92 Reviews liked by NightmareModeGo

I shit my pants.
I shit my pants really bad.
In the name of Harman...

Christopher Nolan's Dowhill Jam. Hate to be all "Cons: - Too much water" but lol. Has so few levels that feel like they make any satisfying use of the Zineth gravity-shifting mechanic and the cloying story insists on butting in to fuck up the vibes. I just KNOW the dev crew watched Interstellar while feverishly taking notes and none of them related to anything I wanted out of a game like this, very sad. Exo One is screaming from the diaphragm for some kind of Steam Workshop implementation so people can make School II or Hangar or even Bob-omb Battlefield.

8-bit games often feel strangely lonely and alienating to me. Do you feel like this? I can't really put my finger on why, exactly. Maybe it's because so many of them are such well-trodden ground by now, that it feels like everyone else has been and gone, leaving me alone, crawling amongst the wreckage the words of others have left behind.

Few games tap into that feeling more than the much-maligned Final Fantasy II. There's really no way to say this without sounding hyperbolic/unhinged/pretentious, but it's a game that I am absolutely convinced has a true Soul, one that exists beyond the cartridge, and in the heart and imagination. In the same way that many people develop emotional attachments to their cars and end up attaching human characteristics to their errors and singularities, evolving them into quirks and endearing character flaws, Final Fantasy II's straining ambition gives it an utterly human character to me, a mess of quirks and ideas and wholly distinctive character traits that are entirely its own. Even when the game has serious issues that can impact my enjoyment - namely, the dungeon designs, the one part of the game I find largely indefensible - I find myself endeared to it completely. "Oh, you, FF2!"

There is no other game quite like Final Fantasy II, and there probably never will be again, simply because we now have so much ingrained knowledge of how systems like these are supposed to work, how stories like this are supposed to be told. The lessons learned from games like Final Fantasy II have taken root in the future, but in so doing, the games themselves have been left to languish in retrospect's austere halls.

If I had to sum up the soul of this game, I'd say that it's character can be drawn out through one of my favorite anecdotes in video game history (https://twitter.com/woodaba2/status/1331685180285874176?s=20), the story of how Ultima, the spell sought after by the heroes that Minwu, the most stalwart and useful of the guest party members, gives his life to unseal, only to find it ultimately useless. Although "fixed" in subsequent releases, the emotions this bug inspires live on in the "correct" implementation of Ultima, that being it growing in power the more spells you have mastered, and it takes quite some mastery to push it beyond the bounds of Flare. Even if you do unleash it's full power, that power comes from the user, not the spell: in the hands of a party member without spells, Ultima is powerless.

Unintentional though it may have been, this moment is core to the heart of Final Fantasy II and why it remains incredibly impactful to this day. Common storytelling logic - and, indeed, the original intention of the script - holds that Minwu's death would allow the heroes to find the weapon they need to overthrow the evil Emperor once and for all, but the programming of Final Fantasy II, astonishingly present thanks to the myriad bugs and systemic quirks the game is infamous for, rebels against this idea. "No," it says. "Ultima is but the loudest cry of a far bygone age, echoing almost silently into the future. Minwu died for nothing."

When Aerith dies in Final Fantasy VII, the party is struck by the suddenness of it, but eventually come to understand that she died casting a spell that may save the planet. They can find meaning in what she died doing, even as they mourn the death itself. But in Final Fantasy II, people die and often, their deaths are senseless and without meaning. Perhaps characters like Gordon, who dies from his wounds in his bed, marking your first real mission for the Rebel Army a failure, may have inspired tragic cutscenes in a SNES or PS1 RPG (though I should stress that this game does have the integral addition of choreographed cutscenes punctuating critical moments, but I'll let New Frame Plus discuss it better in their excellent video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xapVOKEMk6A), but here, a death like this brings with it only the hole they leave in your party, a wound on the very battle screen that no one can entirely replace.

Not to say that characters are entirely mechanical, like they are in the original, but certainly the game leverages the mechanical boosts the guest characters offer you to make you truly feel their absence. Despite his sparse dialogue, Minwu, the ass-kicking white mage sporting one of early FF's best designs is beloved by fans because he is a crucial asset in battle, and his loss is deeply felt by a party that has no doubt by this stage come to depend on him. Your permanent party members, the vectors through which you'll explore the game's revolutionary levelling system - now thoroughly jacked by The Elder Scrolls, becoming the foundation for the most popular RPG in the world - wherein your characters grow organically through play from orphans who are destroyed in the first battle of the game to distinct archetypes of your own choosing. In my last playthrough, Firion became a master of bows and magics, while Maria took up Leon's fallen sword and became a dual-wielding powerhouse. You can become incredibly powerful in your chosen niches quite quickly in the remakes of this game...not that it will help you against the might of Palamecia.

Victories against the Empire are hard-won, difficult to come by, and often, negligible or even fruitless. Even slaying the Emperor in his palace only allows him to rise again, more powerful than ever before, as the Emperor of Hell itself. By the time you begin the final assault on Pandaemonium, there's a very real sense that there's not much of the world left to save, so devastated has it been by the conflict, leaving you wandering alone in the wreckage of the world listening to the crucially melancholy overworld theme (https://youtu.be/SaCLoLBdxTU). A later Squaresoft title on the PS1 leaves its world in a similar state going into the final dungeon, but it never hit me there quite like it does here because that game is filled with so much exposition and character moments that there's so much else to think about and consider. Final Fantasy II drowns you in the sensory silence of it's empty world, and it is deafening.

But still, you press on.

For those you have lost. For those you can yet save.

Because the deaths of Minwu and the others, they can't have been for nothing.

You can't let them be for nothing.

Most people don't get out of this game what I do. Heck, even I often don't get out of this game what I do in my moments of highest appreciation for it, as it exists in experiential aggregate, forgetting the miserable dungeons and the way the game is almost completely broken in it's original form. But there's no doubt in my mind that this is a special game, that does very special things. You may argue that those things are unintentional, sure, but does that matter? Games like Metroid II: The Return of Samus have come to be seen in bold and incisive ways that grow beyond their original intentions, so allow me to plant my flag and say that Final Fantasy II deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated much the same, as a defiant Wild Rose, rather than be left to wither and dry up on a sad, lonely outpost on the road to a future that left it behind.

What's legitimately interesting to me is how the problem of remasters is unique to videogames. How these embiggening projects almost always bear fruit when it comes to album remasters or movies and tv using original film to improve what was previously strictly standard def. One of the best examples of this I can think of is the painstaking amount of work that went into bringing Star Trek TOS and TNG into high def. For me, there's the more personal example of the Twin Peaks blu-rays being impeccable, managing to keep that VCR warmth and fuzziness in its translation of film grain and colour bleed. There may often be cases where music rights were lost in transition, forcing awkward song changes, or the cack-handed handling of an aspect ratio, trimming important visual cues from a piece, awkward colourisation of b&w - but in a general sense, it's very rare for these remasters to be seen as anything but superior. The added visual fidelity, allowing fans to take in more detail like subtle facial acting or the intricacies of set design that were previously blurred, tends to be lauded.

But games are very different. In this tech-head driven industry engrossed in 4k 60FPS and the latest graphics card magic tricks like Raytracing and volumetric fog or whatever, the audience is utterly convinced that HD is the standard. There seems to be an added pressure on publishers to go the extra mile with their remasters of titles from the 6th console generation, as it’s no longer enough to simply do a faithful port of the title to 1080p. In its attempt to please the increasingly discerning crowd, the modern remaster's attempt to improve visual fidelity can drastically shift the base game's artstyle so as to almost be contrasting with what it used to represent. Something as simple as a general shift in colour scheming can be surprisingly effective at making a game feel a certain way, and this remaster noticeably lacks that sunbleached orange I found so characteristic of SA, among too many other minor things to list off. CJ may have a much greater level of visual detail on his character model, but the animations are the same, it's all playing into that uncanny valley thing where the lack of cohesion genuinely seems to make the bigger picture look worse. It’s definitely going to play into why people are feeling weirded out at his hand clipping through doors or contorting incorrectly etc.

Generally, issues with remasters tend to come as a result of these projects being handed to a separate team to the one that developed the original. I for real don't want to begrudge the people making these remasters, nor would I ever pretend to know how these sausages are made; I’m sure it's an enormous task to reverse engineer titles from a generation with infamously poor ethics regarding the backups of source code. It's just... wild to me how this keeps happening. How much more divided people tend to be between the og game and the remake than to film or whatever. Like them or not, it's curious to me to see just how much of a tonal shift is accomplished in remasters like the Shadow of the Colossus one, despite the game sharing what is essentially the same foundation. The way gaps in visual fidelity are filled in by people who weren’t present on the dev team, where the needle begins to slant and the remaster begins to feel more like Bluepoint’s vision than Team Ico’s. It tends to be soundtrack reorchestration that frustrates me the most, one of the most effective ways to belligerently throw a stick of dynamite in what the vibes used to represent. It’s almost expected to have some things lost in translation, and not even just by cultural differences, but through the team’s personal preferences on top of the mandated requirements to use each available teraflop of the microchip. It’s a game of telephone.

Granted, in the case of these GTA remasters, the recent example of XIII and the infamous Silent Hill ones, people seem to share a closer consensus. But what can the average consumer do? Rockstar pulled the original versions from PC storefronts essentially requiring prior ownership or piracy. Until emulation becomes elementary on all hardware, this is the “definitive edition” and you’ll have no say, because they have ambient occlusion now.

today marks the 20th anniversary of metal gear solid 2's release, and hideo kojima tweeted a bit in memory of developing the game so long ago. one tweet in particular stuck out to me though:

"LIBERTY and FREEDOM have different meanings, and MGS2 is not about singularity, but about the 'norms' of society having a will of their own."

the year before the release of mgs2, the norms that maintain the social fabric of the United States briefly reared their head to the public. the 2000 presidential election resulted in a contested florida count; a week-long war where the soldiers were lawyers and county election officials. the supreme court eventually stepped in and settled the matter out of the hands of the voters who supposedly drove the process in the first place, and the culture managed to digest this aberration of electoral procedure cleanly. when a much sillier repeat of this strategy took place 20 years later, there was little discourse about its relation to a time when a party actually did manage to steal an election openly with no consequence.

the point of the above is not to bemoan the "unfairness" of the situation (the choice did not really matter to the american people) but to observe how the american ideological ship rights itself even when it openly contradicts itself. much of our "freedom" yields from america's supposedly democratic structure allowing citizens to exert themselves politically, even as voting is shown to be vapid ritual and direct action is suppressed at every opportunity. yet even when these truths are so plainly evident, the shadow of american capital obscures or supplants the truth as necessary to keep the citizenry proud of the "liberty" they hold. kojima rationalizes this the work of artificial intelligence; a neural network kept fat off of the endless drip of online content, and trained to filter information for the benefit for international capitalist hegemony. the economic engine of the west's security far exceeds the abilities of any group of humans to protect, and must be handled by some sort of higher power; an omniscient american consciousness whether as a group of AIs inside an underwater fortress or a commmon understanding woven into us by the superstructure we exist in.

of course, I don't want to imply that all of the above came directly out of kojima's mind onto the page, especially since I find praises of games such as these to be inherently "anti-capitalist" to be cope in a lot of ways; the text simply does not have any coherent critique of capitalism itself. kojima has stated (paraphrased by tim rogers) that the plot here is "merely a jumble of things inspired by current events," and not a "postmodern literary statement." the thematic undercurrent of this game sometimes struggles to poke its head through all of the mess of plot elements at play: otacon cuckolding his father, the peter stillman false injury subplot, rose's desperate attempts to crack raiden's hardened exterior, the vampire who is lovers with a marine commander and then moves on his daughter who may or may not be able to deflect bullets, and revolver ocelot having liquid snake's personality inside his arm for some reason. what's unquestionable though is that kojima has a keen mind for rooting out legitimately disturbing facets of US hegemony and exposing them within his work both narratively and through the game mechanics.

much of this relies on raiden, or jack, the hapless operator commanded to infilitrate the big shell and rescue the president. his mission: to play in a role in a cataclysmic test that will prove that the patriots (the aforementioned norms, the ideological backbone of america) can organically influence the actions of people via tight control of the information given to them. part of this game's infamous obtuseness revolves around the fact that not only has raiden been misled by his supervisors, but the people he interacts with friend or foe also are acting on false information different than what raiden has. there are instances where raiden will parrot off the plot up to a given point and will be met with incredulous looks by whoever he's talking to that never remotely get resolved, and piecing together the real plot from this can be difficult. his main enemy: solidus snake, a man who has upheld the status quo of america both abroad in the brutal secret military actions in africa as well as domestically as president of the united states. this is a man who has seen the superstructure and seeks to gain true liberty in transcending it; he's a man who has seen the true face of God and must be killed. even as raiden struggles to sort through his thoughts regarding all of this, he's pushed to duel solidus to the death to fulfill the patriots orders, and he has no choice in the matter. the patriots have organized the game for him and he (as the player's proxy) must participate. raiden has no alternate options, as his future is bound to the player's performance within the scope of the game, and he cannot disobey his direct inputs.

perhaps the best illustration of raiden's construction of consciousness over the course of the game is in the arsenal gear section. raiden up to now has been chasing the identity of snake for some time, both literally as he trails behind snake's actions within the game and conceptually as the patriots program the environment around him to resemble the shadow moses incident. after being tortured within the bowels of arsenal gear, raiden is released fully nude and must evade capture as he undergoes a sort of peristalis within AG's intestines. as he proves himself competent after shedding his loadout (mechanically inherited from snake), the real snake bestows upon him an identity of his own: a katana that becomes raiden's primary combat weapon for the final sections of the game. raiden's literal play mechanics develop beyond the idea of snake in this moment thanks to a clever design choice by the developers: the katana uses the previously unused right stick to control its slashes and actions. up to now players are unconsciously playing as snake to some extent, as raiden's control layout has matched snake's MGS1 layout. it is now that players learn how to play as raiden and how he functions as a character beyond the shadow of snake, as he self-actualizes both narratively and within the scope of the game's mechanics.

I don't know if the critical gaming institution was ready to accept the confidence mgs2 brought when it came out, however. obviously the character bait-and-switch turned off those who played solely to become snake; perhaps raiden was an ugly reflection in some ways, as an awkward and lithe protagonist with only virtual combat experience to speak of. the sheer complexity and inexplicable loose ends of the story turned off many more who were willing to explore what kojima has created, including the translator herself: Agness Kaku. even though I disagree with her critique of the script, I do not envy the draconian word count requirements that konami held her to or the strict 1:1 localization requirements kojima enforced after jeremy blaustein's creative liberties in the excellent translation of the first game. the result here is a script that is stilted and cumbersome compared to the snappy script of the original, which I'm sure turned off even more people than mentioned before. it's taken many years to truly cleanse mgs2's mixed reputation for those who originally experienced it: as an example, while I tend to like jeremy parish's work, his writing on mgs2 captures a snide attitude towards this game that has not aged well, whereas his more recent analysis of the game on retronauts has begun praising its prescience of modern american political life as he's reexamined the game, a move I applaud him for as a prominent games critic and historian.

in fact, it's parish's criticism of mgs2's gameplay that I want to use as a launching point to discuss the game's amazing stealth action, which really cements this title as one of the best games ever made in my eyes. mgs2 falls in a difficult spot between mgs1, arguably the first modern AAA game, and mgs3, a game with remarkably few restraints on player expression and another GOAT contender. it's hard for me to argue that mgs2 is better than mgs3; mgs2 is a leaner experience while mgs3 is a much more convoluted web of systems to memorize and clunky controls, but mgs3 is a pure stealth experience in terms of environment and scenario design in a way that mgs2 cannot approach. what mgs2 is not, however, is a rehash of mgs1, as parish's writing (linked below) accuses it of. while there are certainly similar aspects between events in mgs2 and mgs1, mgs2 builds upon these ideas to present something completely new for the genre. mechanically mgs2 is a perfect midpoint between 1 and 3 that rewards player ingenuity and quick decision-making within the bounds of the top-down format and segmented area structure of the original title.

mgs2 brings two major innovations to the series: first-person aiming and the AI squad system. guns in mgs1 are functionally useless outside of the many annoying action setpieces throughout the game, as the aiming is non-existent and there's no way to quickly take down guards with weapons. in that game this flaw is papered over by the fact that guards lack much any critical thinking beyond looking at anything directly within their cone of vision, and thus the game encourages sneaking behind enemies. in mgs2, you now have the ability to headshot or crotchshot enemies for quick takedowns, and with this power comes a slew of challenges that force the player to use this tool effectively. the game stations guards in locations that often actively keep you from slipping past them as a casual player, either from having other guards watch their back, or from patrolling areas that make your footsteps clearly audible, or by putting mission objectives in positions where guards block you at every turn from accessing them. to make matters more complicated, tranquilizing or killing a soldier leaves their body behind, which if seen by another soldier can quickly reveal your presence even if you are on the other end of the map. body disposal becomes an essential and nerve-racking endeavor that is further exacerbated by the fact that dragging bodies is slow, and stunned enemies will eventually wake again. rooms become a matter of determining which soldiers risk mission integrity the most when active, how to best deal with them, and how to hide them in such a way that you have just enough time to achieve your objective before the body is found.

further complicating matters, the squad in each room now does routine check-ups on one another to ensure the team has not been comprimised, as well as calling into HQ regularly to provide status updates. making an incorrect decision can have an extremely costly result in the squad becomes suspicious and calls in a search team to sniff you out; the most frightening parts of this game come from hiding in lockers or under cabinets praying that a search team will get lazy when they reach your location and leave you be. this also implements a hidden timer after you eliminate a guard, where your next objective must be finished before the rest of the squad catches wind of the fact that one of their own is missing. even worse is eliminating a squad leader, which could result in HQ realizing that no regular status report was radioed in and thus sending in a team to determine the status in person. it's a delicate interplay between all these mechanics, as any advantage you can gain over the forces against you can be lost just as quickly if you have not planned further movements in advance. taking out guards one by one linearly is simply not an option: you must consider the totality of your environment, plan accordingly, and then execute said plan correctly, often with elements you didn't consider interfering and forcing you into hiding mere meters away from your objective. it is endlessly claustrophobic on first attempts of this game, and truly imposes a sense of dread upon being discovered that I don't think other entries in this series ever capitalized on in the same way. of course, as you grow more experienced, you begin to find ways to push against these restrictions, and to the game's credit it offers a bounty of built-in ways to exploit the guards. shooting a soldier's radio or throwing a chaff grenade jams their tether to HQ and keeps them from calling for reinforcements even in the event that they encounter you, for instance, and you can hold up guards for free takedowns and to lead them away from other guards in the vicinity. steam pipes can be broken to scald guards, cameras can be shot to free up your traversal options, fire extinguishers can serve as makeshift smoke grenades, and you can even drop onto unsuspecting soldiers from a ledge in order to get an instant knockout. what makes this game different is no matter how far you push, the game will still find ways to punish you if you choose to lollygag given the ever-watchful eye of HQ upon you. your job is to catalog your available tools in your mind, use them when appropriate, and plan out your goals in advance as to avoid wasting time once you've begun interacting with the environment.

in terms of macro-design mgs2 also leapfrogs mgs1 to provide area layouts that take advantage of the new tools as well as encourage more exploration. mgs1 lays out its areas in straight lines in both discs of the game, making backtracking a bore, especially during sections such as retrieving the sniper rifle or using the temperature-controlled key cards. mgs2 areas are still heavily enclosed, but feature a greater amount of interconnectivity that allows the player to choose their routes, or for different difficulties to change which routes are accessible to the player when. in the two main open hubs in the game - the tanker area as well as Strut A of big shell - the player can freely between areas for the most part while still being naturally led to the next objectives. it helps that each area is roughly symmetrical, and as such the player need not struggle with understanding a complicated interconnected map. after the harrier fight, the game linearizes and begins focusing on more setpieces rather than full stealth sections, but after a more freeform first ~60% of the game this doesn't bother me much.

the environments themselves strike a radically different vibe than mgs1, which focused on snake clawing through the darkness of alaska juxtaposed against the glittering snow blanketing the island of shadow moses. big shell instead feels sterile, with its position far out into the hudson bay removing it from any spatial context as it sits above the water surrounded by mist. I sympathize with those who don't like this setting and its palette, as shadow moses is unquestionably the more memorable area. my interpretation of big shell is that its built purposefully as a "game-y," flat area; a training ground of sorts for raiden. the interiors ignore the oppressive chill of shadow moses in order to present an lifeless area that illustrates the banality of the villainy involved, and the clean order that the patriots impose. its only as the game continues and the pageant the patriots have created begins to decompose that the aseptic facade collapses and raiden must overcome flooded hallways full of bloated bodies, flaming remannts of catwalks, and the blaring sirens of arsenal gear as he cleaves bodies in two and struggles against the framework imposed upon him.

one aspect where mgs2 is notably rushed is the boss selection: the main enemy organization Dead Cell has multiple members that evidently were cut in development even though they get brief mentions in the lore. unlike mgs1 where many of the fights are based in specific gimmicks, the bosses in mgs2 are spaced out much more and generally have multiple methods for how to take them down. the fatman fight always sticks out to me, both in sheer ridiculousness and in how it balances defusing the bombs fatman puts down with actually damaging him. balancing those two mechanics makes the fight more than just dodge-and-shoot, which is a fine design for a mgs fight but not always the most interesting. other fights such as olga and vamp sort of fall into the latter category, and then the rest feel a bit more gimmicky, generally leaning on some sort of non-standard weaponry. they're all good, but I wouldn't call them as memorable as the two games that sandwich it in the series, especially mgs3.

of course, there is much I haven't touched on in this review that I could continue to offer my thoughts on, such as the way the game begins violently rejecting the player from even playing it as they attempt to bend against the will of the patriots, or the way the game uses parallel events between mgs2 and mgs1 to confuse the player rather than give them some cynical "I get the reference" moment. perhaps this game's status as a "postmodern" masterpiece is simply because no other game has ever achieved this level of ludonarrative coherence, where the act of playing the game itself is relevant to the plot and subtextually reinforces the themes presented in the text. it's one thing to have fourth wall breaks, especially after the twists in this game were subsumed by gaming mass media and diluted into sillier configurations, but this game refuses to use them only as parlor tricks and instead weaves them into a broader narrative about the control of information and individual agency that resonates at a time when people are hyperaware of the context of their era and yet absolutely powerless to influence it. it's a game where even multiple legendary soldiers are unable to buck machinations of a country that are entirely beyond them, and where they must live with this doomed knowledge whether they choose to feebly resist it or not. in many ways, this is a game that was far ahead of its time and lacks an inheritor of its legacy as both one of the most fantastic action games ever created and one of the few titles that capitalizes on video game's unique traits as an equal form of art and sport.

There's been roughly one billion videos made and articles written analysing Silent Hill 2's themes, doing deep dives into areas of the game and all sorts of extremely detailed explanations of individual moments throughout it. There's a reason for this, because Silent Hill 2 might be the most thematically solid video game ever made.

Every single aspect of it is all laser focused on the same goal. From the writing, visuals, enemy design, even extremely specific parts of the world design are all an important part of telling this bleak, brutal tale. A mature game, not just in terms of subject matter, but also in regards to the way it is handled and the approach you need to take to truly get the most out of it.

Unfortunately, Silent Hill 2 is starting to show its age. The best place to play it remains on the original hardware, although the modding scene around the PC version is close to getting the game looking its best on modern hardware. Don't even go near the 'HD' version, it is an unholy mess.

A truly standout game in the survival horror genre and one of the best examples of how a video game can tell a story in a way that other types of media simply cannot.

I’m always wary when Video Game Twitter gang-piles a game for having performance issues. The worship of 1080/60/4K/120 is quite clearly a post-HD games hardware cargo cult astroturfed by corporations with the sole intention of shifting more consoles and cards, and it figures that Gamers would be easy marks for digital brainwashing. In short, counting frames and pixels is antithetical to what I think a good video game is really all about - so when people first started doing drive-by hits on The Definitive Edition, I was wary. Pick any video game from the last 20 years, and you can probably find a warped model, a clipped piece of geometry, a crunchy bit of audio; put these isolated incidents through Twitter’s retweeting megaphone, and any minor defect can look like a serious LMAOing “how did lazy devs allow this 😂” problem.

Ten minutes into Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - The Definitive Edition, I had already seen Samuel L. Jackson’s t-shirt turn pink for no reason in the very first cutscene; a Ballas car flew away during a bike chase; Ryder cycled into a cutscene’s frame with a weird fucked-up William Birkin arm; and, for the first time ever, got to see what the Xbox Series crash-to-desktop screen looks like! Oh well, I figured - at least I can fall back on my old high school pastime of spawning a Hydra to fly around and listen to some talk radio.

This was, of course, the worst thing I could have done. With no in-game fog or depth-of-field, hitting cruising altitude dips the game to a horrific stuttering panorama of San Andreas and its entire surrounding area, all at once - and it looks like crayola total shit! Oops! Oh well, I figured - at least I can still listen to the radio while checking this shit out. This was, of course, not possible at all - the Hydra jet’s jets droned over the radio at a volume that rendered it unlistenable. “Why not dip the SFX and boost the music volume??” is the question you’re about to ask, right? Well, seems the jet engines don’t respond to the ‘sound effect’ slider. Man, oh man! That is the LAST thing we wanted to happen!!! After only 40 minutes, I had been thoroughly humbled by The Gamer Cult…

I may have been unlucky here - but every single person I know who has played this so far has been assaulted by glitches, gremlins, bugs, defects, crashes and other technical problems, regardless of chosen platform. I got kinda lucky by only trying this out on GamePass, but I really feel for people who dropped a full £50 on the trilogy… Unacceptable, but I’m glad Rockstar stepped up and gave us this year’s Cyberpunk 2077 drama.

Pretty much the same experience as Horizon 4 - if you liked that, you've got more waypoints to hold RT to & from. I sadly get nothing out of this, and its desperate cloying attempts to wrangle a drop of dopamine from me all fail too. People give rpgs a bad rep for the whole "number go up" thing, but this could not feel more like time wasted while being hypnotised by a laserlightshow of exp bars and increasing integers that progress towards nothing. Far too many player retention systems draped over a racing game that is overly saccharine in tone and too scared to thrill. The challenges just aren't interesting and the cars don't even feel that good, what am I missing here? This is what all the dialogue sounds like https://i.imgur.com/i1TOMt2.png
Sick beyond belief of open worlds where I have no idea whether the tasks are procedurally or community generated. A barren expanse of a world map dotted with prefab roads and obstacles that the course designer has to fruitlessly negotiate with for any texture. Maybe I'm just down on this franchise for whatever weird or petty reason, it just gives me the same joy as being toured around a Toyota dealership. Psychotic UI, too; why do we want our system navigation to look like a moodboard. Perfectly competent, very pretty, but I don't have 122gb to spare for a game that is only adequate lol.

This review contains spoilers

PREVIOUSLY ON METROID: Samus Aran, bonded with Metroid DNA in order to save her life from the X, a world-eating parasite she unwittingly allowed to flourish by genociding the Metroids of SR388, becomes a new type of life-form, a hybrid of Humanity, Chozo, Metroid and X with no name other than "Samus Aran", and destroys a plot by The Federation to manufacture copies of the most dangerous predators in the galaxy: first Metroids, then Samus Aran.

So, how does Metroid: Dread progress this story, after nearly two decades between installments? What are the big ideas and concepts that Sakamoto claimed simply could not have been accomplished until the power of the Nintendo Switch arrived? And how will Dread re-restablish Metroid's position as the queen of this genre in a world full of games like Hollow Knight?

The answer to all of these questions is more or less a shrug. Metroid Dread is a fine game, one that is extremely engaging and compelling in the moment to moment, with smooth movement, pitch-perfect feedback, and some wonderfully exhilarating moments, but it isn't so much an evolution of the Metroid framework as it is a Greatest Hits collection of some of the series most compelling ideas, but if there's anything on here that was simply impossible to create on, say, the Wii U I can't find it, and the story mostly serves to repeat Fusion's ideas far less subtly and far less competently, a narrative that fails to convince me that Nintendo has any ideas of how to follow on from the knockout ideas presented in Fusion and, to a lesser extent, Dread.

The most baffling thing about this game is The Twist. Namely, that it's presented as one at all. Why is Samus "being a Metroid" (great writing on that one by the way, gang. What, was "no samus, you are the metroids AND THEN SAMUS WAS A METROID" too good for you?) supposed to be a shock? We knew this. We knew this from the start of Fusion. Its implications were fully crystallized when you escaped the secret lab near the end of that game through a shaft full of Metroids who regarded you as one of their own. Don't get me wrong, I like this story idea and I liked it when it was in Fusion, but it's bizarre to reach the reveal the story has been building towards and have it be something I fundamentally already know, like if Return of the Jedi decided to reveal that Darth Vader was Luke's father...again.

Speaking of which, Raven Beak is a cartoonishly uninteresting antagonist, but the scene where Samus does embrace the Metroid part of her to destroy the origin of the Chozo part of her is a genuinely sick as hell beat that would have really hit if this game was about the Chozo or bothered to interrogate them in any way, but instead Raven Beak is just an Evil Guy who Must Be Stopped, functionally interchangeable with the faceless arm of the Federation Military that served as Fusion's unseen true antagonist. And it ultimately just leads into another sequence referencing a past Metroid game.

There's cool stuff here, but it's all stuff I liked better when it was in the other games, routinely done better in those games. I'm very surprised that this game has received little to none of Fusion's criticism of extended dialogue sequences because they feel much more frictional here, particularly a 5-minute long exposition dump around the midpoint where some guy just drones the entire plot at you, rather than having it unfold and develop over the course of the game. The twist regarding who's on the intercom is basically the same as the twist with the computer in Fusion except less interesting, the X being released from containment lacks the weight of the same beat from Fusion...Dread feels like a holding pattern, Metroid spinning its wheels as it aimlessly wanders in search of a direction.

Speaking of aimlessness, one of the feelings that really struck me playing Dread was how aimless progression in it feeling despite being extremely linear in practice. I won't go over again how purposeful and effective Fusion's linearity was narratively, but I will mention that despite the linearity, Fusion was still able to establish the station as a meaningfully interconnected and intersecting space in a way that Dread is painfully unable to. There's no sense of cohesion or distinctiveness to the myriad environs of ZDR, they all look so similar (barring the forest level) and you zip and back forth between them with such reckless abandon that I never got any sense of them as meaningful distinct spaces, never mind a full cohesive world that I could understand in my head. When I got to the end of the game and could start the scavenger hunt, I didn't. How could I? I remembered rooms with stuff that I could explore and collect now, but I had no idea where it all actually was because I had no sense of what ZDR actually looked like. It's clear that this kind of progression is just MercurySteam's style: it's present in both the absolutely abysmal Mirror of Fate and the mediocre Samus Returns, and I just don't like it. Even if it's just a Generic Desert Level, a Generic Fire Level, I want my environments in a Metroidvania to feel meaningfully distinct, rather than an identikit techbase smear.

What makes this especially egregious is the EMMI areas, which are literally identical visually no matter what area of the game you're in. I have no idea why this decision was made: there are already so many indicators of when an EMMI is nearby, why do we need to make the environment conform to them as well? I never felt hunted by the EMMI, never (ahem) dreaded them, because very quickly I understood them to be essentially a minigame, divorced from the wider gameplay and narrative experience.

It's a fun minigame, at least. Chases are genuinely exhilirating and tense thanks to how genuinely difficult it is to nail the precise timing for the QTE, thought the incredibly generous checkpointing does rob them of their bite eventually. Narratively they're a total dud and they don't really work within the macrostructure of the game, but they are at least quite a bit of fun in isolation.

That's kinda Dread in a nutshell, honestly. I've been very negative thus far but it's still getting three stars for a reason, and that reason is that moment to moment this is just an incredibly playable game, and I mean that as a compliment. Samus controls great, the stiffness that made free-aiming and counters awkward fits in Samus Returns have been smoothed over to create an experience that excels in forward momentum, constantly moving and shooting and sliding in a way that tickles my neurons in the way that pulling off a string of Prince of Persia platforming does, a natural flow of movement and combat that just feels great in the moment. I may strongly dislike the way MercurySteam constructs their worlds, but by this point their designers have become incredibly adept at individual encounters and rooms. A particular highlight is just how puzzle-y much of the item collection is: requiring genuinely tricky and thoughtful application of your moves above and beyond any other game in the series bar sequence-breaks in Super Metroid. Dread has the absolute least "shoot every wall to try to find the one box that has an item" of any Metroid game, and this, along with the routinely excellent bosses (obscene reuse of the X-infected Chozo Warrior in the final stretch aside, I swear you fight this guy like four times in the space of an hour) mean that this game has some of the best individual bits in the entire series, even if it never coheres into a knockout whole.

Which makes me wonder if this game would not have been better off if it wasn't a Metroid game. Would this combat and movement have been more fun in a more linear game, where the environments could be sculpted to provide constant specific challenges perfectly attuned to the moveset you have right now? Would this game be able to be bolder with its storytelling if it wasn't tied to this specific franchise? I don't know. What I do know is that Metroid Dread, as it is now, does not feel like a franchise comeback as much as it does an overly cautious, conservative game that ultimately functions as an argument for the series' irrelevance, its inability to move forward and compete with its contemporaries. Neither MercurySteam nor Sakamoto seem to have any ideas on how to move this series forward, and given MercurySteam's well-documented unethical working practices I'm not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of them being given yet another turn at the bat. Even Samus' Metroid Metamorphosis, the most evocative, exciting, and cool thing in the game, even if it is largely an element from Fusion's story writ louder, is walked back at the end with another recycled plot point from Fusion, the X reuniting with Samus. The game ends on business-as-usual, Samus blowing up a planet and flying away in her Iconic Purple Gravity suit, an echo of past glories growing more and more faded and distant as the years go on.

She doesn't even save anyone this time.

I’m overwhelmingly glad that I stuck with this game through to the end, because I very nearly didn’t. True to what other people have said - Eastward is glacial; largely disinterested with stringing the player along with explosive story beats, overarching goals and villains. While the game shares many similarities to Zelda: Minish Cap and Mother 3 in its aesthetics, dungeon schema and quirky ensemble cast, it feels closer in spirit to Moon: Remix RPG. Eastward is primarily a story of a journey, a potpourri of emotions and vignettes, and it expects you to inhabit the communities of the microworlds you visit on your trip. I wish I had known this going in, and I’d like to start my review by stating as such as a primer for anyone reading because when I clocked what Eastward’s intentions were and met it halfway, I finally found myself sinking in.

Eastward is an adventure RPG revolving around the story of John, a stoic, taciturn miner and his mysterious wide-eyed adoptive daughter named Sam - each born into an isolated town deep beneath the surface. The narrative is ostensibly a one-way ticket on a train powered by Sam’s positive energy and curiosity as she yearns to see the sun for the first time with a thoroughly convincing and endearing childlike wonderment. Upon reaching the surface, I was right there with her.

The world is presented through the dichotomy of John and Sam’s polar opposite personalities. Sam is contagiously cheerful and childishly chatty, but she often fails to perceive the more adult dramas and contradictions. Despite John being ghoulishly silent throughout the game, he exhibits warmth and intelligence at points that the player can fill in themselves. This is particularly noticeable in moments like when Sam and John encounter incubators for artificial human beings hidden deep within ruins for the first time. For Sam, those seem almost like hyper-technological playgrounds, while for John, and consequently also for the player, their mysterious and threatening nature is very evident. It’s all surprisingly effective as far as Game Dad character interactions go.

Eastward is a post-apocalyptic setting fraught with danger, but dotted along the tracks are pockets of humanity small and large, towns and cities with cultures cultivated over time in isolation. Each is inhabited by characters that are of course quirky, but surprisingly fleshed out and genuinely memorable. It’s been a very long time since a game world has felt so alive and well-told down to its minute details, helped in no small part to the stellar pixel work in the meticulously realised characters and environments. Some of the best pixel art I have ever seen. Honestly, it left me genuinely inspired - to take in every inch of the world, but also to create for myself.

I often found myself thinking back to the steps on the path I had already walked, about the characters I could no longer return to, and wondering what they were doing while I was not there to watch. Personally speaking, I can ask nothing more of a game. Eastward acted as a beacon of positive vibrations and inspiration to me. As someone who has never grown out of pinning himself to a train window and imagining the lives of the people in the towns I zoom by, the experience of this game was incisive to something I hold dear. Favourite game of 2021 by far.

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