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“In short, contingency and freedom, it all means creation; freedom for us is creation.” - Henri Bergson

Prey is a video game about action. An immediate question may arise: what video game isn’t about action? A fair enough question since I haven’t set forth any terms. What I mean here is the specific action that philosopher Henri Bergson defined in his book Matter and Memory where he writes, “The degree of independence of which a living being is master, or, as we shall say, the zone of indetermination which surrounds its activity, allows, then, of an a priori estimate of the number and the distance of the things with which it is in relation.” For the most part, video games are constricted experiences, designed in ways that create illusions of action and what action always becomes: creative choice. Video games are limited in a way that we voluntarily ignore; the individual act of playing them already satisfies most base desires. This is not a critique of the medium, but an explanation of how it functions. Video games cannot account for choice (and usually when they try to, they fail spectacularly). The BioShock series is all about this for example. However, Prey, and by extension the entire genre of immersive sims, were created with the intention to capture real-life agency in a virtual world. Prey does this best, partly because these philosophical underpinnings are finally brought to the surface and commented on in meaningful ways — a cohesion only really found in games like Cruelty Squad, Disco Elysium, Pathologic, and Planescape: Torment. If video games are by design vessels for determinism, then Prey is the yolk finally breaking and providing an argument for free will. Again, in the Bergsonian sense, with free will forming from the actions that reflect the personality of a self (an idea explored in his book, Time and Free Will). In immersive sim fashion, such agency is expressed in every crevice of its game design with Prey having an untold number of ways to approach each situation you find yourself in.

In this manner, the game itself plays remarkably like System Shock 2. I had dropped Prey years ago because I played it like an FPS, I am not sure why I exactly did this; having played Dishonored as a teenager I knew what immersive sims were on some level, but I wasn’t making use of any of Prey’s systems. My old save was still there thanks to Steam’s cloud save feature and by the time I got to where I had left off originally, I had put six hours into the game compared to two. This anecdote alone is proof to me that immersive sim deserves to be categorized as its own genre, an opinion with some detractors who only want it to be labeled as a “design philosophy” or think these games are at their core just RPGs or FPS’ like I originally treated Prey as and had a monumentally worse time. Back to System Shock 2 though, having now played that game and it now sitting comfortably in some nebulous top 10 spot for me, Prey clicked from the start. And now that I have finished it, I can comfortably say that Prey is a better game. The freedom of Prey’s mechanics isn’t only there to birth emergent gameplay, the hallmark of immersive sims that makes it my favorite genre, but to make a point about video games and like all great fiction, life itself. The number of tools and systems at play in games like System Shock 2 are there so you can have a different experience with them each time and treat these virtual landscapes as real, lived-in spaces; this design is so open-ended that the developers themselves cannot account for every variable. I was able to sequence break Prey in a few situations thanks to getting creative with the GLOO gun and instead of that feeling only like an emergent discovery, it felt directly tied to how the game presented itself on every level. The choice to act in these ways, like reverting back to a newborn who lacks spatial awareness and forgetting where a staircase was so I created a needless parkour arena out of the reactor core while various Typhon attempted to slaughter me and constantly made me fall back down — while proof that I need to get a new prescription for my glasses — revealed the game’s core philosophy as a game where choice finally matters and the creative potential of freedom that brings.

Prey’s response to System Shock 2’s psi abilities is the ever-creative Typhon powers which you can get by installing neuromods, the game's version of upgrade modules. There are six total categories for neuromods with many different sub-pathways in them, although three of them are for human upgrades like hacking, repair, and stealth and then three for the Typhon powers which you gain through researching the various types of Typhon on Talos I. You can mix and match these to your heart's desire, or only play with one, or neither. Here again, though, Prey is able to take a standard element of game design and breathe new life into it by exploring how neuromods are made and their effects on the people who install them. What exactly does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be human when you alter yourself with the ability to morph into a coffee cup and roll around before transforming back and hitting an unsuspecting goo monster with a wrench?

Having only talked about Prey’s gameplay up to this point, gameplay that if you have played one of the other 40 immersive sims that have been made in the last 30 years might not strike you as needing such philosophical analysis, it is then paramount to detail some of Prey’s thematic elements from its story, where all this philosophy is at the forefront. It isn’t that Prey is such an obvious standout in its own genre gameplaywise but that it coalesces so seamlessly with its story-driven themes in fully artistic and emotional ways.

It is then of course no surprise that Chris Avellone helped write this game alongside Raphaël Colantonio and Ricardo Bare (Prey’s director and lead designer respectively), for Avellone’s magnum opus Planescape: Torment is centered around the principle question, “What can change the nature of a man?” and it has a definitive answer: choice. Prey follows this path, not in a derivative way, but in the same philosophical fashion. According to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the foundational aspect of our reality is that of difference, in this regard the entire notion of a Being, or anything static, or any notion of a true self or an essence is shattered and disposed of. All we are, all there is, is Becoming. Identity is forgone in the place of a multiplicity of difference and any repetitions will always be different; change is the only constant, as the character January states near the end of the game, “the ‘real’ Morgan is a fiction.” The process of Becoming is integral; it is not that Morgan Yu is there to be a measly projection, there are far too many videos and audiologs of them to be considered a blank slate character, it is that with every action they take Morgan becomes someone new — it is difference all the way down.

This underlying ontology gives way to a system of ethics as well, which is most notably present in how the game goes about its main quest and endings that January, Alex Yu, Dr. Igwe, and Mikhaila Ilyushin all play their respective parts in. Prey makes use of the trolley problem — a notoriously boring thought experiment that exists to make utilitarians think too highly of themselves — in a thought-provoking way. Which is frankly speaking revolutionary. While the more overarching elements are not something I can delve into without taking Prey’s climactic catharsis away from anyone reading this who hasn’t played it yet — the ethical parts of Prey are just as present in its side content. Talos I, the setting of Prey, has one very striking difference to the Immersive Sim in Space that it owes its existence to: humans who aren’t dead the second the game begins. Another revolutionary design choice from Arkane. How you choose to interact with these struggling survivors is going to define you, to the point that if you play the game “empathetically” you will receive an achievement titled “I and Thou,” which I will eat a shoe if that is somehow not a direct reference to Martin Buber’s book of the same name. Side quests where you can find Mikhaila’s medicine or get a piano recording so Dr. Igwe can hold onto a song that he and his now-dead wife loved, to helping a stuck escape pod launch all exist to reflect your approach to Talos I and a seemingly unstoppable threat that has the potential to reach Earth and likely drive humanity to extinction. All throughout these side quests you will receive radio transmissions from January, the most extreme deontologist in fiction, commenting on your behavior. It’s a small station, orbiting a moon that orbits an even bigger world. Who are you, who are these people, in the face of a threat this large? Should you be taking all these diversions to give them comfort, especially if this robot with your voice wants you to blow up the whole place? Well, you’re a human, aren’t you? The choice is yours.

While much of Prey uses high-concept philosophy to get across its sci-fi adventure, it is in these moments of humanity where the game truly shines. There is much art that falls on its face for trying to intellectualize itself, combining theory with fiction in a way that is fun to experience is a difficult task, but Prey excels at it. In a medium that so often plays it safe, Prey goes as far as it can to question you. Our bodies are constructed by action, our perception is tied to the freedom this gives us, and so all we are left with is an endless sea of choices. We all stand on the precipice — anxiety becomes overwhelming in the face of it, but the task at hand is to push forward. These choices will constantly change us or be changed by us. You are not the same person you were yesterday. Neither was Morgan Yu.

Game is a masterpiece just like the original. Everything I said for that game applies to this one. If this is the way you want to play We Love Katamari there is absolutely no issue with that. However, how do I think it stacks up to the original? There may be nothing huge, but I will discuss all of it anyway. Let's start with direct comparisons.
Graphically I think they did a good job. On rare occasions textures can be distracting with how they were blown up, but the HD facelift looks great. The option to play with classic graphics is wonderful too, especially for me since I'm not really a fan of how the Reroll games look. However, once again I am not a fan of the character redesigns and the change to the "cousin face." They look much more generic and less charming, except now it's just jarring since the young king and all the cutscenes keep the original designs intact. I feel that switching to classic graphics should have also changed the character designs as well. My only other graphical issue is that the widescreen was applied to the overworld very poorly, with remnants from other screens clear which looks really strange. The translation has also been updated, and outside of finally correcting "star" to "planet" the other differences are pretty minor. Namco still hasn't found out that "video games" is two words though...
The music and sound design is largely untouched too, as it should be. I did notice two issues though. One is that I noticed the sound mixing seemed to be different in some places, though this only ever bothered me in the racing level where the vehicle noises are way too loud. Another is that, just like Damacy Reroll, the game has been undubbed. ...Why? What's the point of this? Dual audio is industry standard now, let people play with English audio. Another more minor thing is that the audio cueing after beating a stage is incorrect. The king is supposed to throw the Katamari into the sky before the jingle plays, but now it's cued as he throws it. This probably isn't a big deal if you haven't played the original but it distracts me and is definitely worse. More annoying is that the comically overpriced day 1 music DLC pack has poor looping in a couple tracks, mainly Katamari of Love.
Whatever, presentation flaws aside, the spectacular physics and core gameplay of the original is kept intact. There's only one issue I noticed and it's that the render distance was noticeably lackluster at many points, much worse than the PS2 version. It varied depending on the level but it was especially awful in Dr. Katamari's stage, where the pop-in for objects was very distracting and became harder to route out. On the good side though, the occasional frame drops in the Bird & Elephant's stage are completely absent. Also since I don't know where to put this, importing cosmic objects from the first game is not a thing in this remake, and has been replaced by the cousin planets from the PAL version. Pretty disappointing, but I guess it's not a huge deal.
Now for quality of life, new content, and my disappointments.
The quality of life changes for this game aren't anything huge, especially for returning players, but they're absolutely appreciated. Directing players on level goals or barriers you can now get through, an easy select for fans, and faster movement in the overworld are options that are not only convenient but easily ignorable incase you don't like them. One specific addition I want to give credit to is the note for escaping from fishing rods, which I never knew you could do despite my huge amount of runs through that level. I also greatly appreciate the added on-screen lyrics to the credits game like how Damacy did.
The new content in Reroll + Royal Reverie is... Lacking. Let's start with the new additions to the regular game.
First is the eternal mode levels. These are a series staple that
give no time limit versions for existing levels that for some reason were absent in the original We Love. Me personally, I'm not huge on eternal mode. Rolling around with no stakes can be relaxing but in levels where I can pretty much already get most of the objects in time without eternal mode, I find it pointless. Especially as someone who likes hunting for new records on stages. So either way I couldn't really care less on their addition, yet I still found their inclusion lackluster. They aren't given a special planet to look at after completion or a results screen, just the King saving your score which is really lazy. There has also only been three eternal levels added, being for ALAP 3, 4, and 5. These stages have a decent chunk of the map overlapping already, with all of them featuring the same town area. While they may not have worked perfectly with the alternate goals featured in We Love Katamari (which is likely why they were basent in the first place), a greater variety of eternal stages would have done a lot.
The sticker side quest is the definition of mediocre tacked-on remake content. Hidden in stages are these stickers of Namco characters that you can take a photo of to add to your collection. After that you can use your sticker sheet to... Look at them, I guess. First off actually being able to get them is a pain. You have to find the present for the camera first so that's guaranteed backtracking if you're trying to 100% the sticker sheet, and then you have to actually have it equipped to take photos. I never cared much about this since I never used Katamari games for photography, but why was this not added as something you could do without the camera equipped by the time the original We Love came out? We're on the eighth main release and we still can't. Basically, if you're daring enough to use the unlockable cosmetics you had to find you're punished by not being able to get the stickers since you don't have the camera equipped. On top of that, finding them just... Isn't fun? Finding them casually when playing is fine I guess (even if it means you have to have the camera equipped to do that) but searching them just leads to needle in a haystack situations, especially with how big some of the levels in this game are. This isn't even to mention that they're tied to the missions in certain levels, so you can find where a sticker would be but it won't be there since you weren't on the ALAP mission or that you'll be getting many of these photos on a time limit, or that I even had a few runs where the stickers didn't even spawn, either on purpose due to size changes or due to bugs. Not sure which is worse. For getting these you get more frames for the expanded photo taking in this game, which is nice I guess. Still not worth the hassle though.
Next is the big advertised feature of this game, the Royal Reverie. Five new stages, the first new stages to the main series in ten years. And those stages are... Unfortunately uninteresting and not good. To give these stages some credit, the reskin of playing as a Young King lead by Papa is very cool, but these concepts are unfortunately kind of wasted.
The maps have gotten nice reskins, I especially love the sunset given to the racetrack. I also enjoy the look for the Royal Reverie's overworld, it's simple and resembles the credits game which is a nice touch. Papa's dialog gives him a different characterization from The King which I appreciate, but the result screens just cuts to the regular one with The King being like "yeah we did that" which is really disappointing, not to mention that like the Eternal levels, outside of a record you get no tangible planet or anything for beating them.
As for the levels themselves, they're not great. The first is a needless reskin of the clean up level. The difference now is that instead of ending when you get all of the objects, it has a size goal that you're never going to fail at getting and a one minute time limit. You can beat the stage regularly in under a minute. This is borderline pointless. The second is a frustrating needle in the haystack hunt for five objects where certain objects grazing you leads to an instant fail. They have the same spawns everytime but it's still not fun. The third is a needless reskin of the racing level except now instead of size you're hunting for tires. The shorter time limit may make your priorities a little different but the level pretty much will end up having you play the same. The forth is an odd reskin of the firefly level where it instead plays as an as fast as possible level. This one is fine I guess. And the last one is a needle in a hay stack hunt in the zoo map for four ballerinas with random locations. What fun. Needless to say, I think that Royal Reverie was very disappointing. It doesn't really hurt the game, but if you're on the fence on buying the remake, don't let this convince you to do it.
As for my disappointments with this remake, I believe that any remake, even lazy remasters, should try to at least improve the experience of the game in some way. As much as I love it, the original Katamari Damacy has a lot of flaws which made the remake specially disappointing. However, We Love Katamari, the original PS2 game, is nearly perfect in my eyes, which makes a remake less interested in fixing issues more forgivable in my eyes. However, no game is perfect, and I would say the game has two small flaws. First, even though you rarely have to do it, climbing up walls is a little janky sometimes. The remake does not fix this. Now for the more pressing one. Unlike every other game in the series to follow, you can only collect one new cousin per run of a level. This makes grinding on collecting all cousins needlessly repetitive, especially when you need them to unlock every stage in the game. I don't mind this much since the levels are so replayable and fun, but it is absolutely not a good thing, mainly for ALAP 4 and 5, with their long level timers and multiple cousins. Despite the following games in the series fixing this, Reroll + Royal Reverie decided that it didn't want to fix this issue. Why? This was the one thing I was hoping to be fixed in this remake, as it remains the only thing close to a black mark on one of my favorite games of all time, and they didn't even attempt to remedy this issue. While I mainly pick up We Love Katamari to replay levels, if I wanted to sit through every level and then watch the true ending's final cutscene again, I would get no advantage from playing Reroll in the most tedious parts, which is a massive disappointment.
All in all, despite my many disappointments and shortcomings I found in this remake, I at least appreciate the effort. Adding anything at all is way better than what we got for Damacy Reroll, so I at minimum appreciate Namco's attempts to properly remake one of my favorite games ever. The new content may have its flaws and this nearly 18 years later remaster may have its occasional downgrades, but you can never go wrong with We Love Katamari. If anything, I'm just glad more people will get to play this game.

TGM3 is an interesting case, because while it follows the formula from TGM1&2 in basically every way (now with a save feature!), you can now hold pieces. Thus, this is the start of "Modern Tetris" by some definitions without the crazy combo game incentivized by Tetris games released within the last 5 or so years. It's this strange formula that, while fun, is obviously perfected in later installments of modern Tetris. So while TGM2 remains the king of classic Tetris and one of the must play games of the classic style (along with NES Tetris), the same can't be said for TGM3 and modern style. Even then, the game is still fun and a very clean Tetris experience.

I could not possibly be as good as this game needs me to.

In 1992 the company that would go on to become Looking Glass Studios created the beloved “good game” genre known as immersive simulations with the release of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and in a multitude of ways changed the medium forever. Seven years later an off-shoot company named Irrational Games made up of ex-Looking Glass staff who still used their former company’s office space would co-develop the game this review is posted for which nullifies any sort of build-up I had in my mind because this isn’t a printed essay. Anyways, they made System Shock 2.
In more ways than one, it is hard to find anything fresh to say about System Shock 2 in 2023, 24 years after the game's release. I was only four months old when it hit shelves and the one thing that needed to be said about it was uttered in its first week of existence: System Shock 2 is one of the best games ever made. More so than any other game I have played I would consider agreeing with that statement to be a proper litmus test for if you should even be allowed to talk about video games.
It’s just that good.
As with every immersive sim ever made till the heat death of our universe, System Shock 2 is a game about its systems. And in utilizing the Dark Engine that was made for Thief: The Dark Project, Ken Levine’s team at Irrational, and those few helping over at Looking Glass, they were able to create the foundations for what immersive sims are meant to look like in the modern era. Along with Thief, System Shock 2 brought immersive sims into the fully 3D landscape of the late 90s — and it allowed for the entire genre (which at that point consisted of precisely four games) to reach new heights that games being released today can barely even touch while standing on their tippy-toes. Ultima Underworld I and II, along with the first System Shock, make up what I affectionately call boomer immersive sims; they were the first attempts, and while they were majorly successful and amazing video games that are unparalleled by anything in the medium of video games up to that point, it is in System Shock 2 where everything reaches perfection. Ultima Underworld’s biggest flaw stated by its own creators was its dialogue system which they viewed as functioning as a second game rather than feeling like an interwoven experience with the overall gameplay and was fixed by Austin Grossman’s idea to make the original System Shock’s story and dialogue be told to you through audiologs that are scattered throughout the world. System Shock 2 also utilizes this method of storytelling to a much greater effect. I adore the games Grossman has worked on and written. Still, System Shock’s audiologs are a bit heavy on exposition, and also due to the scuffed nature of memory on floppy disks and CDs Looking Glass seemingly didn’t know how much of the recorded dialogue they could fit onto disks and so when playing the game you are likely going to have to stop dead in your tracks and read text that in no way matches up to what the characters are saying which hurts the seamless nature the team obviously wanted. No such thing was happening in 1999 though and so the audiologs are not cut at all and you are able to listen to them as you traverse the horrifying corridors of the Von Braun. This allows for more audiologs as well, which lead designer/writer Ken Levine has proven himself to be the master of — while some still serve the function they did in the first game in giving you information on where to go next or a code needed to open a door, most of the audiologs in 2 are dedicated to cataloging what happened to the crew leading up to the start (and sometimes during) the game and you get to hear the final thoughts of those who — unlike our protagonist Soldier G65434-2 — do not have military grade implants and so died brutally at the hands of the Many. These logs are not only able to fully achieve a sense of immersion in the world but also able to generate a bountiful amount of empathy for those on board who are long dead by the time you wake up.
System Shock 2’s overall story was Levine’s first at-bat for his comic book-inspired approach of pitting two extremes against one another that you find yourself in the middle of. This time composed of Shodan, the egotistical, fascist AI who hates all things weak and composed of flesh, and her offspring the Many — the hybrid creations she began to create in the first System Shock, who are, well, made of flesh (and so clearly the inspiration for the Flood in Halo, it’s uncanny how similar they are). Naturally, they don’t like each other much. During the course of development, the team was at odds with Levine for his idea to make Shodan not the principal antagonist and rather begrudgingly need your help throughout the game to defeat the Many. I am glad that he stood his ground because she is a much more nuanced character in this game and rightfully deserves her spot on every “Best Video Game Villain” list because of it.
And then there’s the infamous/meme’d-to-death ending. Really I can only say one thing: if you aren’t doing backflips for the last ten minutes of the game then — like the Many — you probably have worms in your brain.
On the gameplay side of things is of course where all immersive sims shine and System Shock 2 is no slouch. The introduction of RPG mechanics to immersive sims started here and would continue to be seen in the genre, even just a year later with the release of Deus Ex (which sadly makes some people think that immersive sims are just RPGs with a pretentious name, but that’s a rant for another time) and led to what these games are likely most known for: multiple styles of play. Want to play stealthy? This game is using the same engine as Thief: go nuts. Want to only use melee weapons? Max out strength and get various OS upgrades just for that. You joined the marine core at the beginning and only want to blast things with hot lead? The game practically begs you to. Energy weapons? Become a literal space wizard? The list goes on. And depending on which difficulty you select at the start you can probably mess around with 2-3 options to your heart's desire.
And do I really need to talk about level design for an immersive sim? Does everyone checking this page already know that this genre does levels better than anything else? Well if not, let me be the first to inform you that the Von Braun is one of the most intricately crafted locations in video games. Everything in it is seamless, while I would occasionally get lost while playing both Ultima Underworlds and the first System Shock that never happened here. The number of different paths you can take to get around never feels complicated but instead organic with a plethora of secrets strung along the way depending on your aforementioned chosen playstyle. While there are two more locations near the end of the game, they are quite small and still work as an interwoven structure — unlike another beloved game for its interconnected world design, System Shock 2 never falters.
System Shock 2 is a wonderful game. It is also a game that only sold 58,671 units during its initial release and I am unsure how many it has sold now in its fate as a game that more people seem to know and reference through making Shodan their social media profile pictures than actually playing it, but I’m sure of those couple dozen thousand fleshy bodies the majority heralded it as one of the greatest games they’ve ever played — and I’m glad to be able to count myself among their ranks.

Both Ultima Underworld games are two of the most important and revolutionary in the medium’s history. The technological leap that the games had in graphics with the introduction of a refined form of texture mapping for video games and the fact that every developer in North America in the early 90s knew each other would lead to a phone call between Paul Neurath and John Romero that would lead to the creation of Catacomb 3-D and Wolfenstein 3D over at id Software, thus birthing an offshoot of immersive sims that was not simulated or immersive but a massively marketable simplicity of combat mechanics resulting in the birth of the evergreen FPS genre; or for those who only care about gaming through the lens of Japan: the entire creation of FromSoftware who’s King's Field series and later Dark Souls owes much to the level design and simulated lives of characters that Ultima Underworld birthed — even if From’s games, like many other titles that maybe or maybe not are named The Elder Scrolls that Underworld influenced, didn’t further or even utilize any of its more revolutionary gameplay mechanics and seem to be more of a homage consisting of “hey, remember Ultima Underworld? Cool games.” Which, to be fair, they are cool games.
Labyrinth of Worlds is a sequel to The Stygian Abyss in design but in terms of its place in the Ultima franchise overall it is a sequel to Ultima VII, taking place exactly a year after that game ends as Lord British invites the Avatar (that’s you) to his castle for a celebratory feast on the anniversary of the Guardian’s (that’s the bad guy) defeat only for that buzzkill to show up once more and trap the entire castle underneath a mountain of blackstone. The Stygian Abyss’ narrative was not its strong suit, the entire synopsis can be boiled down to a few words on you having to go down deep into a dungeon to rescue a princess. The immersion of its gameplay mechanics is what you’re playing that game for. In Labyrinth of Worlds, the immersive and emergent gameplay systems of its predecessor are dialed up even further as well as having a narrative that while still a normal enough fantasy affair on its surface, is oozing with charm and heart that you can now immerse yourself into as an agent in the world.
The overall level design of Labyrinth of Worlds is much stronger as well, take for example one of the first locations in the game: the prison tower. While a small location made up of eight floors that all seem to be around four square feet, the strength of the level is shown in its possibilities for approach. As per all immersive sims that have come after Ultima Underworld the levels are crafted to be engaged with in an emergent way that you uncover or outright create rather than having its solutions shown to you. The prison tower can be handled like in any other old dungeon crawler: violence. But this is likely to be difficult as Labyrinth of Worlds varies creature levels far more than its predecessor which helps the world feel much more alive and so while it is doable to kill every goblin on the level and free the prisoners to advance the story it would likely prove challenging to most and so there is also a more nuanced approach to take where through certain dialogue choices you can hide your identity as the Avatar and instead impersonate an interrogator which will allow you to procure the keys needed to unlock the prison cells and release a friendly troll who will kill the goblin guards for you, netting you zero experience points and instead experiencing a far more intricate outcome that few games outside the genre can generate. This is just one early example, but fret not over any suspicion that the game peaks in its design philosophy early: every level is like this. Labyrinth of Worlds is expertly crafted, whereas The Stygian Abyss consisted of eight floors to its one massive dungeon its sequel consists of eight planes of a multiverse that you travel to which all vary in size and scope. A lesser game would crumble under this ambition but Labyrinth only forged ahead, much to the credit of the games designers all being attached to one plane rather than all of them at once over the course of its development. This approach makes every plane distinct, a favorite of mine is the two-floored plane of Talorus where you meet the aptly named Talorids, who seem like the genesis for why Looking Glass went down the sci-fi route for their next game as you traverse this world composed of AI robots and teleporters with walls adorned with colorful lights rather than torches.
Every new area in Labyrinth needed to sing because you’re going to spend far more time in its levels than any floor of the Stygian Abyss as Labyrinth takes a non-linear approach to exploration with you constantly unlocking new areas amongst already explored zones as you uncover the connective tissue between all of the worlds through the main story in order to defeat the Guardian. While The Stygian Abyss drags in its pacing occasionally due to its backtracking through areas that often look identical, Labyrinth stays fresh by constantly changing themes and setting that ebb and flow wonderfully into its emergent design and narrative.
Speaking of theme, the character work is far more dynamic as well. The foundations from The Stygian Abyss remain: you don’t have to and should not murder hobo your way through the areas as every character has an emotional spectrum that can be increased or decreased by how you interact with them except for outright hostile mobs who will always attack you on sight. You will come across many NPCs throughout the world but this time the game was written by Austin Grossman (who would go on to be a writer for System Shock, Deus Ex, and the first two Dishonored games) in his first ever writing credit in his now stellar career; the twenty-somethings straight out of MIT that filled Looking Glass’ studio at the time were all rookies when they made this game and it doesn’t show. The NPCs are all more lively and richer in character and theme than in the previous title and as the Avatar you can interact with them more fully as you would in the mainline Ultima games. An early part where this arises is when a group of servants threaten to go on a labor strike unless you tell Lord British to start being class conscious; it is a minor change: you can beat the game no matter what — as per the course with immersive sims your character’s actions are reflections of your agency on said character rather than on the overall narrative. Situations like these are not uncommon in the game, since the game utilizes Lord British’s castle as a hub world that you are constantly returning to, as select characters function as trainers for you to level up your skills (as opposed to Stygian’s Shrine system). This also lets you feel for the cast and interact with them more, Stygian Abyss’ flaw is that when you had talked to the NPCs of a floor once you rarely ever had to again, but your experience would be actively hampered if you were to ignore the inhabitants of the castle in Labyrinth as they are both reactive to what you do throughout the game but also independent actors with their own schedules that converge into various situations that heighten the game's storytelling. These details, with how characters react in response to how you handle situations or even how they interact with each other when you are traversing other planes to combat the Guardian’s foul plot reveal an unparalleled amount of ludonarrative consistency that is nowhere to be found in games before it and only rivaled within the immersive sim genre that it created. Grossman’s writing in this regard pushes the game to a new height of immersion that shows why both Ultima Underworlds created an entirely new genre rather than just being another dungeon crawler with no heart or mind behind it.
While the Ultima Underworld games are sometimes looked back on as being unrefined in comparison to the immersive sims that came after them, saying that should not be a negative. Looking Glass hit it out of the park in these games and even if not as crazy bonkers with simulation as latter games in the genre the increase in ambition and avenues for emergent gameplay to arise from The Stygian Abyss to Labyrinth of Worlds shows and would only continue as seen in their next game which was…oh yeah, System Shock. Few gaming studios are so lucky to have a track record that is not only revolutionary but meaningful, with care and intent dripping from every design choice to make one of gaming’s first wholly consistent experiences that few games have replicated since.

I am a musician - I’ve spent my whole life playing various instruments, writing and recording songs, performing very occasionally. But like a lot of you, my first real exposure to rhythm games was back in middle school at the height of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I must have poured a hundred hours into Guitar Hero 4, wailing away on the plastic instruments and singing my little heart out into the mic. I remember that time fondly, joking about Through the Fire and Flames with the boys at lunch in 7th grade, having friends over to blast through some Aerosmith or Paramore, and feeling just for a second that I was a rockstar.
Hi Fi Rush takes that second, the one when you nail the end of the solo, and blasts it into a 10 hour masterpiece the likes of which I have never seen before. Tango Gameworks and Bethesda have pulled together everything good about both early 2000's adventure platformers and Saturday morning cartoons with literally none of the baggage attached to the nostalgia.
You’ll take control of Chai, a cocky, young aspiring rockstar with a heart of gold - sorry, heart of iPod. In an experiment gone wrong conducted by suspicious cyberpunk megacorp Vandelay, his heart is replaced with a Tony Stark style contraption - the iPod is always playing music, and the world and his body always move to the beat of that sound. In an appropriately jokey aesthetic of a whimsical far future world, Chai must join forces with the mysterious hacker punk Peppermint, the gentle giant tech genius Macaron, the enthusiastic and comedic droid CNMN [Note: pronounced Cinnamon], and the musical robot cat 808 to stop Vandelay from mind controlling the entire world. Each of these characters experiences an arc, and every one of them resonated strongly with me. It's funny, charming, and distinctly aware it's a video game.
Right away, Hi Fi Rush captures the exact aesthetic it goes for - this game exists as a monument to the shows you remember on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel from the early 2000s. A little bit of Teen Titans here, a little Fairly Oddparents there, a splash of Kim Possible to top it off - you know the vibe. You miss the vibe. You miss the vibe so, so much, and you miss that time of innocence, and no one has managed to recreate that nostalgic ecstasy in your adult life without it feeling forced, or like a cash grab. Until now.
Our underground resistance force sends Chai forward as their weapon - his new robot arm turns a wrench into a guitar by magnetizing the gears around him, perfect for rhythmically landing the beatdown on these robo punks. Hi Fi Rush is a linear action rhythm game, set in a wonderfully realized dystopic future city where robots, mechanical limbs, mechs, and laser guns are all standard issue. Each level is called a track, and each battle within is a chorus while each platforming adventure part between them is a verse. At the end of most tracks you’ll encounter a boss battle, and oh boy, I will get to that.
The tracks perfectly mix together the platforming and combat segments, setting the pace so that one never goes on too long. Recall that the entire world is moving to the beat of the music - that includes platforms, enemies, puzzles, and more. Everything. Chai moves completely to the beat as well, snapping his fingers as you stand idle and keeping his footsteps in rhythm as you move. The platforming segments require precision jumping and timing that uses a full kit of moves.
You can also call your companions in during both platforming and combat sections. Through some future tech nonsense, they can teleport to your location instantly to attack or help with a puzzle segment before going on a short cooldown. However, you can flip between your three companions and summon each one the second the last disappears, if you time it right - that strategy is imperative to win later boss fights. Peppermint comes in for ranged laser pistols that break shields, Macaron slams down to bust open armor, and your third battle companion who I will not name brings wind power that puts out fires and knocks enemies around. Using these abilities to traverse the environments is all well and good, but it’s in battle that it all really shines.
Everything is to the beat. All of your attacks as Chai connect on the beat, regardless of when you hit the button. If you do hit the buttons on time, then your attack power ramps up for each consecutive hit you stay on beat. It’s a genius system, because it means that even if you fall off your cadence you still have the feeling of hitting in time, which makes it easier to get right back into it. 808 acts as a metronome, and you can watch the pulsing light on him for the BPM or if you’re having trouble, open a large metronome at the bottom of the screen. Each strike on an enemy adds a harmonic chord to the song playing, so it feels almost like you’re writing the music yourself.
X is a light attack, Y is a heavy attack. B is to parry, RB is to dodge, LB is to hookshot to an enemy, and RT summons your selected companion. As the rhythm flows through you and the wide variety of robots attack, you’ll have to harness your inner rockstar to execute amazing looking combos and the best feeling melee attacks I can recall in years. Are there any other games where you can surf on a flying guitar and ram through an enemy? No? I thought not.
But upgrades! Of course there are upgrades. Silly. The gears you collect as currency can be traded back at base in between levels for health upgrades, special powers, new combos, new permanent items, and chipsets with incremental upgrades you can level up by using them. Here’s a tip - at HQ, there’s a wall you can check to get gears for in-game achievements that I didn’t find out about til after I beat it. 217,000 gears wasted! Regardless, I was able to make it through alright with what I scrounged up in the levels.
Hi Fi Rush boasts several boss battles that I would call all-timers. I would actually put the Korsica fight in my top 10 of all time. I cannot stress how fun they are. During the Mimosa fight, something odd happened - I was actually so happy, so giddy and excited, that I had to stop playing because I nearly threw up. Every boss fight not only takes what you’ve learned previously and puts it to a grueling but doable test - it also introduces a completely new way to understand and express rhythm. Each is visually stunning, an artistic spectacle, and also a mechanical marvel. The final boss fight was the hardest, and I could feel the deranged look in my eyes as I made my fifth attempt to defeat Kale Vandelay and save the world.
I’ve gone a long time without talking about the music, but hopefully it can speak for itself. It is fantastic, top to bottom. A few talented folks at Tango Gameworks were joined by The Glass Pyramids to create a powerful musical score, each track following a different rock subgenre. The boss fights and high moments are punctuated with excellently utilized licensed music from Nine Inch Nails, The Black Keys, the Prodigy, and more. It’s the exact kind of music I love to chill and vibe to, and if you’re like me you’ll be speechless at how good the soundtrack hits. Different songs let you try out different BPMs as well, so each level inherently feels a little different than the last, on top of the wildly different environments.
Hi Fi Rush’s heartfelt story is full of twists and turns that never try to deceive you, only to delight. Wrapped around the core themes of found family, which you know I’m a sucker for, the culmination of everything at the top of Vandelay tower had such a profound effect on me I actually dropped a few tears. There is a part of many stories which I’ve heard referred to as “the theme restated,” when the protagonist realizes and harnesses the power of the story’s theme in the context of their own character. The moment is powerful in Hi Fi Rush, more than it should be.
You can’t see rhythm. No one can. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Whether you can read music or not, whether you’ve mastered an instrument or can’t manage to play Hot Cross Buns, you are a rock star. You may not know it, you probably don’t believe it. But you’ll tightly navigate those progressions, finesse those pull-offs, and slice through those harmonies until you do believe it. Hi Fi Rush is going to make you believe you are a rockstar.

In his excellent video review/retrospective from around a decade ago, youtuber Derek Alexander of Stop Skeletons From Fighting (formerly the Happy Video Game Nerd) describes Shigesato Itoi's Earthbound (known in Japan as Mother 2) as "criminally underrated" and "one of the greatest games ever made." The first statement is, happily, no longer correct in the year of 2022. Sure, back when the video was made, Earthbound (and the Mother series as a whole) was a more niche title, heck the only reason I found out about the game and decided to give it a go was through Derek and this video. At this point in time, though in the larger gaming sphere its probably still relatively niche compared to titles like Call of Duty and Fortnite, in the JRPG sphere Earthbound is much more well-known and accessible, thanks to it being released on New 3DS XL and Wii U Virtual Consoles, SNES Mini, and Switch Online Virtual Consoles. The second claim is correct, though I found the reasoning Derek provided in the video was lacking. He claimed that the reason that Earthbound was better than most RPGs is that it has a modern setting and you are playing as a normal young boy and not some medieval, chosen hero. Modern settings in JRPGs are nothing new. They were present in the 90s when Mother 2 came out with titles like Shin Megami Tensei (though you could argue that while it begins in a modern setting, it delves into post-apocalyptic territory quite quickly) and Live A Live (though you could also counter that only a single scenario out of multiple takes place in the modern day). RPGs with modern settings are also present in the current day, with series like Persona taking place in modern day school settings since its inception in 1996 and going on to the recent release of Persona 5 Royal in 2019. I would argue that this was and still is not as unique as many tout it to be. The second point, that you play as a normal boy and not a chosen hero, is false in a few ways. Firstly, technically Ness is a chosen hero, as he was prophesized to defeat Giygas by the Apple of Enlightenment. Its not as prominent of a prophecy or as driving of a force in the plot as in games like Dragon Quest, but its still there. Second, while the trope can be oversaturated in the genre, the claim made implies that the chosen hero archetype is not good inherently, which I definitely disagree with. Such a trope is put to excellent use in games like Dragon Quest III, with Loto/Erdrick growing into that role by becoming a more worldly individual (see my DQ III review for more), but I digress. None of this is at all meant to be an attack on Derek or SSFF, they are one of my favorite channels on YouTube and Derek as the HVGN is one of the three people I credit for helping to foster my love for retro gaming (the others being James Rolfe and NintendoCapriSun). His video on Earthbound is excellent and honestly one of the best he has put out on his channel. The reason I go so in-depth in the beginning of this discussion on the reasons why he loves Earthbound is because rewatching his video made me reflect on why I adore the Mother series and Earthbound so much.
To me, Earthbound stands the test of time not because of originality of setting or of protagonist, but by virtue of its central values of love and empathy. There is no other JRPG series I have experienced that has approached its characters with the level of sincere kindness, empathy, and understanding as the Mother series. In Earthbound, and the Mother series as a whole, Itoi rarely if ever characterizes the enemies you fight as being wholly and purely evil. Characters like Frank or Everdred attack you but you get the sense that they are testing you more than anything. Mr. Carpainter and Geldegarde Monotoli are corrupted by idols or money and under Giygas' influence conduct their terrible deeds, but when you remove the influence they are repentant. Animals and other living creatures that you fight are not "killed," they "become tame." While many have jokingly (or not) chastised games like Pokemon for not having the balls to have their cute little animals die in battle, this fact is thematically relevant in Earthbound since the animals and other creatures are under the influence of Giygas and are otherwise innocent, and its telling of Ness and his friends' compassion that they would not outright kill these opponents.
This humanization of villainous characters is seen most poignantly in Pokey/Porky and Giygas/Giegue. Pokey was already quite an annoying child, and under the influence of Giygas he becomes a constant, nagging thorn in Ness' side throughout the entire game, becoming Giygas' right hand man until the end. Yet, from the beginning he is humanized as when you return him to his house next door after the meteor first crashes, you see signs of abuse in his mother and father when you talk with them. Later on, in Magicant, Pokey appears alone on a bench, saying:
"Ness, you're so lucky...I envy you. Let's be friends forever, alright?"
One could interpret this as the true Pokey appearing to Ness in Magicant, revealing that his true feelings underneath all the villainy and evil deeds are those of a boy abused by his family who just wants the love of a friend. This leaves out the fact that Magicant is a place in Ness' mind and the people, objects, and animals there are more like manifestations of Ness' memories of them. This does not discount the above analysis though, as with this context it can be inferred that the Pokey in Magicant is how Ness views Pokey, which not only hints at the greater truth of his character described above yet never explicitly stated by Pokey himself but also further reinforces the empathy that Itoi imbues in this character. Through all the evil antics, annoying laughter, and attempts to sabotage their journey, Ness sees Pokey as just a lonely and sad child, reaching out for love (an idea perfectly bridged into Mother 3, where in his domain in New Pork City we see a collection of nostalgic items and vehicles from Earthbound, showing that even when Pokey supposedly becomes the ultimately evil Porky, he has retained this human desire for love and companionship and is still holding on to the memory of Ness and his journeys).
The same can be said of Giygas. In Mother (Itoi's magnum opus), Giegue is defeated by Ninten and co through the power of love via the lullaby of Queen Mary, revealed to be Giegue's surrogate mother, Maria, and Ninten's grandmother. In Earthbound, as Giygas, he is torn apart at the reminder of the loss of his mother, and without this mother's love, spirals out of control into an unrecognizable and incomprehensible being of supposedly pure evil, corrupting the creatures of Earth. During the final confrontation, Pokey claims:
"So, isn't this terrifying? I'm terrified too. Giygas cannot think rationally anymore, and he isn't even aware of what he is doing now. His own mind was destroyed by his incredible power. What an all-mighty idiot! Yep, that's what he is! Heh heh heh heh... and you... you will be... just another meal to him!"
Giegue has become Giygas, the all-mighty evil power, and has lost all rationality or agency, needing to be contained by the Devil's Machine...or so the game initially claims. Throughout the final battle, Giygas cries out for Ness, and one of his dialogues is just "...friends..." You could argue that him calling out for Ness is this irrational being still grasping at the last bits of rationality left to focus all of his chaotic evil energy on his goal of defeating Ness to prevent the prophecy of the Apple of Enlightenment, but I see Itoi's empathetic hand in this. Here, Giygas is still wounded from the painful memories of losing Maria, and rather than grow and move forward, he has become distorted and is in many ways like Pokey: a lonely being seeking friendship and love.
Love is the core theme of Earthbound and the Mother series as a whole. There is a reason it is called Mother, after all. The love of not only individual human mothers but Mother Earth permeates the series and is especially poignant in Earthbound. In the same way that heroes like Erdrick in Dragon Quest III mature and become a hero by traveling the world and becoming more worldly, Ness matures and becomes more worldly by traveling all around Eagleland and gathering the Eight Melodies from various "Your Sanctuary" locations, all different places around the Earth. The center of the circle of locations when you bring up the Sound Stone in your inventory looks like the Mother Earth from the logo for the series, further emphasizing Ness gathering the love of Mother Earth to use as his power. Ness gains his power and strength from coming of age: leaving home, venturing off into the great unknown, gaining many friends and companions, yet he always keeps the love of his mother back at home close to his heart, even though he is away. By contrast, Giygas, due to the loss of Maria and his intense pain and anguish, cannot recognize that no matter how far away from him, or whether she is living or dead, Maria's love for him endures. He is too haunted by the pain and loss that he regresses into an incomprehensible mess of emotions, like that of a child, emotions lacking the the logical construction and consistency of maturity. Inside the Devil's Machine, he is a veritable "Boy in the Bubble" of his own regression. A widely circulated fan theory, and one debunked by Itoi himself, is that Giygas' sprite, when viewed in the negative, resembles a fetus. While this was confirmed as not being intentional by Itoi, it fits: Giygas has regressed so much that he is like a fetus, caught in the past of when he was a baby raised by Maria and tormented by the loss that he cannot move forward. Ness and Giygas are perfect foils, and ultimately Ness and co defeat him with prayers sent out to all of your friends and, most importantly, Ness' mother, freeing Giygas from his incomprehensible pain and destroying him with love, in what could be considered euthanasia.
This is what sets Itoi's masterpieces apart from the rest. Earthbound's characters are imbued with such strong love and friendship that you cannot help but love them. Itoi writes his villains with empathy and understanding, not in a hackneyed and overdone "You and I are not that different" manner but in a sincere and vulnerable manner. No other games or JRPGs explore the importance and power of love quite like this one.
Earthbound and Itoi's legacy is not one of quirky dialogue or outlandish difference. It is a melody of love.

I reviewed this game with a code provided by the publisher. You can find the full review at https://gameluster.com/pokemon-scarlet-violet-review-glitches-bugs-and-a-whole-lot-of-fun/. The following is a summary:
The frame rate is constantly dropping, the visuals are abysmal, and there is no excuse for the unfinished state of the game. But underneath the hood are the best characters the franchise has ever had, an adventure you can tackle your own way, and the best mainline Pokemon game in decades.

sloppy as all hell but the charm oozing out of this just can't be ignored
the vibes, the characters and the writing were all top notch but the gameplay I found to be lacking, the combat is extremely easy all the way throughout and driving around the town gets a bit tiring, also could have maybe used some more variety in the soundtrack but it's all worth it in the end for this one crazy fucking game