’t quite up to the task of rendering its ultra-realistic, motion-captured cast in real time at anything like a consistent frame rate. The idea of applying the Telltale formula to an 80s horror film and throwing a more constant threat of character death into the mix certainly seems right up my alley. After all, who hasn’t wanted to yell at the characters on screen in a slasher movie for their constant stupidity and lack of basic self-preservation instincts? On paper, the idea of directing their behavior from position of cast puppet master sounds like a perfectly fine concept for a game.

Alas, Until Dawn not only mucks up the execution of that concept but falls prey to the same old hoary tropes of the slasher genre itself. Not content just to give you a limited range of choices often stripped entirely of story context, it frequently takes even that power from the player and has the characters do the same old stupid slasher stuff anyway. It’s an insulting way of trying both to blame the players for their mistakes - though good luck knowing what those mistakes are - while wresting control at the most critical moments of consequence. Characters splitting up to investigate clear deathtraps entirely on their own? Check. Leaving crucial weapons and MacGuffins behind out of sheer blind stupidity? Check. Stopping in the middle of a life-and-death chase to argue about petty teen social vendettas? CHECK CHECK CHECK. Frequently the player has no say in anything but how badly the characters will suffer based on a series of quick-time events - though maybe one in a hundred of these quick-time events might be the trigger that later gets someone killed.

I’m hard-pressed to think of many games that have come this close to realtime-rendered photorealism.

Until Dawn also embraces the absolute worst narrative elements of its source materials without the slightest inclination to subvert or improve upon them - this is far more Friday the 13th Part VI than The Cabin in the Woods or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. The characters turn out to be the same old awful slasher clichés we’ve seen a thousand times over, from the Dumb Jock to the Slutty Slut to the Hapless Nerd to the Queen Bee Bitch to the Virgin Final Girl, and Until Dawn shows not the slightest inclination to bring depth or empathy to these teens* over its grueling 10-12 hours of running time. This would have been a hard task even in the best of writer’s hands, given that the story begins with these characters doing something absolutely vile to one of their friends, but the failure to give them any kind of self-awareness or remorse for the bulk of the narrative prevents any real feeling of player connection to these brats.

In fact the game goes out of its way to goad the player into killing them, reveling in some of the nastiest and most misogynistic aspects of the genre as it gleefully pushes the most egregious elements of their personalities to the nines and literally asks the player point blank whether they wouldn’t enjoy their gore porn more if they would just give this Queen Bee the violent comeuppance she deserves, or punish the Slutty Slut for her slutty sins accordingly. It’s all very gross, very puerile stuff, the kind of thing you might have once taken for granted in genre B-films but would hope a “story game” in 2016 would have moved past by now, particularly given what a debt Until Dawn owes to the much better-written Telltale titles.

If nothing else there’s some genuinely fine cinematography on display from time to time.

Perhaps just as unfortunately, Until Dawn has also failed to learn the fat-stripping lessons from Telltale’s more recent entries. As bad as the story beats of Until Dawn might be, they’re not half so bad as the hours the game forces you to spend shuffling through its fixed-camera environments with Resident Evil-era tank controls as the characters perform literal pixel hunts and struggle to find doors invisible behind blocked angles. Frequently beautiful environments, to be sure, but it’s hard to appreciate the depth of care that went in to the art design when it’s used in service of 90s gameplay relics and equally dated 90s horror game clichés (SPOILER alert: you’ll spend about half your time in a spoooooky old insane asylum, as I’m sure absolutely no one everyone could have guessed). At least the fixed camera means we always get a cinematic view of those clichés.

I really got the sense that the lion’s share of Until Dawn’s resources, fiscal and mental, were poured into its production design at the expense of everything else. Constant frame dips and stutters aside, the mo-cap’d character animation is truly something to behold, with possibly the most nuanced and expressive facial models I’ve seen this side of the uncanny valley. Apart from some audio mixing issues, the voice acting is similarly about as strong as it gets in gaming, and a game cast of film and TV celebrities do their damnedest to elevate the trash that is Until Dawn’s script to something at least vaguely human. For stretches it does feel very much like you’re inhabiting an actual movie. Unfortunately, if at the end of the day the best you can say about Until Dawn is that it’s an especially long and well-produced Friday the 13th sequel, you’re probably better off just watching Friday the 13th. 

* Played here, true to genre form, mostly by 30-year-olds.

Disliked it.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Devil's in the Details

Game: Devil Daggers
Sorath, 2016 (PC)

I used to be one of the worst Devil Daggers players in the world. Now I’m just bad. I know this because it tells me every time I die. (I’ve died a lot of times.)

It’s tough at first to know what to make of Devil Daggers. Best described as a first-person bullet hell (literally set in hell) with mechanical and aesthetic similarities to an early 90s shooter, Devil Daggers probably shares a closer relationship with Geometry Wars in my brainspace than it does with Doom or Quake. You stand on a flat floor over an empty chasm (whose edges you can will repeatedly fall off) and fight off increasingly swarming hordes of nightmare creatures for as long as you can, using fiery projectiles shot from your hand. A single collision with any foe means instant death, so even the first and easiest enemies you face - a cluster of floating skulls spewed out of a Hellraiser spire - are a constantly growing threat to be managed as the seconds tick along.

Alone in the dark...

And my do they tick slowly. A minute is a hell of a long time in Devil Daggers; it took nearly an hour of play before I first survived past the 60-second mark and graduated from uber scrub to plain old mittel scrub. Like any good bullet hell, Devil Daggers is brutally difficult, but the short duration of each round and the immediacy with which you can tap R to restart keeps it from being remotely as frustrating an experience as many of the ones I’ve had with the genre. Making it just shy of your former high score then getting bitten in the back by a laughing skull demon is actually much more energizing than it is infuriating; you made it that close, after all, and the knowledge that you could do it again in a matter of seconds means it’s easy to keep your eyes on the prize.

...but not for long.

The problem came for me when I took a moment to ask, but, uh, what prize, exactly? It was easy to remain engrossed in Devil Daggers when it was all about the thrill of discovery. Its faux-retro, pixelated horrors are a beautiful work of imagination, and it’s always a thrill to hear the unfamiliar sound - and what thrilling, viscerally chilling sound design it is! - of a new demon approaching behind you. But those moments grew further and further apart as I reached my skill cap and I found myself adding fewer and fewer seconds to my top time with each hour of play. Getting off the bottom of the leaderboards was enough additional incentive for a while, but the knowledge that I will never have the skill or motivation to make it within spitting distance of the global high scores quickly removed that motivation fairly soon after I passed into the mid-leagues.

Ah, bloody chunks of demon viscera. The best kind of viscera.

Since binging hours of the game over the release weekend, I honestly haven’t had much interest in returning, other than to briefly watch the replays of the new high score breaking players. And you know what? For a $5 game, that’s A-OK. There’s also something to be said for a game model that sucks you in long enough to learn the basics, then appreciate the Twitch and YouTube appeal of pro playthroughs for years to come. Sure, a part of me wishes there were either a checkpoint system or random-enemy mode that made it more varied and interesting to play through the same ___ seconds of the game over and over, but there’s an argument to be made that those would undermine the competitive and Let’s Play appeal I just pointed out. The fact that I also wish the engrossing gameplay and fantastic aesthetics could be applied to a feature-length narrative game really just goes to show how much love went into this little thing, and is no way a mark against what it is. I may have already had enough of Devil Daggers for a lifetime, but I don’t for a second regret my time spent with it.

Hell is other people's skulls.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Prepare to Die (and Not Know Why)

Game: XCOM 2
Firaxis, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: XCOM 2 is a fucking mess. Continuing the alarming trend of day one technical disasters in high profile releases, at the time of this review XCOM 2 is buggy to the point of brokenness if you’re lucky enough to be able to run it, and reportedly unplayable on a large number of rigs that otherwise ace the listed system requirements. Among the more stable, non-crash-to-desktop bugs are such constant joys as: enemies and allies alike disappearing or teleporting at random. Entire turn phases failing occurring invisibly. Vanishing cursors. Menu items becoming unselectable until a reload. Doors and windows failing to render, leading to your units breaking through them by surprise and eliminating your stealth cover or falling to the fire of hidden foes. Animations hanging constantly and the cinematic camera freezing as often as it functions, sometimes permanently. Clipping errors causing your units to wind up dozens of tiles away from your command point. Items disappearing out of your inventory without a single use.

The lack of an instant-undo button means your only remedy to some of these issues, if any, is a quick quit to desktop. And these are, again, just some of the glitches that don’t result in your GPU melting down to a pool of alien slag. Whether any game is worth putting up with that kind of aggravation, particularly at a $60 launch price tag, is a question very much worth asking.

“Deep Six” refers to the number of point black shots she’s missed in a row.

So why, despite of all that, am I standing at the end of a brutal 45-hour campaign reflecting on how much I enjoyed the experience and whether I’ll play another? Chalk it up to the magic of XCOM, I guess. There’s just something so engrossing in the core formula Firaxis has found in reinventing the series that I find myself sucked into “just one more mission” hours after a squad-wiping series of bugs, personal errors, and trademark XCOM bullshit made me declare that was my last mission, now and forever. And there is oh, so much bullshit to that formula. Part of the weird XCOM paradox is that the things that make it such an interesting procedural narrative experience are the very things that make it a shoddy strategy game. As refreshing as the new squad stealth mechanics are, there’s still a constant element of unpredictability and unfairness in the enemies’ ability to appear out of nowhere and receive a free turn, or the fact that virtually every encounter with a new type of foe ensures you will lose soldiers discovering those foe’s unknown skills, or the glee with which the game flatly refuses to clue you in to which elements of base strategy will lead to a long term win or loss without painful trial and error. Enemy line of sight is a constant mystery. Mission difficulty ratings are largely useless, as a “Very Difficult” op might be a complete breeze if filled only with familiar unit types, whereas an “Easy” one might wipe your entire squad through the appearance of unknown elements without warning. Even many of the more predictable elements seem to have been included frankly just to annoy, such as the stupidity of multi-enemy targeting abilities like the Gunslinger’s “Face Off” forcing you to attack units you have mind-controlled into submission.

Dr. Tygon’s not afraid to let you know how this Archon makes him feel.

The truth is, however, that most of the masochistic pleasures of XCOM 2 are a result of these bullshit elements; some of the most satisfying moments in the game would likely never happen without them. The unpredictability of the abuse is as organic to the player experience as the stories that form around your beleaguered troops and their fallen comrades. You come to value these procedurally generated personalities precisely because of the awful experiences you have “shared” with them, and the constant threat of permadeath lends a weight to your choices even when they turn out to matter less than your luck of the draw (as anyone who’s ever missed an entire turn’s worth of shots can attest).

Bugs aside, XCOM 2’s improvements on the Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within formulae provide a strong framework for those stories to take place in, even if the changes are mostly iterative - and owe an undeniable debt to the fan-made Long War mod for Enemy Within. The base management tools and Pandemic-inspired world map exploration, if poorly explained and overwhelming at first, make for a much deeper and more satisfying strategy experience outside of the missions themselves, to the point where I found myself wishing the battlefield wouldn’t so frequently pull me away from management.

XCOM 2 continues to tease with so many toys and so little cash with which to buy them.

Missions, too, have received major improvements. The new manual evac mechanic not only feels so right but provides a thrilling and life-saving way to pull your team out of a botched mission or rescue incapacitated comrades. Unit skills have been revamped almost completely, with familiar classes progressing in ways that provide much more interesting choices between abilities and team composition. There’s much more variety in the enemies you face as well, with familiar foes showing off reconfigured tactics and newcomers finding all sorts of novel ways to make your life a nightmare.

There’s a flashy, neo-dischoteque vibe to the alien propaganda materials that would’ve been nicer to see more of in the 3D visual design. 

Some things haven’t changed at all. The writing’s just as earnestly awful as ever - even if it is part of the charm - and the story unfolds in ways not only predictable but downright repetitive of its predecessors. A few of the non-timed mission types still try to bore you out of Overwatch creep into making stupid decisions. Visuals have been touched up only a little, and certainly not enough to justify the new technical problems, but the bigger improvements are stylistic, particularly in the now much more varied environmental design. Mechanical improvements notwithstanding, XCOM 2 is an obvious evolution on Enemy Within, and it can struggle to justify its packaging as an independent, fully-priced sequel rather than the sort of thing a studio like Blizzard regularly puts out as a discounted expansion pack. But if you’re anything like me, you may just find XCOM 2 is exactly what you wanted more of out of the series, and all the bugs in the world won’t keep you from that “one last mission” at 3 AM on a Monday.

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