February 17, 2018

Celeste Is a Very Interesting Failure

After the game frenzy of 2017, I'm glad to report that, a month and a half into the new year, the rate of new, interesting games coming out has been considerably lower than in the parallel time period of last year. I can't blame anyone for wanting to stagger their game's release now: I wouldn't want to follow the year of Night In the Woods, Mario Odyssey and The New Colossus, either. And yet, three brave titles have stepped up to attempt to grab the gaming public's attention at this early time of January-February: Iconoclasts, Celeste and Dandara

I've yet to play Iconoclasts, although I fully intend to, and I've only just started Dandara. But I've already put a considerable amount of time into Celeste and it's... not very good, is it?

This is the point where I usually give the obligatory spiel about how I didn't dislike Celeste because of its difficulty, but this seems unnecessary this time, because, for a change, the Good Gamer brigade did not come out to defend this game from any possible criticism. My assumption is that they tried to reconcile the need to attack any game with a female protagonist with the need to defend any game proclaimed difficult and their little heads exploded from the contradiction du machisme.

Having said that, I... actually don't think the game is that hard? It's certainly not easy, but I don't see this stumping any seasoned platformer veteran. Much like with last year's Cuphead, it's one of those games that provide a healthy, well-balanced challenged, although I... really don't think there's any point in rising up to it. 
My biggest problem with Celeste is that I just don't buy it. I don't mean the game itself I did buy that, and on the Nintendo eShop too, so it was pretty expensive. But I don't buy the setup of this game. With other games that sell themselves on extreme difficulty or on trial-and-error, the punishment and the grind always fits in with the world the games inhabit. Super Meat Boy was cute, but you were playing a constantly-bleeding meat-person who was fighting an evil fetus. Hotline Miami is all about nasty, casual brutality, in both setting and gameplay. 

But I just don't buy these cute characters, taken straight from a Scandinavian children's cartoon, as actors in a world full of evil, death and precision platforming. I don't. And although the tone of the game does get progressively darker, it's still, at least until the point where I fell off - around the end of chapter 5 - a wild, wild contrast that is never properly bridged. 

And even though the game never sat right with me on this level, I decided to just go with it, hoping I didn't just pay eShop prices for a game that I really didn't find all that remarkable. But what really pushed me off, what really drove me up the wall, is when the game needlessly locks you out of previous areas. 

To explain why this is so annoying, I have to explain some things about collectibles in Celeste. Celeste has, as far as I could tell, four types of collectibles: red hearts, blue hearts, cassettes ("b-sides") and - the most common - strawberries. I won't get into the first three, but strawberries are basically collectibles that you get by going off the beaten path and completing challenges more demanding that those you need to just get through a level. 
It's an attempt to give what appears to be a pretty short game more longevity, but I find that often, this sort of thing does the exact opposite. I'd argue that carefully labeling the exact extra things a player can do puts one into a frame of mind where, once you get all of the collectibles, you've gotten everything you can out of the game. I can think of very few games with collectibles that I didn't stop playing altogether once I got all the collectibles. It's almost a guarantee that I will only play a game once.

But even putting that aside, Celeste has this infuriating habit of locking you out of areas without so much as a warning, meaning that every time you go past what the game has decided is a cut-off point, if you realize you missed some strawberries in the last section, you actually have to go back to the level select screen and start the whole section again just to get one strawberry the game indicates you missed near the end. 

And this doesn't always even happen by choice. What finally led me to be done with this game is when an enemy explosion sent me to the next room prematurely, with a strawberry still in plain sight in the room before, and with no option of going back. And yes, the game does tell you that you don't have to pick every single strawberry up. But the truth of is, much of the challenge and the fun I've had with the game was when I was trying to pick up strawberries. Just getting through the game's main path felt, to be frank, a bit dull. 

And that's a shame, because the plot bits up to that point really started to hint at much more interesting things coming up. Celeste is not the name of the game's protagonist, who's named Madeline, but of the mountain that she is climbing. At first it seems like just a random game premise, but very soon it becomes clear that the mountain climb is an analogy to Madeline's need for a challenge, to prove something to herself, to overcome her own inner demons. 
Along the way there are also some interesting characters - an old woman who speaks in ominous tones, the ghost of an abandoned hotel's owner, and most importantly, Theo, a professional photographer who came to the mountain in search of the ultimate photo opportunity. Theo's dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy at times, and I hate it in general when media tries to be super-hip with lame social media references - Theo keeps mentioning his "InstaPix" account, and often speaks in hashtags - and in niche video games, one should really know better. But as a character, Theo is mostly charming, likable, and provides some much needed emotional respite from the intensity of some of the rest of the mountain's inhabitants.

He's also black, which is probably another reason why the Good Gamers are nowhere to be seen. 

When Celeste is good, it's pretty good. It's cute, visually pleasing, and the satisfaction from figuring out how to get to a seemingly impossible to reach strawberry is certainly there. It's just a shame that the game chose to be so obtuse and so inconceivably badly designed at points that the best compliment I could give it is that I found it very interesting to try and analyze just how wrong it all went. 

Well, that's enough of that.

January 23, 2018

The Psycho Mantis Video Game Awards 2017

Oh hey there! I never mentioned I have a YouTube channel now, did I? I should probably uh, put my videos up here as well. Oh well! Here's my yearly roundup of the best and worst of the games of last year, and feel free to browse the rest of the channel as well while you're at it, why doncha. See you around!

October 11, 2017

Cuphead Isn't the Dark Souls of Anything Because Dark Souls Isn't Fucking Boring

Sometimes I wonder if my efforts to stay on top of new video game releases are time well spent on my part. Not only do I work a full time job, while trying to maintain a decent output of music, game analysis videos and occasional writing, but I also own so many video games already that I would love to play again. Hell, just last month I played Final Fantasy VII for the bazillionth time to prepare for my 20-year video retrospective of it, and I had the time of my life.

On the other hand, we live in a fantastic time for games. Almost every year adds a new video game to the list of my all-time favorites. Downwell, Undertale, DOOM, Yakuza 0, just to give a few examples, are games I absolutely adore, and I would never have heard of most of them if I didn't follow game releases closely and forced myself to play most of the ones that seem interesting.

I write about games because I love thinking about them about as much, if not more, than I love playing them. This year has been especially good for that. Take Night In the Woods, Hollow Knight, and the recently released Cuphead. These games have something in common, other than each having a gorgeous, unique visual style. Each one also inspired a very specific thought in me as I played them. 
Night In the Woods made me think about alienation, about the impossibility of being comfortable where you grew up once you move away, about how we can maintain our relationships with family and childhood friends as we mature - and how sometimes, we just shouldn't.

Hollow Knight made me think about the nature of struggle, about the ways in which we can deal with ruin, with failure, with overwhelming odds. (And also about how I hate that little delay between moving and jumping, for fuck's sake.)

Cuphead put a far simpler, for less pretentious thought in my head. Cuphead simply constantly had me thinking: why am I doing this?

And I do mean that literally. Why was I playing this game?
Now, I realize Cuphead is the latest instrument for a certain sad group of losers to mock and belittle others in the service of building up their own fragile male ego, and so, obviously any criticism of Cuphead - no matter its content - will be dismissed as being made on the basis of not being good at the game. I will, however, say for the record that I did not find Cuphead needlessly difficult. Mind you, I'm not saying it's easy - I think it provides a well-balanced and healthy challenge for people who like hectic action games. 

Difficulty isn't why I disliked Cuphead. I disliked it because it's just SO. DAMN. BORING. It's also why I haven't touched it after finishing the first island, and never will. In fact, all the images in this post are from the game's press kit, because I cannot stand to devote a single minute more to the game than I already have by playing it and writing this post. 

Once you ignore Cuphead's frankly stupid plot, its premise is quite simple: you access levels from a world map, each one either a platforming level where you fight a set of normal enemies, or a boss level, which consists solely of the boss itself. If there are more types of levels, I do not know, nor do I care to. 
Platforming levels are simple affairs, and you can probably get through them without too much difficulty. The real challenge of these levels is to collect coins, which are sometimes hard to reach, and which are required to buy upgrades in the overworld store. 

Collecting the harder-to-reach coins often relies on a game mechanic called "parrying", which is really nothing of the kind. Parrying, a-la Cuphead, is when you press a button when your character is about to collide, mid-jump, with a pink object - any pink object will do - at which point your character will perform a mid-air jump. Why this maneuver exists, I cannot tell you. It probably helps to build up your special attack meter - I can't remember and will not bother to check - but it's a trivial move to carry out in the platforming levels, and in the boss levels, where it's usually more challenging, just seems unnecessary. Why would I risk getting hit for such a minor advantage? It makes more sense to avoid the shot and keep firing at the boss. I can hardly understand the inclusion of this mechanic, and I struggle to justify its name except as an excuse to invite comparisons to Dark Souls - as if the internet needs those.

If we've already gotten into it, the bosses are where it's at in Cuphead, to the extent that anything is there at all. But something about the boss fights is just... off. They start and end with such little fanfare that there's no feeling of dread when a fight starts, nor is there a feeling of achievement when they fall. They feel as paper-thin as the material they were masterfully drawn on. 

Cuphead's poor audio-visual feedback in general makes everything lack impact. Shooting in the game makes really a lame sound, meant to be zany, for sure, but which serves as a poor method of making the game feel fun. It also feels unnecessary because, for the most part, shooting is just holding down a button. It rarely requires any skill, any aiming whatsoever, so I found myself mostly just keeping the button pressed and concentrating more on dodging incoming attacks. How do you make a run and gun game where using your gun feels so... meh? 
And how, indeed, do you make a game that looks like Cuphead so boring? Because, I have to stress, the art style in the game is amazing, truly beautiful to behold. But Cuphead is a stark reminder that visuals alone are not enough. Games need to feel tactile. Mechanics need to feel like they have weight. Combat needs to feel like something is at stake. And none of this is anywhere to be found in Cuphead

So, for all the drama opportunist shitlords have already created, Cuphead is really not worth all the attention. It's a mediocre affair with really good graphics. And if you want those, just watch a cartoon. For my part, I'm not going to score Cuphead, even though this is practically a review, because to justify a score I would need to spend more time with it, which I simply have no intention of ever doing. 

It's just not worth the effort.

August 6, 2017

Tacoma Review

AI Justice Warrior

Here's a story you've heard a thousand times before: it is the future. A very powerful corporation is obviously evil, but presents itself as a force for good. Things aren't what they seem, and there is a conspiracy to hide this fact. Also, is AI the same as human consciousness? Is it dangerous? Should it have the same rights as us?

Tacoma is full of such overused sci-fi cliches, and in lesser hands, it would be just another throwaway story about the evils of technology. But thanks to clever storytelling, informed by social consciousness and masterful character development, Tacoma manages to rise above the tropes and actually say new and interesting things about its well-treaded subject matter. The result is an exceptionally effective and touching plot-driven game - one whose more cringe-inducing moments are easy to forgive. 
Developer: Fullbright
Publisher: Fullbright
Release Date: August 2, 2017
MSRP: 19.99$
Rig: Intel i5-4440 @ 3.10GHz
Zotac GeForce GTX 980 Ti AMP! Extreme

Tacoma is the second release by developer Fullbright, a studio known for the critically acclaimed 2013 game Gone Home, a game that. despite my best intentions, I simply could not stand. I thought its writing was amateur and that attention to detail was distributed in the worst way possible. It was a game where you could pick up every pen and kitchen utensil, but you couldn't have a single meaningful interaction with the world the developers built. 

You can still pick up a lot of random stuff in Tacoma, but this time around, we are allowed to do more than idly admire the well-crafted environments. To those not familiar with the studio's work, Tacoma is a walking simulator, a game devoid of the battle and puzzle mechanics of more traditional games which instead focuses on story and characters. A lot of games in the genre, Gone Home included, are content to let you walk around and pick up data logs that slowly unravel a story. But Tacoma takes a far more interesting approach to its storytelling. As contractor Amy Ferrier, you have been hired to investigate the events that transpired aboard the titular space station, which lost its oxygen supply, with the status of the crew members unknown. With AI Minny, which supplies us with what is probably the best and most criminally underutilized vocal performance of this year, and a device that looks kinda like a fancy 3DS, you are sent to Tacoma to retrieve whatever data remains in the station's systems.

This is done by examining captured security footage of the station's crew, but rather than regular video logs, you will be examining Augmented Reality records - letting you view events as they happened in their actual locations on the ship.
This mechanic - reminiscent of the detective cases from Arkham Origins, only good - isn't a simple gimmick, but integral to the storytelling. By pausing, rewinding and following different characters, the player can experience events from different perspectives, and find out more about the various crew members. Sometimes this allows you to fulfill a very practical need, like following a specific character to learn how to progress to a different location; sometimes it is used to establish characters and relationships, for example, by allowing you to view two characters in more intimate circumstances. Either way, it is always highly rewarding to experience all aspects of a particular scene. 

While watching AR footage, there will be times when crew members view their AR desktop, a sort of computer screen projected in front of them. This allows players to look through messages and other bits of information appearing on-screen, revealing more about the interactions between crew members, as well as the outside world - including families still waiting on Earth for their loves ones' return. Being reminded that characters have a life outside the confines of the station not only makes them feel all the more real, but also make the dangerous situation they find themselves in feel even more real.

The AR aspects are a fresh way of telling a game story, one that I don't doubt other games in the genre will iterate on in the coming years. But Tacoma, as befits a game by Fullbright, is much more than its mechanics. Gone Home was a topic of conversation due in no small part to its positive and realistic portrayal of LGBT characters, and Tacoma builds on this tradition while also presenting a cast diverse in terms of gender, race and religion. While not much is made of these differences, they do play a part, from things subtle as books found in one crew member's quarters, to a request by another to commemorate the genocide his family survived. These cultural aspects are strong enough to be noticed without being in any way stereotypical or cartoonish, as they have often been portrayed in lesser works.
But above all, Tacoma excels in touching on an aspect few works, informed by political liberalism, ever dare approach: class. Tacoma's main characters aren't high-ranking, "enlightened" executives, but working class people, ultimately victimized by an economic system that values profits over their lives. Its cast includes the type of working people you are likely to meet in either a factory or office environment: the rebellious professional, the union militant, the company man (and it is usually a man) seeking to ingratiate himself to upper management, complete with the sort of smarmy, cringe-inducing humor that comes with the territory, the admin worker trying to do her best despite the situation - they're all there, and they're all portrayed realistically, but also compassionately. Everyone will have different preferences when it comes to the cast members, but I doubt that by the time Tacoma's end credits role, anyone will have any genuine hate for any of them.

Sadly, this is also where I feel Tacoma's story falls a bit flat. Tacoma has been praised for presenting a world where oppression on the basis of identity no longer exists, but where working people are still victimized by capitalism. I do not believe one is possible without the other, and some would say that that is my view, and I shouldn't let it take away from my enjoyment of the game. Here's my problem: I come from a country where there is a staggering amount of workplace accidents in construction sites - over 50 deaths per year, which is more than 5 times than the amount of workers who die in workplace accidents in any other field of work. For comparison's sake, proportionally, that would be as if almost 2000 construction workers a year died in the US, about two times the actual figure (which is already alarmingly high). The reason for this is simple: an acute lack of safety inspectors enforcing regulations. The reason for the lack of inspectors? While one cannot say for sure, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Israeli construction workers are overwhelmingly Palestinians and Eastern European and Central Asian immigrants.

Tacoma has all the correct parts: a racially diverse workplace, a focus on working class people, and a story condemning capitalism for being callous with their lives. It just neglected to put these pieces together. And although I am impressed that Tacoma's story is so good and deep, far beyond what one can usually expect of video games, that I am even able to make this criticism, it is still a significant and disappointing weakness. If anything, its focus on the "oppression" of AI and whether or not they should have the same rights as humans smacks of the sort of timidness of games that discuss racism purely through the prism of the  oppression of elves or dwarves.
But while this weakness should be noted, it should not prevent anyone from giving Tacoma a chance. For aside from this point and some admittedly weak writing, as well as some wonky visuals - the limits of Unity, its defenders' protests notwithstanding, are quite apparent - Tacoma is not only a vast improvement over Gone Home, but a brave and refreshing story-focused game from a consistently brave studio. We deserve more stories of this caliber in games of this level of quality.

Final Score: 8/10

July 1, 2017

NieR: Automata and the Player-Character Dissonance

I was never really excited about NieR: Automata, not when it was first revealed, not when it was released, not even at any point playing it. But people I respect raved so much about the story that I had to check it out, and while I agree that it has interesting ideas, I... don't think they resulted in a good video game story. 

This video explains my disappointment with NieR: Automata, mostly through the prism of a single, early-game episode that I feel encapsulates Automata's approach to storytelling. However, be aware that there are clips from and allusions to later parts of the game as well, so be careful if you're worried about spoilers. 

There's also major spoilers for The Last of Us, and some really minor ones for Deus Ex (2000). 

Special thanks to reddit users Machinax and Aeratus for helping track down that one data log, and generally giving me a very pleasant first impression of the Deus Ex subreddit and reddit in general.

Also, I really apologize for the inconsistent voice-over quality. Never change your mic setup and then have no idea how to change it back in the middle of making a video, kids. 

Research Notes

Before I rushed to claim the term "Player-Character Dissonance" as my own, I tried sniffing around a bit. I did find a Pixel Scribe blog post discussing an unhyphenated "Player Character Dissonance", which is interesting, but seems unrelated; and a mention of an article discussing the hyphenated term in a blog post by The Astronauts. However, the link to the mentioned article is broken, and I have not managed to find any alternative source or archived version. A shame; the description makes it seem incredibly interesting.

April 19, 2017

I'd love to live in a world where Hollow Knight is "too familiar"

I quite like Rock Paper Shotgun and John Walker, but reading his Hollow Knight Impressions left me kinda puzzled. There's a lot I disagree with in the article, but the part that stood out the most to me was Walker's claim that the game is "too familiar". I feel like I either need to play the games Walker has been playing or smoke whatever he's been smoking, because, while it has its issues, I've played very few games of this level of quality.

Walker claims that Hollow Knight follows the Metroidvania formula too closely, and that it makes variations in the wrong places. Keeping in mind that innovation is often nothing but snake oil, these changes are exactly what make Hollow Knight stand out from other Metroidvanias. The need to consider abilities part of a loadout instead of a fixed addition to your arsenal, the tight, methodical combat, the way the game encourages exploration and finding your own path through the world - those are the things that make Hollow Knight very much a game of its own.

In fact, I feel like if Hollow Knight wasn't in 2D, far more people would recognize that it has more to do with - and please hear me out, because I know how terrible what I'm going to say is - Bloodborne. Not in terms of mechanics, but definitely in terms of lore and atmosphere. In fact, almost all the top comments on the article make the comparison to - sigh - Dark Souls. So it's not even me saying it, so I'm not a hack games writer or anything.

Not that the fact that something gets compared to Dark Souls proves anything. But in this case, if - and only if - we put mechanics aside, the comparison is apt.
So Walker decides that Hollow Knight belongs exclusively in a specific genre, finds its adherence to this restricted genre too strict, and then finds its variations lacking. To substantiate this, he compares the game to two other games, of which the two that I've played - Owlboy and Axiom Verge - are nothing like it in terms of mechanics or world-building (and are, in addition, quite dull). The whole critical approach just seems bizzare and misguided.

Having just finished Hollow Knight with 50 hours into it, I'll definitely say that it has its problems. Fast travel is minimal and awkward, so there's a lot of backtracking, and although this is more of a problem with me than the game, there are weird things to its action's rhythm that I never quite got used to. For example, sometimes using a special ability will allow you to move left and right, but not jump, which is a very weird and awkward limitation that nine out of ten times will make you crash straight into an enemy or a pit full of spikes.

Still, I'd say this is one of the finer games I've played in a while, perhaps the best Metroidvania I've played since the game that got that label started, Symphony of the Night.
The first thing you realize about Hollow Knight when you start playing is that oh my god, it actually looks like that. People who follow games are used to trailers looking much better than the end product, to the point where a lot of people will look at a game like Cuphead cynically, not believing the devs can actually deliver on the unique art style shown in promotional material. But Hollow Knight delivers, and my god is it amazing. It's like playing an animated movie of the highest quality, and as fashionable as it might be to say that graphics don't matter, I think art style and aesthetics can be as important a part of a game as anything else. Hollow Knight would still be a great game if it were ugly, but the way it looks adds so much.

The second thing you realize, after the first few bosses, is that this game is crushingly hard, mostly because it relies on a completely different skill set than the more obvious examples of challenging games. There are no combos, stamina or counters, and enemies rarely get stun-locked. Instead, surviving boss fights depends more on choosing the right loadout and carefully platforming around obstacles and attacks. It really takes the typical SotN combat to new places, and it's pretty glorious.

Trial of the Fool is still nonsense, though.

I'm not reviewing Hollow Knight - it was a total impulse buy, mostly due to it being an indie game and looking absolutely beautiful. But I felt like I had to write about it, because no one is talking about this game and that, to me, is downright criminal. Having done that, I'm now looking forward to reading Holly Jane Amareta's official Steam Shovelers review - you know, the hip new site everyone's talking about and where all the writers are really sexy.