FEZ Is A Good Good Game

Missing Richard Simmons Is A Podcast For 2017

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Thank god it’s over.

That was my first reaction when I listened to the final episode of Missing Richard Simmons. Part of the reason I felt that way is the current media landscape of endless sequels, prequels, new seasons and remakes. I felt glad that a story could be told over the course of 6 relatively brief episodes and simply end.

But that isn’t the real reason why I’m glad the whole thing is over. No, I’m glad it’s over because it was growing more and more difficult to listen to the show. From the beginning, Dan Taberski’s effort to dive into the mystery of Richard Simmons’ sudden retreat from the media spotlight teetered on a thin line between sincere adoration and prying selfishness. And it doesn’t end up landing in a place where I can feel okay with a lot of it, even if I admit that it entertained me.

The show positions itself as a mystery to be solved, much like Serial, but ultimately that was a ruse. The mystery itself — what happened to Richard Simmons? — is answered essentially right off the bat. Taberski could have accepted Richard’s most recent interviews as evidence that things are fine. Or he could have called Richard’s manager, gotten the answer that Richard was fine and decided not to make a media production of it.

Instead, Taberski forges ahead, veering back only when it becomes clear to him that he has gone way too far. Or at least that’s what he wants the audience to think. I mean, really, did it take him 6 episodes to think twice about all this? Wouldn’t badgering Richard’s brother without warning, showing up at the doorstep with recorder in hand have been enough to force some cognitive dissonance? In a conversation with Richard’s manager, Taberski asks for 5 minutes with the former workout guru despite the clear tone of the conversation and previous calls that ended very abruptly. Shouldn’t he have read the situation and pulled back? And what about following the masseuse’s story about Richard being held captive with virtually no details or rebuttals from the maid’s perspective? The journalistic burden to present both sides clearly wasn’t met.

But all these questionable actions are indicative of the podcasting landscape itself. Many of the podcasting companies pursuing narrative audio storytelling were born out of NPR’s nonpartisan creedo, but they are divorced from the ethical guidelines that have traditionally kept audio storytelling firmly within journalistic bounds. Even Serial, which came out of WBEZ, struggled to stay out of ethical quagmires as Sarah Koenig found herself addressing her own biases towards believing (or wanting to believe) Adnan’s side of Hae’s murder. MRS is decidedly un-journalistic, despite the fact that it tries to present an inherently investigative “mystery.”

And this gets to one of the biggest questions I think listeners will ask about this show: was there a point to Missing Richard Simmons? We essentially had the answer to the central question of the show in the first episode. Richard simply retreated from public life. He’s in his late 60s, spent most of his life giving a great deal to others and now he’s taking time for himself. But did we need 3 hours of storytelling to get to that point? Probably not, but the journey itself was compelling because of the need to explain.

And that need to explain, that need to take from Richard what we need to feel good about his story, becomes the central focus of MRS by the end of the last episode. Dan Taberski needed the podcast, we wanted the podcast and Richard certainly didn’t want anything to do with it. But by the end, Richard is subjected to checks by the LAPD because of the podcast’s influence and our need to find an acceptable “answer” to the mystery.

But what about the ending itself? Was it worth it? For us, the audience, it may or may not have been. We got a near-perverse view into a public figure who has purposefully retreated from public life and gained entertainment for 6 weeks. Did it hurt Richard in the process? Probably. Should we feel culpable in all this? I think so.

Did Taberski at least gain closure? It doesn’t seem like it, but then again, there really isn’t any to be had here. Maybe that was the greatest trick of this show. There was no ending to be had. Richard is still alive, but just isn’t giving his fans the ostentatious, exuberant send-off that they wanted.

Taberski’s reaction to all this — disbelief that Richard would just disappear, disbelief that there wasn’t an ending that would end with what he wanted — is why journalistic separation and the need to minimize harm is still important. Without a degree of separation, journalists cannot cover their subjects in a fair and ethical way.

Again though, this isn’t journalism with a capital-J. It never was. Missing Richard Simmons is one man trying to reach another through means that are dubious at best. Any attempt to explain that away or make it feel better is disingenuous at best. This is 2017 in a nutshell: we’re deep in the subjective. The traditional bastions of objectivity (journalism, science, establishment government) are all fractured and wounded. Why wouldn’t podcasting move away from these things as well?

More than anything, I was struck by the gut punch of the final two episodes: none of us, Taberski included, really know Richard Simmons. We like to think that we do because he was such a high-profile figure in Americana for so long, and Taberski likes to think so because he went to Richard’s gym. By those standards, millions of Americans have an intimate knowledge of the Kardashians, Brad and Angelina and Donald Trump.

And perhaps that’s the greatest lesson with MRS: You don’t know these people. You never did. You never will. 

 

 

Proteus Review

I’ve dreamt of a game like Proteus for many years. A game that plunks you down in a virtual world where your only task is to just exist. You look, listen, and just exist. No violence. No shooting. No context or explicit story arc. Just a little place that you get to observe and enjoy. This is arthouse gaming at its finest, taking up only as much time as it needs and nothing more.

In Proteus you experience the course of a year on a small, randomly generated island. Each season only gives maybe ten minutes of gameplay each, with weather, ambient music, and wildlife all changing as you progress. The natural beauty, if digital representations of nature and animals can be called natural, of this game is minimalist but profound. Chasing small pixelated frogs, listening to the digital plink plonk, plink plonk of a group of chickens, and gazing at a deep-blue, night sky are the kinds of little joys that Proteus has to offer. It is magical realism at its finest, evoking a sort of childish wonder at the strange details of this small biome of a world.

Saying anything more about this game would spoil it, so I’ll finish with this: play it. Take a trip into this enchanting space and see if you feel the same way that I do about it. It shows how far the indie scene has come that we can finally have these kinds of ambiguous, interactive experiences as well as the usual genre fixtures.

 

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to 2012’s tropical island survival romp, Far Cry 3. But beyond the name and a few core mechanics, Blood Dragon shares almost nothing else with its namesake. Instead of following a group of angsty, privileged white kids through hell and high water, this set of missions puts players in the role of Rex Power Colt. Rex spits the same kind of one-liners that you’d expect from Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and the world around him is bathed in CRT scan lines, nuclear fallout, and explosions. Blood Dragon is just the kind of unexpected project that I want to see more of in gaming, but it could have been much more focused and impressive with more development time.

In an alternate 2007 that could only come from a B-film of the 1980s, cyber soldier Rex is sent to an unnamed island to stop his former commander and his army of cyborgs from launching a host of nuclear warheads on the United States. But really, who gives a damn? This is action flick schlock; full of awful dialogue, cheesy synth-rock, and absurd humor. The aesthetic, while ridiculous, is Blood Dragon’s greatest strength. Jamming out to a bumping beat in an underground base, mowing down dozens of cyborg enemies with RoboCop’s pistol while Rex’s partner Spider yells, “Fuck yeah!” works surprisingly well. You can’t take any of it seriously, or else you’ll see just how nonsensical it all really is.

That is sort of a double-edged sword though, as examining any individual design choice or joke too closely threatens to fold the entire facade. Why exactly does Rex throw a D20 to distract guards? Why did the female lead just try to make an acronym for the word “fuck”? Why is Rex seemingly confused about everything anyone ever tells him? And what about the titular Blood Dragons? Why in the world did the designers decide that laser shooting cyber-T-Rexes would really mesh with a 1980s action theme? I just don’t know. The sense of humor present in Blood Dragon feels half baked at its best, completely unfunny at its worst.

Despite the particulars of the story and characters not really gelling with the overall premise, Blood Dragon iterates on enough of the core Far Cry 3 mechanics to make the 6 hour experience interesting. Now instead of unleashing Bengal Tigers on unsuspecting pirates, you can lure Blood Dragons to enemy encampments to do the dirty work for you. Or you can waltz in the front door with a minigun and mow everything down in a hale of hot lead and explosions. Oh, but you’re not the explosive type? Well you can always use the fantastic stealth takedown system that Far Cry 3 so ingeniously introduced. Having this many ways to interact with encounters reinforces just how much variety the folks at Ubisoft Montreal packed into both the original game and Blood Dragon.

As long as you don’t question Blood Dragon’s schizoid sense of humor, you’ll find plenty to like in this homage to 1980s home VHS action. I just wish the developers had taken a few more months to revise and edit some of the questionable dialogue and humor. But I can’t complain too much when I consider the fact that this could have been a crappy multiplayer expansion that required the original game to run. More big developers and publishers should learn from the risks taken here, and improve with just a bit more time and consideration.

All image credits go to the respective Giantbomb community members who posted them to Giantbomb.com. 

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review: Ain’t No Fortunate One

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune strikes me as Naughty Dog’s coming of age project. Though the Santa Monica based studio has been around for over 20 years, most of their games have been cartoony, lighthearted platformers with little in the way of story. So it is sort of weird playing a serious action-adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones from the same folks who brought us Crash Bandicoot.

That doesn’t mean that Uncharted is completely different from the studio’s earlier efforts; the DNA strands of Naughty Dog’s PS1 and PS2 classics are clearly here. But the game struggles to find a good balance of combat and character throughout. Uncharted ends up as a good launchpad for a series of globe trotting adventures, despite being a mess in terms of gameplay.

We open with treasure hunting protagonist Nathan Drake and broadcast reporter Elena Fisher reeling in a coffin from the Panamanian Coast floor. The box supposedly holds Sir Francis Drake’s remains, and Nate believes himself to be one of the Elizabethan privateer’s descendants. But when Nate and Elena crack open the casket, there is nothing but Sir Francis’s diary. Drake is elated, for this diary records all of Sir Francis’s adventures and treasures; namely, the location of El Dorado. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark however, there is another faction vying for Drake’s diary. A competing treasure hunter named Gabriel Roman sends a legion of pirates after Nate, Elena, and their money obsessed partner Sully to capture the diary and find El Dorado.

And so opens the 8-10 hour adventure wherein you’ll shoot countless pirates, navigate through swamps, jungles, and ancient ruins, and watch some of the best cutscenes in the business. For a game released in 2007, Uncharted still looks good, with some great facial and motion captured animation. There are tons of little effects on display like Nate’s shirt only getting wet up to the point where water actually touches it instead of a binary wet or not wet state. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s visual artists and programmers that this game still holds up in purely graphical terms.

But, as the old nerd’s proverb tells time and time again, graphics do not a good game make. Back when it was originally released, Uncharted dropped right in the middle of the post-Gears of War boom of third-person, cover based shooters that altered the course of the genre. And at least it tries to hit all mechanics that Gears did. Hit a button to stick to cover? Check. Two weapon slots plus a grenade? Yep. Rolling dodge move and ability to vault over cover points to the next cover point? Done and done.

Beyond the initial layer of imitation, Uncharted’s gameplay fails to capitalize on anything further. Enemy encounters are stacked stupidly against the player; dozens of pirates will flood from a single point, and when they are all taken care of, another wave comes out to beleaguer the player to the point of frustration. These enemies start easy enough, perhaps taking more shots than you’d like, but it isn’t too hard to get the upper hand. But somewhere around the second half of the game, enemies become Herculean in their ability to take and deal punishment. Ammo becomes scarce at the same time, making any missed shot a severe blow to your progression.

These factors aren’t insurmountable individually, but the last third of the game starts to join them in a sort of perverse concert. A late game encounter in a cathedral stacks nearly a dozen enemies with one-shot-kill weapons against Nate and Sully. Banish any notion from your head that Sully may support you; like so many other games, his AI doesn’t include being able to do anything other than wisecrack occasionally. It has been a long time since I’ve had to put the game on “Easy” difficulty because I could not progress through some fights. But no matter how conservatively I played, the pirates nearly always had an advantage. I seriously contemplated putting the game down for good at many points.

There is also a startling amount of ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted. Nate is supposed to be the flawed, but good-hearted protagonist, but he also kills hundreds of people in order to plunder ruins and temples. The mechanical ability that the player has at their fingertips is in stark contrast to Nate’s everyman image that the story conveys. He is always on the cusp of danger, but never incurs any damage or consequences. This wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the characters weren’t so well written and acted. As it is though, It felt strange killing every brown person in sight and then segueing into a cutscene where Nate is cracking wise.

Despite this, I found myself compelled to finish Uncharted because of the characters and the popcorn flick, action-adventure vibe; Elena and Sully are great supporting characters, and Nate is as charming a rogue as any. Elena is particularly noteworthy for being a really strong female lead. At no point did she feel like a damsel in distress or a hopeless fawn; she knows how to take care of herself, and tells the player as much. The game’s story did start to lose me in the final chapters due to an ill conceived supernatural twist. The game forces you to fight against mutated Nazi-Gollums for nearly two hours, and it just feels out of place. Not only are those enemies overpowered, but they break down what was up to that point a semi-believable storyline.

Another area of Uncharted that just doesn’t have quite enough polish is the climbing and platforming elements. Sure, I got a little rush of nostalgia when the camera pulled in front of Nate and forced a Crash Bandicoot-esque running sequence. But I also found myself frequently missing jumps even when I was squared exactly in front of a ledge. It is also difficult to differentiate what is a grabbable ledge and what isn’t. It isn’t always an issue, but it happens enough to add just a hint more annoyance on top of the gunplay.

Uncharted is definitely a product of the early years of this console generation, and has not aged well. So many other games have done gunplay and linear platforming better in recent years that it is hard to make it through. Everything but the story and characters could’ve used just a few more months of refinement and attention. To be fair, this game is dirt cheap now, but bad gameplay is bad gameplay regardless of price. I would recommend just watching this edited version of the game’s cutscenes and skip to Uncharted 2. You’ll save yourself about six hours time and lots of frustration if you do.

Journey Review: One Way Trip

With thatgamecompany’s first two games, the Los Angeles based developer established some serious arthouse cred. Both flOw (2007) and Flower (2009) used the Playstation’s Sixaxis motion control to create some minimal, ethereal experiences. Their latest game Journey doesn’t follow suit with motion controls, but it does continue the developer’s goal of creating airy, emotionally driven games. What Journey lacks in substance, it makes up for with pure feeling.

As a robed Bedouin figure in a vast desert, your goal in Journey is, well, to make a journey. It starts simple and remains so for the entire two-and-a-half hour pilgrimage. A large mountain in the distance soon becomes your goal, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the endless dunes. This becomes the crux of the narrative as you weave through ruined highways and grand halls. What will happen when you get to the mountain? Well the game doesn’t give up any sort of answer before the very end, and only conveys story through intermittent cutscenes that feature absolutely no dialogue.

As you make your way forward, the loneliness of the desert can be a little harrowing. If you are playing online however, you’ll occasionally run into other players making their own way to the mountain. It is random, there is no way to contact the other person besides a chirping sound that you can make, and there is no guarantee that the other player will stay with you. But when they do, it adds a sense of companionship that changes the entire dynamic of the game. You’re sharing this experience with another person in a very restricted, yet powerful way.

Besides walking rather slowly forward, sliding down dunes, and chirping incessantly, players are given a kind of gliding ability that can only be used when charged up via magical pieces of cloth. These little scraps of cloth often serve as markers for which way you’re supposed to go, and also lead to some of the more impressive moments in the game. An early puzzle has you reconstruct a bridge made entirely of the stuff, and then lets you fly over it in a wide arc. These moments of elation pop up between much solemnity, and give the game much of its emotional appeal.

At all times, Journey is a beautiful game despite not pushing a huge amount of polygons. Sand blows across the land like a golden ocean, and the entire aesthetic is sort of like a mosque drawn in a cel shaded style. The game makes liberal use of pink, maroon, gold, and even cooler tones as you move through the world. The soundtrack supports this style even further, with long, buzzing cello pulls that reinforce the isolated vastness of the desert. But in moments of joy and excitement a full orchestral ensemble blends in naturally.

You aren’t likely to spend more than a few hours at most playing Journey, but if you’re into the minimalist indie scene, you’ll be very glad to have spent that time with it. I can see how it would be too barren for some to appreciate; I fully admit that what story is here isn’t well explained. But the point is to feel your way through the game. To get caught up in the moments that the designers have carefully crafted. If you can’t get into it, then I don’t know what would pierce your cynical soul.

Journey is available only on the PSN for PS3. All screenshot credit goes to thatgamecompany’s own selection of screenshots available via their website.

A Short Review of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving

“Cinematic experience,” is a common phrase in the game critic’s repertoire, but I’m not convinced that it should always be connoted with merit. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has deep roots in anime and action movie cinematography, but often at the expense of player control. Cutscenes can go on for nearly a half hour without any player input, which often makes me wonder why the game wasn’t just a CGI film.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are the antitheses of that design philosophy; shining examples of how to pull off cinematic qualities in a video game without compromising player agency. Chung experiments with jump cuts, montage, on-screen text, and nonlinear narrative in ways that some bigger studios could benefit from.

From the first greeting horn blast of Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena”, Gravity Bone presents itself as a sort of 1960 spy flick crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Though the visuals are based in the Quake II engine, Chung’s modding resulted in an amazingly simple, but gorgeous art style. Characters all have the same cheese-cube on a stick physique and the color palette is predominantly golds and browns. Despite the abstraction, this wood panel filled throwback feels appropriate to the time period it is trying to evoke.

It’s a world where everything looks like it was made from wood and metal, not plastic. It’s a place where a tape recorder with actual film stock gives you instructions on how to carry out your mission, and works well to steep players in the vibes put out by Mr. Cugat’s Latin swing. This is also a technically good looking game of its time, with plenty of lighting tricks that bathe the world in plenty of colors and contrast.

While the art style and audio are immediately in your face and bombastic, the narrative remains minimal and purposefully vague. More is learned through flashback montages than any exposition. In fact, most of story is something the player gets to kind of fill in with their own imagination.

You’ll probably wonder, “Am I supposed to be playing as some sort of corporate espionage agent?” Well I certainly felt so, but Brendon Chung never programmed anything in the game to make me outright know that I was. All I knew was that a cutscene (appropriately shown as a slide projector series) told me that my first mission pleased my “clients”, so I knew I had to be a fix-it man of some sort.

This is something that some people are going to hate. They are going to hate that the game is only about a twenty minutes long, and they are going to hate its experimental, art-house energy. And it only gets worse in Thirty Flights of Loving, which is about half as long and twice as willing to take risks.

Which makes it the better of the two in my opinion. For all its amazing atmosphere, plethora of unique art assets, and mysterious story beats, Gravity Bone has one platforming section that I kept messing up because I didn’t know where exactly the edge of the platform and my feet met. It feels much more like a traditional first-person-shooter (not that you’ll be shooting anyone) with some unorthodox story beats packaged around it. Thirty Flights makes no such mistake, instead making jump cuts, montage, and uncertain narrative the main feature.

Instead of forcing players through long walkways and platforming sequences or backstories that are relegated to “quest logs” that you’ll never check, Chung cuts out most traversal–which is crazy if you consider that first-person shooter lineage practically demands plenty of time spent in corridors full of nothing–and there is nary a dialogue interrogation ala Mass Effect in sight. Any part of the game that could be considered slow, or god forbid boring, is simply made into a jump cut, and players simply jump forward in time. And player interaction with the two supporting characters is told through flashback and small character moments.

Short montages let you know that your female companion is a sharpshooter, but what is she sharpshooting? And for whom? Likewise, your other buddy is the best man at a wedding, but you only see the after party (which is one of the game’s highlights because of its great use chronology) and you don’t really know anything that’s going on. Again, like Gravity Bone, you are set loose in a set of often non-linear events that give you just enough to make a story out of it.

Thirty Flights is a much different looking game than Gravity Bone as well, if only because of the color palette. Pinks, reds, oranges, blues; this is the kind of stuff that makes you balk at Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War (which I do enjoy despite its gray tones). Technically, perhaps this isn’t quite as stunning as Gravity Bone was back when it was first released in 2008. Still, Chung gets plenty of mileage out of the quirky design.

To continue detailing both these games would be getting into dangerous spoiler territory considering that they are both only about a half hour in total length. So I’ll leave this review with this: buy these games. Soak in the collective 30 minutes of gameplay and enjoy the feeling of existing in these rich vignettes. If you aren’t into the whole, “games as art,” thing, then perhaps you won’t enjoy you time with Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. But if you are that person, you probably aren’t searching WordPress for blog reviews of them anyways.

The Top 10 Games of 2012

A few months late, but I couldn’t resist posting the list of games that I loved the most this past year. Cheers!

2012’s 2011 Game of the Year:
Dark Souls: Beating this game filled me with triumph like few other things have, but that feeling wasn’t lasting. Upon being thrust into the New Game + mode directly after beating the final boss in Dark Souls, I promptly put down the controller and mourned the fleeting closure that had been given to me just moments before. I love this game, but fuck this game. One of 2011’s best for sure.

Honorable Mention:
FTL: I can’t really put FTL on my list because I simply haven’t played enough. It seems like a superb rouge-like space simulator, but I haven’t even come close to even getting halfway to the end yet. Perhaps this will be a contender for 2013’s 2012 Game of the Year if I get around to playing more of it.

And now, the list:

  1. XCOM: What a game. What a game-ass game. Managing an alien-war task force from top to bottom is appropriately difficult in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But it can also be incredibly rewarding when your squad of elite soldiers (named after your friends and family in real life of course) take down half a dozen arachnoid Chrysalids due to your tactical decision making. I never thought this style of strategy gaming would work on consoles; surely the now defunct XCOM shooter would’ve been a much easier sell in the shooter rich environment that is AAA game development. But no, Firaxis made a hell of a game that totally eclipses that other project. Play this is if you haven’t already.

 

  1. Spelunky: Almost 500 deaths in, and I still haven’t seen every secret in Spelunky. From icy caverns to alien motherships, this seemingly cutesy platformer has some true replay value and extras that will keep me coming back well into 2013.

 

  1. Trials Evolution: What can I say? It’s Trials HD with user created levels that often surpass the developer created ones in quality. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a Trials game.

  1. Fez: I eagerly waited nearly five years to play this game, and I think it surpassed my wildest expectations. I thought I was getting a pretty, retro styled platformer and nothing more. But so many enigmatic systems lie beneath, and decoding them all was a real joy. Not to mention it was just a pleasant virtual world to exist in, with beautiful ambient/chiptune songs often playing in concert with a sunset that I just sat and watched.

 

  1. Mark of the Ninja: This is a gamer’s game in almost every sense. The visual cues that display sound waves and vision cones are in complete service of the great stealth gameplay. I liked this game better than I liked Dishonored, and I never expected that to happen.

  1. Thirty Flights of Loving: This game may only be 15 minutes long, but it is an intense and oddly experimental 15 minutes. I’ve never played a game that was confident enough to use jump cuts to expedite action and use montage to create such strong characters. Seriously, it’s only $5.00, and goes on sale for $2.49 fairly often. And it comes with Brenden Chung’s 2008 mod Gravity Bone too!

  1. Mass Effect 3: I wanted to like Commander Shepard’s final chapter much more than I ended up actually liking it. Many of the dialog options that were so fun to choose amongst in Mass Effect 2 are streamlined for a more developer directed character arc, but there is still enough there that made me feel like I was still controlling large portions of the story. And it was good to see all those characters that I spent two games getting to know again.

  1. Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Multiplayer is the only reason that Criterion’s latest racing game made it on this list at all. The fiercely competitive mix of skill challenges, group goals, and straight up races hasn’t ever been done this well since Burnout Paradise.

  1. Walking Dead: While I don’t think The Walking Dead is a revolution for games, I do think that it told an emotionally complex and mature story. That’s more than most games can even hope to achieve.

  1. Far Cry 3: While I can’t say that Far Cry 3’s story succeeds in being satire, I still think the game has some of the best open world design this generation. Attacking pirate camps only with a silenced rifle and machete takedowns is serious fun. Don’t worry about the nonsensical story that only occasionally manages to parody FPS tropes and you’ll likely have a good time with it too.

2012 was a weird year for video games. I played more downloadable titles than I did boxed releases, which has never happened with me before. At the same time as new console rumors start to rev up, the new methods of digital distribution are making me question whether I’ll even purchase a console from Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft in the next few years. Building a PC seems to have a higher initial cost, but Steam sales cut game prices down by 50 or even 75%. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; for the next year I’ll continue to enjoy my Xbox 360 and hope to see exciting titles come out not just in stores, but on the Live Arcade as well. It’s going to be interesting to see where all this stuff goes in the next generation for sure.

Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.

Dust: An Elysian Tail Review: Auteur Theory

Dust: An Elysian Tail is unique even by indie game standards. Dean Dodrill, who had almost no experience in game design, computer programming, or story writing, designed it almost entirely by himself.
Knowing that fact along makes it shocking that this game’s mechanics work as well as they do. The juggle heavy combat is simplistic, but responsive, and the RPG elements are deeper than most other XBLA games.
From a narrative perspective though, Dust has some serious pacing issues, and a glut of dialogue performed by irritating characters. For every great moment of story telling comes many more moments of overacted melodrama. Because Dodrill was the sole creator, he could put whatever he wanted in the game, and however much of it that he pleased. Auteur theorists may be pleased, but all I could think was that some editing would’ve helped greatly.
In Dust, you play as, well, Dust. Joining the annals of amnesiac protagonists, Dust awakens in a Wonderlandian forest with no recollection of how he got there, why here is there, or who he even is. A magical sword named Ahrah and its winged keeper Fidget find Dust and tell him that he is the chosen one to wield one of the Blades of Elysium and bring order back to the land. A great war between two factions has raged for years, and Dust must find a way to end it and figure out his past.
Much of your time spent with Dust focuses on killing monsters and other evildoers with Ahrah. Dust only has two or three main combos and a whirlwind attack on his own. Use Fidget’s projectile attacks with the whirlwind however, and things get really interesting. The whirlwind causes the normally puny fireballs to explode across the screen, racking up the combo counter and experience bonus quickly. There is a fluidity to combat here that can’t be understated. Dust is incredibly agile, able to jump from side to side to dodge incoming attacks or high into the sky to continue slicing up enemies. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Dust.


The world of Dust is also of high quality. The soft focused style evokes a lushness and color palette not seen often in games. Teal, purple, yellow, and orange all work in ways that most other contemporaries don’t dare attempt. There is a small amount of exploration, helped along by a map system cribbed from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, the character animations also look like they were taken from the PS1, which is jarring in front of the meticulously detailed environments and abundant HD particle effects.
The story here is clearly inspired by SNES and Playstation era RPGs, and anime. The focus is on surprisingly dark themes such as death and loss. The side quests are where most of the whimsical and goofy writing comes out. As you travel the Elysian lands, the lesson that all things will eventually die is married with pretty well characterized quest givers.
One of Dust’s greatest failings is how such heavy and poignant story content is buried beneath a surplus of dialogue delivered by nearly every character. I don’t even care that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. That’s fine. But the endless amount of talking is unforgivable. When it isn’t grating—Fidget’s unfunny attitude never hits the mark—it is just pointless. The game stops the action for literally every interaction. Hitting up the store for some health items? Well prepare to hear the shady shop-keep spout some nonsense every single time. At a certain point, I just quit listening and skipped as much talking as possible.
And then there’s the last hour of the game, which is quite simply terrible. Forget that the story takes a complete right turn and refocuses on characters that are either introduced entirely too late or not characterized well before hand. The real killer is a difficulty spike leading up to the final boss, and the final boss itself. Enemies suddenly gain the ability to block your attack chains, bringing what used to be a great sense of combat momentum and fluidity to a full stop. Oh, and good luck buying enough health items to make it past the final confrontation where one strike eliminates ¾ of your health bar.
I have a feeling that plenty of people will like Dust more than I did. There is a huge amount of content here for $15, and who knows, maybe some folks actually like Fidget’s annoying voice. Ultimately, I found the game sloppy and amateurish, which is to be expected from a first effort. Dodrill has a lot of promise, and Dust isn’t a complete waste of time at all. There are plenty of moments where the story and gameplay mesh, but there are also plenty of moments where the action gets bogged down in melodramatic, snarky, or just plain boring dialogue. Give this guy a team of 10 other developers, and there could be greatness in the future.