Review: Metroid Samus Returns

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Nintendo is a great mystery to me. I recently picked up a 2DS XL and have had a great time with a few of Nintendo’s franchise games but I’m shocked by how few other games are released for their systems! I’m a longstanding fan of the Metroid games  – Samus is one of my all-time favorite characters. Metroid: Samus Returns is a fun remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, but it has some very weak traits worthy of critical discussion.

The original game was very slow-paced, and in part by virtue of the gameboy’s 4-color graphics very dark, even tenebrous. Though the original game’s feel is almost intolerably mushy by modern standards, it had a really mysterious vibe and really cool pixel art. Also, there were pretty awesome posters:iu.jpeg

The developers elevated Samus Returns‘ gameplay and level design well above that of the source material. The game feel is tight, fast, and fun. Players can use a new parry mechanic to quickly dispatch certain otherwise difficult enemies – it feels good. The microscale level design is very interesting with a wide variety of small puzzles that let the player use their ever-expanding toolkit in creative ways to move forward. This is the sort of level design that first entered the series with Super Metroid, and Samus Returns surpasses all other metroid games in this area. (Yes, even Super Metroid I say!)

In spite of some really good technical design work, Samus Returns is unfortunately plagued by weak, self-indulgent, and even tasteless, art direction. While some areas of the world are very visually interesting and the overall theme of draining and descending through the acid swamps creates a strong feeling of depth, the overall composition lacks cohesion and harmony; lava areas are scattered in without context, the alien ruins have no sense of overall narrative (the final, deepest, supposedly most strange area looks the most human-made), and the overly dense populations of monsters (even in areas that were submerged in acid a few seconds before) ruin the feeling of a real ecology that has made the Metroid series shine.

Metroid games (let’s ignore Other M for a moment) are known for using very terse and subtle means of exposition and characterization. This is true in Samus Returns, but the portrayal of Samus seemed very self-indulgent and tokenistic. She is sassier, sultrier, and so ready to pose for “awesome” slow motion sequences – this adds nothing to the theming of the story and seems to have been forced in for fan service. Moreover, the dimension of Samus Aran’s character I have found most interesting, her development of empathy for her alien nemeses – all the more poignant for the player to feel after having blasted and bombed their way through caves of unique and interesting lifeforms – is all but absent from Samus Returns. While Samus does save the metroid larva, the developers focus on this creature like it is filling a new niche in the Nintendo pantheon. Obsessing over its cuteness and vulnerability cheapens Samus’ development. (Remember, she is based on Ripley from Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. Would Ripley be motivated such nonsense as cuteness?)

Beggining and endings are especially important to the framing of a work of art, and these are where Samus Returns is the ugliest. The introductory slideshow is so bright, sentimental, and guady that it sets the tone completely wrong for the entire mysterious adventure that characterizes Metroid.

opening-6.png Perhaps the most aggregious fan service in the last-minute introduction of Ridley as the final boss, which makes no sense in the Metroid story and serves no purpose in the narrative of Metroid 2 – it is Ridley after all who steals the Metroid larva to begin the action of Metroid 3, Super Metroid.

Nintendo focuses almost entirely on the production and maintenance of its franchesises; If they take such a hard stand about sticking to tradition, why can’t they take a hard stand to make these titles shine as true works of art – timeless heirlooms that define the medium of video games?

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Review: RiME

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For the last few years, indie games have had the luxury of ever-growing budgets and a wide selection of design formulae from the pioneers of the genre. Although indie games were once more fresh and unique than triple-A games (which avoid risky design decisions), they have in general become triple-I: tired and overburdened by the genre’s once-brilliant mechanics and supposedly subtle tools to teach and immerse the player.

Rime is an indie game that breaks that mold and regains a feeling of wonder and mystery. The player explores a world that is tightly designed, but also has dead ends and ambiguity. This leads to an experience that gives a pleasant balance of satisfaction without feeling inauthentic like a theme park. The player can solve puzzles that abide by clear mechanics (and are therefore not frustrating), but never feels like a drone studying a video game lesson plan. This leads to a feeling of satisfaction and independence.

Unfortunately, some expositional elements lacked subtlety – why were the beautiful ruins covered here and there by murals that explained the story, or even more absurdly tried explaining your current objective? The allegory of the end sequence was also a bit muddled and self indulgent on part of the design team. Even so, the story was very intriguing and emotional. I cried during the rain level.

It was a great experience and provoked a lot of interesting thoughts. Thanks Tequila Works!

 

Review: Dark Souls 3

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Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are beautiful, deep, and fascinating games. Dark Souls III is a great looking and great feeling game with similar themes and atmosphere to the best in the series, but it is entertainment rather than art.

The world is emotionally compelling and utilizes powerful visual poetry – exemplified by the pilgrim-strewn broken bridge to the high castle, the infinite slaughter of the Undead Legion, the mystery of Archdragon Peak in the distance, and the tormented city of criminals and evangelists – but all of this is somewhat wasted due to linearity in world-scale connectivity; players really feel immersion and understand the scale of a world when they are the ones traversing it, rather than being allowed to warp from bonfire to bonfire. For example, while a player may consciously understand that venturing down from the castle, through the swamp, and into the Cathedral of the Deep is a large decent, the descent will never feel as deep as the crushing weight of the Depths and Blighttown through which players themselves felt the stress of traversing; the warping cheapens the world. While players may still have the option to walk everywhere and never warp, the world in Dark Souls III is not designed for this, so it would feel tedious rather than dreadful, as it did in Dark Souls.

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Gameplay feels tight, satisfying and material. The marketing and design of Dark Souls III heavily rely on multiplayer – the last boss is even a reference to multiplayer culture; however, rather than the awesome roleplaying experience portrayed by the franchise, players are much more likely to face meta-built players wielding dark swords or uchigatanas who play only to win (with or without skill) rather than to experience gameplay. While building characters is part of the game, the re-stat ability cheapens this ability, and allows the highly connected community to find exploitive ways to abuse unavoidable flaws in game design balance. While winning is obviously the objective of any game, it seems unfortunate that a majority of Dark Souls III players fail to answer the questions: is the “game of meta” a game that is worth winning? Why does one choose to play the games they do? Are people really satisfied by winning appearances of games rather than winning games?

Answer these questions yourself! Play some Souls.

 

Review: Salt and Sanctuary

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“This is not dark salt,” claimed a player message at the beachhead of Salt and Sanctuary. Well, I beg to differ. Salt and Sanctuary is the most obvious and shameless Souls clone yet. But hey, it’s pretty fun. Nonetheless, let’s dig in to some criticism (from the perspective that the game is a Souls clone rather and a thing-unto-itself)

Graphics

How is a player supposed to take an anime-haired fish seriously as a protagonist in a dark and supposedly scary world? The jerky, puppet like animation (probably from Spriter) ruined any sense of connection I had to my character – I felt like I might as well go play with paper dolls. A key part of any Souls game is pride in character development and fashion.

The painted graphics looked pretty cool, but with all the bloom, transparencies, and shadow effects, the result became pretty unreadable at times. Often the torch didn’t help this problem, indicating it wasn’t an intentional game mechanic.

Writing

The text is idiomatic and pretty shallow.  This makes me wonder if the writer’s ever really done anything – let alone done anything depicted in the game. The tragedy of a good Souls NPCs is derived from the player becoming attached to them; the characters in Salt and Sanctuary are idiots and pricks – no one would care if they died. I tried to kill them, but nope – the game wouldn’t allow it. The game keeps them alive as if to parade some token imagery of tragedy in front of the player.

Another important strength of the Souls games was their self-determination. Salt and Sanctuary’s opening injunction: “I must save the princess” was paper thin – what if my character didn’t care to save the princess? Why give us so many roleplaying options in the form of homelands and covenants if the game will put words into the player’s mouth less than a minute later?

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Combat

The combat hardly gets past hack-and-slash. It’s fun, but feels a bit immaterial unless you’re wielding an much-too-large sword. This may be due to a stamina mechanic, that rather than gradually recharge, stamina waits a moment after a combo to recharge completely. This leads to more hack-and-slash, combo/stunlock approach to fighting, rather than calculation.

World

The Sanctuaries and their covenant-specific decoration are amazingly effective.

The exploration is engaging – found myself curious to find what’s next, but this all fell apart with fast traveling. The travel mechanic kept players from getting intimate with the level topology, and thereby keeps them from “living in” the world completely.

Nonetheless, Salt and Sanctuary is a fun addition to any Souls collection.

 

Review: Titan Souls

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Titan Souls features a solitary hero armed with a single arrow who explores a ruin to fight titans. Featuring very tight and unforgiving gameplay and melancholy exploration, the game immediately ties the player to its silent protagonist and commands interest. While most games today rely on numerical gamification to bolster weak gameplay (in the form of  stat upgrades), Titan Souls boldly builds its gameplay completely around the player’s ability and drive.

Art & Sound

Titan Souls mix of pixel art  looks gorgeous, and working with the well-composed soundtrack and ambient effects communicates the contemplative environment quite well. Certain bosses are rendered from low-poly 3D models, yet don’t look out of place in the flat pixel world.

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Gameplay

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The combat gameplay is running and dodging while shooting and recalling a single arrow; the player dies in one hit, but so do the bosses. This very simple premise leads to some excellent gameplay. The best bosses likewise evolve from the superposition of a few simple premises, such as spinning smashing cuttable arms + a chasing gas cloud + a rotating weak spot, or two hands that alternate between blocking and crushing at conflicting rhythms. This leads to a very rewarding intellectual gameplay.

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While some of the gameplay is excellent, a few bosses exhibit a sort of artificial difficulty from speed; in the case of the Yeti or Spike-Ball Idol Head, for instance, the concepts weren’t particularly difficult, but they moved very quickly as if to make up for the lack of conceptual challenge. These bosses weren’t as fun to fight as the slower bosses, leading more to frustration and relief than a feeling of real accomplishment. When combat isn’t fun and there is no numerical gamification, the only thing that keeps players going is a compulsive sense of addiction rather than enjoyment; this is not very healthy or very noble game design.

Story

In times when the gameplay slacked, the game could have relied on story to maintain the player’s interest. Though it was interesting to explore and find implicitly expositional images or locations, this was not tied to the run of the game’s plot. Perhaps the game would have maintained its momentum better if these mysterious and interesting moments were parsed out after boss fights.

Titan Souls crafts a very special experience for the player, and does so very courageously against trends in modern gaming; because of this, its receiving very mixed reviews. For any proponent of video-games-as-art, Titan Souls will not disappoint.

Review: Firewatch

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As ridiculous as the concept may sound, I’ve always toyed with the idea of creating a mountaineering video game.  Although Firewatch is heavily story driven, it toys with the idea of hiking in an almost metroidvania level design, and it works! Although some rules of the game are a bit questionable from the perspective of an outdoorsman, the game combines it’s story, setting, and mechanics quite well. Even so, it is by no means above criticism; let’s dig in!

Beware: the following sections contain spoilers, which for this game would be ruinous to your experience.

Dialogue:

The common assumption in gaming that the only way to motivate predominantly male players is to appeal to their sexual urges by using a flirtatious female guide or boss is not only offensive, 1-dimensionalization of their audience, but also just lazy writing. If we’re all mature enough to be playing a supposedly intricate and adult-themed game, aren’t we mature enough to engage with it on a less juvenile level? Although Delilah’s engendering of your player’s guilt is thematically interesting, the developer emphasized the “flirtation simulator” aspect of Firewatch as selling point. (This can be seen in how the trailers highlight Delilah’s line: “I don’t talk to the other lookouts as much as I talk to you. Not in the same way.”)

Although the absence of physically present people is an interesting stylistic choice that helps the feeling of loneliness for most of the game, when Delilah is not in her tower at the end, it felt more like a design copout than anything else. This was clearly invoked to avoid technical considerations for her implementation; when Half Life 2 shined with its lifelike characters over a decade ago, its interesting that new games can get away with so much less in a setting where personal characters matter even more.

Mountaineering:

There were a lot of invisible walls. How the game decided which relatively flat boulders the player can scramble onto was unclear and frustrating. Henry rappelled with his bare hands. Most of the “unclimbable” rappel points were easily scalable scree slopes.

(Geology Rant: The shoshone range, especially Thorofare creek where the game is set, is volcanoclastic strata, plutons, and sandstone. In game a rappel slope was called shale. This use of language betrays writers who know only through association rather than experience.)

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Plot:

While the plot was interesting, it became clear that the player’s choices had no bearing on the run of events. This was probably to minimize effort in technical considerations, and the result is very weak. Why give the player a choice at all if they’re just a spectator? Some choices had tiny, superficial effects, like the image in a diary entry or the name of a fire, but players want to choose things that affect the game world; that is the point of a game: the player affects it by playing. All choices in beginning sequence, reporting encounter with teens, not starting the observation station fire, and asking to meet Delilah were meaningless because the game decided it needed certain events to happen to satisfy their tension devices and story arc. Writing multiple plots is challenging, but this would have been the distinguishing feature that would have made a good game an excellent game.

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Review: Axiom Verge

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Rather than embody the abstract principles that make metroidvania games so excellent, Axiom Verge strangles itself in thematic pretension and mindless stylistic imitation. Though I would not assert a game must do something completely new to be creative and good, this game’s method of imitation (the term “formulaic copying” would be more accurate) lacks all freshness and heart.

Gameplay:

2D gameplay must develop from a set of basic ideas in superposition with one another to create interest and natural difficulty. The main basic “ideas” in Axiom Verge are player position, enemy position, and 8-directional shooting. The enemies move in extremely rational ways such as circumambulating platforms to frustrate the player’s jumping, bouncing off walls at right angles, and bouncing down from the ceiling to hit the player. Although these ideas in themselves aren’t so bad or necessarily boring, Axiom Verge expects players to only face one behavior at a time, leading to exceptionally dull gameplay. Super Metroid, a good game that uses the same axioms, pits players against a mixture of these behaviors to lead to a stimulating but fair challenge. These behaviors were created to respond to the simplicity of AI available in the SNES; if a modern game really wanted players to face only one behavior at a time, it could create more interesting behaviors. At this, Axiom Verge fails as well; its more complicated enemies depend on speed and high-damage artificial difficulty to be challenging.  Even the bosses seem to be designed with the philosophy: “If it shoots bullets, it shoots a lot of bullets. If the battle is getting stressful at the end, just scale the bosses shooting speed.” It’s not hard. It’s not good gameplay. It’s trying desperately to prop up a feeble combat system.

The cornerstone of metroidvania design is the nonlinear opening of game space to the player through discovery of meaningful game mechanics. While space in Axiom Verge is opened up by upgrades, I would argue the game is not really metroidvania; the upgrades bear very little on the gameplay, and do little but to let you pass the new formulaic gimmick of a barricade, and although the world is nonlinear, its topology and upgrade path is designed as if from a minimal diagram the game developer scribbled down. The whole point of nonlinear world design is to provide the experience of freedom and exploration, but Axiom Verge rarely affords the player a chance to explore; instead a player might peek into an area and immediately realize this one of two choices is not traversable with current “Axiom Disruptors,” and walk the other way.

(Semantic Rant: Axiom Disruptor is the game’s name for guns. The game’s story centers around a glitch, a broken rule, a disrupted axiom of the game world, which might be more aptly titled an axiom disruptor. The fact that the guns do damage is an axiom in itself; the guns aren’t disrupting axioms, they’re disrupting an enemy’s existence! This game is so full of itself it can’t even think.)

Art:

Axiom Verge is very proud of its NES palette pixel art. Unfortunately, the art is both weak and compromised. The screen size is so giant that the pixels become basically irrelevant to the game’s appearance; the nearly monochromatic color schemes of the levels looks more like a pink mess than a tight, communicative, and abstract NES game.

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Metroid

 

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The game props up its pixel art with other effects such as little distortions or destruction particle effects that end up looking more like confetti than carefully crafted graphics. The pixel art sprites themselves are not especially well crafted – their messy, heavy dithering looks almost as if was created to be viewed under a bilinear filter and not really be pixel art at all.

Music:

How are we supposed to engage with this poor, trapped, scared protagonist while listening to this rhythmically bland, melodically goofy pseudo 8-bit squealing? This perhaps more than anything else crushes all stakes and sense of being in an alien, disgustingly organic yet digital world.

Writing:

Axiom Verge’s unintellectual gameplay, level design, and music maybe could still be fun if the game didn’t insist it was so damn serious. Yes, we get the idea that axioms are the foundation of a reality, even a virtual reality; this is not revolutionary, and not as profound as this game would like to think. The ponderous and idiotic dialogue (coming from Trace, supposedly the greatest mind in the world) shatters any connection a player may have with the protagonist or world by trying to heavy-handedly tell the player what to think and feel.

“Trace, there is … gun …in next room. You must get it.”

“Wait, what’s going on here? Who are you? … Hello? Where am I? Is the gun that lady just mentioned, or did I just imagine her?”

“You must go now, before he finds you?”

“Before WHO finds me? … I guess she’s gone again.”

This is insulting to the player’s capacity for judgement. When the dialogue fills all the space for speculation, there is nothing left for the player to think, wonder, or feel.

Although Metroid is an excellent game worthy of immitation, Axiom Verge copies concretes from Metroid without understanding or incorporating the Metroid “gestalt.” Don’t waste your time on Axiom Verge, unless you want to learn how not to design a game.Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 4.02.51 PM.png

Sorry Tom.