A while back, I was invited to visit some friends near our old college. While the chat was nice, I had mostly been looking forward to walking around campus again, seeing what had changed and sort of... exorcising the spirit of it from myself. Those were the worst four years of my life, and I was hoping that by revisiting it after years of cooling off, I could make up with that little chapter in history. Problem was, when I got there, it was just grass and buildings. I didn't get to comfort my younger self as I stressed out, I just saw the Computer Science building. I saw a lawn. It was surreal to watch students walk by as their life-chapter unfolded in a way I was failing to do for myself. I didn't realize I was falling into the same trap here. It originally took me about seven tries to beat this game because I was so scared, and now I feel nothing. I'm the same, but different. The place is the same, but different. I couldn't tell you if it's better or worse, it's just the same. But not the same you might wish it was.
For someone who loves their Castlevania and Resident Evil, I’m weirdly skeptical of franchises. I’m attracted to games which have a unique flair or an idea that hasn’t been explored elsewhere, so when I see people asking for a third or fourth iteration on something, my reflex is to roll my eyes a bit. The first thought that pops into my head is how they should be hoping for the sort of originality that got them excited in the first place, but that really is an unfair perspective for a variety of reasons. While I can praise Resident Evil’s boldness in reinventing itself, my favorite entry is a remake, and the best classic-vania is the eighth one. Castlevania is a particularly good counterpoint to my insufferable attitude, since I perfectly enjoy the first game and would hardly change anything about it, but it was the years of iteration on the series that made Rondo of Blood such an artistic triumph. It proves that something that’s good could always be refined a little more, and refinement is a quality that’s impossible to fake. A similar, unfakeable quality that you get with a franchise is that of history, which is harder to describe, but it’s one that Yakuza fans deeply understand. The first time you play Yakuza, you run around Kamurocho without thinking too much about it, but a few games later it’s hard to turn down an alleyway and not remember a pivotal moment that happened nearby. A developer can throw a novel’s worth of backstory at you, but personal attachment won’t exist without actual time and investment. It’s both of these qualities that I think make Mega Man Zero 3 such a unique experience, being the result of refinement across roughly twenty games. The platforming and combat are as good as a platformer could ever have, and I can’t even think of any critiques. Analytically, I find the mechanics to be a perfectly smooth wall, so rock solid that I have nothing to grip on and have hardly anything to say. The history aspect has been more on my mind, with its bleakness contrasting so much from where the story began. Mega Man was a series about an innocent robot boy fighting a cartoon Albert Einstein, and by Zero 3, you have a devastated planet, torn apart by global warfare and factions desperately trying to survive with limited resources. Doctor Light used to seem like jolly old Saint Nick, but by the time of this game, you could make an argument that going back in time and killing him before he could make any robots would be the best conclusion to the franchise. If the Zero series had been its own original thing, I don’t think my imagination would have been sparked in the same way, if at all. Without the slow development across the main games and the X series, it would probably feel like a fairly standard post-apocalyptic sci-fi experience, but by being a natural growth of almost 20 years of development, it held weight with me in a way most other games don’t. So, a game like Zero 3 simply couldn’t exist without a Zero 2, a Zero 1, an X5, an X4, an X3, and so on. Through repetition, something totally unique emerged, the same way it did for Resident Evil 4 or Symphony of the Night. While I wouldn’t say Zero 3 quite lives up to those monumental games… it actually comes pretty close.
DeAndre Cortez Way’s 2009 critique of Braid is well known for how it pioneered games analysis on Youtube, but it’s even more famous for its assertion that the game lacked central purpose. While entertainment is generally associated with some degree of pointlessness, there’s also expected to be some degree of enrichment, whether that be through the merit of competition, mastering challenge, or constructive escapism. If the audience is left without a lasting impression, the experience may as well have never happened, so it’s important for games to construct purposefulness, regardless of how artificial it is.
I started reevaluating this concept when Roll called me up as I exited a dungeon, mentioning that I must be getting hungry, and that I could have a slice of the apricot pie she baked as soon as I got back to the ship. The line is completely pointless. The subject never comes up again, it doesn’t build into any new characterization, and the game would be functionally identical without it, but even so, they went to the trouble of writing and recording a voice line for it. Similarly, while Roll is established as your mechanic, she’s not the person who saves your game and heals you, it’s a small robotic monkey that constantly does The Monkey like Johnny Bravo, and I can’t fathom why. That is to say, I can’t fathom why it’s constantly dancing and I also can’t fathom why it was included in the game at all, but there it is. The more I looked for it, the more I noticed how Legends is completely saturated with pointlessness, including its plot. The stakes are incredibly low, you’re simply trying to find a treasure before the Bonne Family Pirates do, but they’re such a loving family of good-natured criminals that you wouldn’t mind them winning. In multiple cutscenes, MegaMan seems like he wants to communicate to the Bonnes that there’s no real reason to fight, but they keep doing it because they love it. Details like these give the game a totally unique atmosphere of joyous pointlessness, like the developers themselves were building the game in ways that made them laugh, regardless of how much sense their design actually made. The game feels like a celebration of doing things entirely for their own sake, and not getting too caught up in finding a grand purpose. I wouldn’t exactly call it The Myth of Sisyphus for kids or anything, but at the very least it’s a perfect example of how pleasant it can be that there ain’t no point to the game.
I’m only on Backloggd occasionally, so I’m uncertain if the mood has shifted away from calm personal essays that don’t focus too much on the game, but heads up, that’s what this one is. You can relax that tension you’re holding in your shoulders.
I’m between jobs right now, in a manner of speaking. My last day of the job I’ve had for the last six years is this Friday, and my next one starts Tuesday. After a few months of interviewing, I thought this would be a triumphant moment, but honestly, I don’t know what to feel. The people here took a chance on a green-as-grass college grad like me and taught me everything I know, so it doesn’t feel great to leave them behind. On the other hand, I feel like I don’t have a choice, with how the market demands you keep up with skills, and how this office’s days seem somewhat numbered. The new role seems nice and all, but there are some pretty loud whispers that things might get hard for everyone soon, and if that happens, being the newest hire isn’t an enviable position. So, I’m in a weird overlap where I have a firm direction, but I don’t know where I’m actually going, or what any of this is leading to.
That’s something that the protagonist of Titan Chaser and I have in common, I think. You might guess that a game about a freshly-hired colossus wrangler would center on action, but instead, the main focus is on their similarly uncertain internal monologue. They wonder about what’s happening back in the city, what their parents are up to, whether this job should be pursued as a career, all the mundane anxieties one would expect to have in real life, just juxtaposed against the backdrop of safely guiding a giant wyvern down the road with an old car. There’s an obvious absurdity to it, like, how could they be thinking about their apartment arrangement when a dragon is just ten meters overhead? Instead, our protagonist simply gets the job done, while learning (and loving) the car’s functional quirks and musing about the future. It makes them come off as a bit distant at first, but it’s a perspective that has a subtle beauty to it. The car is a little wonky, but that can be appreciated, it’s simply a feature of its nature. The dragon doesn’t need to be worried about if the right process is followed, nature will simply run its course. So, the unusual calmness doesn’t signify detachment, but rather, a presence of understanding. After all, there’s no sense in breathlessly trying to get out of a car all in one motion, you turn off the engine, engage the brake, open the door, get out, and close it. You can’t lead a wyvern home by standing miles away and screaming, you gently guide it point by point. The final step that the protagonist and I need to accept is how you can’t take on the burdens of a lifetime all in one day. You may feel like there’s a dragon overhead, but really… that's ok!
Also, this game was recommended by the lovely Lily, who I hope y'all are already following by this point. Thanks for another good tip!
It takes a lot of guts to release a licensed game that never directly references the name of the anime it’s based on. In fact, the resulting confusion about Einhander’s story is so prevalent that it’s totally eclipsed the discussion of the game itself, but I can hardly blame anyone for focusing on that. It’s a nice shoot-em-up and all, picking up and switching between weapon pods is fun and the control is excellent, but at the end of the day it’s still a pretty standard genre title. What elevates it is its presentation, with its dynamic camera, excellent soundtrack, and the aforementioned mystery surrounding its story. If you go in without knowing the background, all this business about Selene sending Einhanders on desperate attacks to Sodom to destroy resources and collect data for the EOS computer is so bewildering that it makes your imagination run wild. The developers likely predicted that confusion to some degree, and provided a wall of text in the attract mode to introduce the history of the moon wars and the return of Gesetz, but that really isn’t enough to contextualize seven stages worth of background details. It’s really a shame, because playing this game after watching all 26 episodes made it feel like a greatest-hits album, replicating some of the best battles that 90’s mecha had ever seen in a faithful and stylish way.
Now, to do you a favor that the Einhander team at Square never did, I’ll go ahead and confess that such an anime never actually existed. All those plot points are real, but for some reason they belong to a 3-hour shmup instead of a long-running show. Not only that, they’re presented in a strangely quiet way, being hidden in results screens, the signs in the background, and even the gallery mode. There’s very little reason for them to be in this game at all, but as you may have guessed, that’s exactly what I love about Einhander. The developers came up with this really deep background even though it was entirely unnecessary, showing that they didn’t just set out to make a cheap game in a genre with a steady audience, they were real fans. It gives the game a certain sparkle that’s impossible to fake, and it makes me wonder about the potential for storytelling in genres not normally associated with stories at all. Maybe the concept of playing as someone unimportant to the grand scheme of a much larger, world-scale story could be explored a bit more. Maybe it would be fun to create adaptations of nonexistent media. The amount of ways for games to tell a story feels like it still has tons of untapped potential, and I’m glad that a weird shoot-em-up from 1997 ended up being the perfect example.
I’ve been told that a propensity for smalltalk is one of the little things that reveal someone as American, but even as an introvert who was never super good at it, I never found it as off-putting as some of my friends around the world do. Sure the words themselves are pointless, but I think it’s nice when people can spend a couple seconds establishing some tiny human connection. Of course, when you get into a situation where it drags on for minutes at a time, that’s when the unspoken social contract has been broken. The idea here was to invest a small amount of time to connect and lift the feeling of uncertainty from the air, but once that’s complete, the connection benefit is far outweighed by the social energy required to keep going. When you think about it, this principle of energy input vs. energy return can be generally applied to the effectiveness of a lot of things, and it’s part of the reason I’ve been writing shorter reviews than before. For every second I demand, I should hope to return an appropriate value, and that’s easier to do when maintaining a strong focus. With this in mind, after completing Nier Replicant, I’m sitting here wondering what the thought process was in making players repeat ~15 hours of content across 4 additional playthroughs before seeing the few short scenes which complete the narrative. It’s not that what’s here is terrible, but again, it’s like bad small talk. The story creates little connections and pulls at your heart, but the investment it demands is disproportionate to the return. It creates the same sort of annoyance that you could feel with someone who’s excessively chatty; you go from thinking it’s nice to meet someone so friendly, to wishing they would leave you alone for a while. As beautiful as the game is, and even with how most of it is executed well, that’s the unfortunate feeling that comes to mind as I look back on the experience. It’s nice, it’s fine, but I feel like it chose not to respect my time, making that lack of respect unfortunately go both ways.
When you think about it, the principle of energy input vs. energy return can be generally applied to a lot of things, and it’s part of the reason I’ve been writing shorter reviews. For every second I demand, I hope to return an appropriate value, and that’s easier to do when maintaining a strong focus. With this in mind, after completing Nier Replicant, I’m sitting here wondering what the thought process was in making players repeat ~15 hours of content and complete 5 playthroughs before seeing the few short scenes which complete the narrative. I had the exact same thought when I was finishing Automata, and although I was willing to give it some credit back then, I was surprised to see that the exact same gimmick was already used in the previous game. Just like with Automata, it’s not that what’s here is terrible, but again, it’s like bad small talk. The story is as dramatic as one would hope for, but the investment it demands is disproportionate to the return. It creates the same annoyance that you could feel with someone who’s excessively chatty: you go from thinking it’s nice to meet someone, to wishing they would leave you alone for a while. As beautiful as the game is and how well most of it has been executed, that’s the unfortunate feeling that fills my mind as I look back on the experience. It’s all fine, but I feel like it chose not to respect my time, which made the lack of respect go both ways.
When you think about it, the principle of optimizing energy input vs. energy return is a fundamental rule of nature, and it’s part of the reason I’ve been writing shorter reviews (other than general laziness, of course). Every second that you spend reading this should be worth your while, and that’s easier to do when staying focused. With this in mind, after finishing this game, I’m sitting here wondering why players had to complete 5 playthroughs before seeing the ending cutscenes. I had the same thought when finishing Automata years ago, but while I was willing to give it some credit back then, I was surprised to see that the same gimmick was used in the previous game. Just like with Automata, it’s not that what’s here is terrible, but again, it’s like bad small talk. The story is as dramatic as one would hope for, but the investment it demands is disproportionate to the return. It’s sorta like how I’ve intended to watch that new Batman movie for a while now, but the three-hour runtime creates such a mental block that I never decide to actually start watching it. It would probably be a fun enough little movie, but I know Batman will just be doing the things I expect him to do, so I don’t think I would get three hours worth of enrichment from it. As beautiful as Nier is and how well most of it has been executed, that’s the unfortunate feeling that fills my mind as I look back on the experience. It’s fun but widely uninriching, and I feel like it chose not to respect my time, which made the lack of respect go both ways.
When you think about it, the principle of optimizing energy input and return doesn’t just apply to media, it’s a rule of nature, and it’s part of the reason I’ve shortened my reviews. Every second that you spend reading them should be worth your while, and that’s an easier promise for me to keep when I stay focused. If I don’t, then even my audience might lose focus, making even the parts that they did engage with quickly fade from memory. With this in mind, after finishing this game, I’m sitting here wondering why players had to repeat so many hours of content in Nier before seeing a satisfying conclusion. I had the same thought when finishing Automata years ago, but while I was willing to give it some credit back then, I was surprised to see that the same gimmick had already been used in the previous game. It’s not that what’s here is terrible, but again, it’s like drawn-out small talk. The story is as dramatic as one would hope for, but the investment it demands is disproportionate to the return, especially when a plot that’s fairly obvious dips into indulgent melodrama. It’s not like the media you consume needs to be analyzed as such a clinical and unartistic transaction of course, wasting time has a lot of its own benefits, but a line needs to be drawn somewhere for the best use of your time. As beautiful as the game is and even with how most of it is executed well, that’s the unfortunate feeling I get when I look back on the experience. It’s fun, it’s fine, but I feel like it chose not to respect my time, which made the lack of respect go both ways.
When you think about it, the principle of optimizing energy input and return doesn’t just apply to media, it’s a fundamental rule of nature, and it’s part of the reason I’ve shortened my reviews. Every second that you spend reading them should be worth your while, and that’s an easier promise for me to keep when I stay focused. If I don’t, then even my audience might lose focus, making even the parts that they did engage with quickly fade from memory. With this in mind, after finishing this game, I’m sitting here wondering why players had to repeat so many hours of content in Nier before seeing a satisfying conclusion. I had the same thought when finishing Automata years ago, but while I was willing to give it some credit back then, I was surprised to see that the same gimmick used in the previous game. Speaking of Automata, I was really split on whether I should do a standard review for this game like I did for Automata, or whether I should be a self-indulgent hack like I am right now. I decided on this format mostly because doing a repeat of “it’s a fine game, but its obvious plot, melodrama, and repetition bugged the hell out of me” would be a bit pointless. It’s not that writing another review like that would be terrible, but again, it’s like drawn-out small talk. The investment it would demand is disproportionate to the return. It’s not like the media you consume needs to be analyzed as such a clinical transaction of course (wasting time has its own benefits) but a line needs to be drawn for the best use of your time. As well as most of it may-or-may-not have been executed, that’s the unfortunate feeling that probably fills your mind as you look back on this experience. At the very least, *I* had fun, I think it’s fine, and maybe that’s how Nier’s creators felt, so in the end it goes both ways.
I don’t know how much analytical credibility I have left at this point, but I would like to cash the rest in by saying that this game’s quick-time-event-only design was actually a great concept. The limited technology of 1983 and the inherent difficulty of producing animation meant that the interactivity was always going to be limited, so the question was how to get the most out of very little. The developers’ solution was to keep players on track by only giving them an indirect form of control: they can’t freely move around, but simply input the direction to dodge whenever danger appears. Even with this small amount of agency though, players are asked for a surprising amount of wit and attention. For example, consider this little scene where Dirk enters a room with three potential exits: the wall, the door, and the hole in the ceiling. Players have a moment to take in that information, then dodge the bolt from the left, then upwards to avoid the fire that’s forming a circle on the bottom of the screen, then back and left to dodge a final bolt and move the table. By taking in the possibilities given by the establishing shot, reading the visual language of the hazards, and thinking fast, you can succeed even without prompts on screen. By doing this, some of the big pitfalls of QTE’s are avoided, in that they’re fully contextualized, don’t have arbitrary inputs, and don’t suddenly occur after unrelated gameplay. In addition, multiple directions are valid for many of the hazards, ensuring that players are rewarded for perceptiveness more than just memorization. It makes for a fun little adventure where you’re always thinking on your feet, being observant, learning to stay calm, and enjoying the quality of the humor and animation.
Now, to start building up my credibility again, go back and circle that “concept” word in the first sentence. While everything I said in the previous paragraph is true, the game breaks the fundamental rules too often to properly deliver on the idea. Some scenes do have those great establishing shots which keep the game fair, but some will literally flip 180 degrees at the last moment to ruin your sense of direction. The pacing between inputs is also inconsistent, sometimes requiring multiple dodges for what feels like a single hazard. Worst of all, the little flashes which indicate the right answer are sometimes red herrings, killing you for following directions. As I wrote for my first playthrough, it’s possibly the most token-takey game ever made, and that really does make me a bit sad. It didn’t have to be this way, players just needed slightly more time, more consistent camera angles, and extra space between inputs. I genuinely believe that a game that’s all about reading the room and thinking fast with QTE’s could be a lot of fun, especially with that same humorous tone where the failures can be enjoyed as much as the successes. On the other hand, maybe I’ve lost all grip with reality since I’ve played this game so much that I can beat it without dying.
…well, there goes all my credibility again.
What usually makes low-budget movies so funny is that they’re not trying to be, it’s the flubbed earnesty which gives them relatable absurdity. What’s fascinating about that is how it means the audience’s sense of humor might be more relevant than the creator’s, and it’s an idea supported by how rare it is that sequels which actively try to recapture the fun of the original actually manage to do so. A success story would be The Evil Dead, a laughably straight-faced film which was followed by a sequel that cranked up the horror to the point of absurdity, but again, it’s up to the audience to determine where that point is. The location is especially variable in a case like Dead Space 2, where its louder, bloodier excessiveness resulted from a serious desire to court general audiences, rather than one to refine the original. When I first played it, I even refunded it for how patronizing the new tone felt, but since then, my sense of humor has shifted enough to find joy in it. The way the game opens with a necromorph exploding into blood and screaming in your face has become hilarious to me for how hilarious it’s not supposed to be; the enemies that peak around corners and sprint behind cover feel like they’re setting up the punchline where you staple them to a wall. Using engineering tools as weapons was originally an efficient device to blend story and gameplay, but here, the all-encompassing loudness gives the same tools a new sort of expressiveness. It’s the difference between a normal chainsaw and Ash Williams’ chainsaw hand: they theoretically have the same functionality, but the latter is the legendary centerpiece of a new and excessive tone. It might make you wish that Dead Space 2 had a similar wink to the audience to help avoid the disappointment I initially experienced, but I’m glad it doesn’t. It’s not like a terrible movie which only works when taken as a joke, it’s executed competently enough to work as pure action, action-horror, wildly gory horror-comedy, or maybe even just straight-faced horror. It really works perfectly, just as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously.
As you might expect from the way I constantly play and analyze important games, I try to do the same for albums, and this week I’ve been listening to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). This was the first time I sat down to listen to Wu-Tang, and while the name of the group should have been a big hint, what surprised me was how the album was almost… dorky? It’s packed with references and samples from kung fu movies which were getting old even at the time of the album’s release, and you would think they would make the whole thing sound dated, but the reality is just the opposite. These movies were such a huge inspiration for producer/singer/songwriter The RZA that every track shines with the love. If you want to see just how much, check out this amazing interview where he talks about the movies he’s sampled, it’s plain that the enthusiasm hasn’t waned even 1% all these years later. That earnest appreciation has a certain magnetism to it, and it characterizes Max Payne in the same way it does Wu-Tang. You have references to oldschool noir, comic books, John Woo action, a whole slew of disparate influences, but they blend in a way that only fans who deeply understand the material could accomplish. James McCaffrey’s performance of the titular character is a big part of what brings it all to life, giving Max an edge while also establishing him as someone with a genuine sense of humor, but the extreme situation has dulled his ability to tell fantasy from reality. This blur turns the bullet-time mechanic from a simple cinematic homage into something that’s iconically Max Payne; it’s hard to tell whether the slow mo is something he’s imagining, or if his adrenaline is actually giving him the edge. The game’s ability to reuse proven narrative language while injecting it with new personality in this way is what makes the game such a timeless classic, it shines with the love of its influences while also being entirely original. I can only hope the upcoming remake knows how to do the same.
A challenge can be anything that’s difficult to achieve, but to be challenged, in the sense of being called to action, carries a much more complicated set of implications. The most distinct is a sense of inescapability, that there are no alternatives but to rise and give your best within a certain set of limitations. The difference between the two is core to what I found lacking in Elden Ring, but it’s also what I think lies at the center of the game’s unprecedented appeal. In a game like Dark Souls, you could find yourself at the bottom of Blighttown with no way to easily boost your weapons, no way to upgrade your flask, no way to try a different weapon, nothing, you had to either press onwards, or do what no player wants to do, climb back out and redo the whole thing when more prepared. For lack of a better term, it was a challenge in both the intransitive and transitive senses; it was difficult, and it also confronted players with that sense of inescapability. Elden Ring’s wide open world with unimpeded access to weapon upgrades, weapon arts, summons, physick flasks, alternative progression paths, and so much more means that the only time the game presents an active challenge is an hour from the end, in the final couple bosses. The rest of the game is a wide open space where you can always go where you’re prepared, and snowball without pressure. The Souls games always let players do this to some extent, but the ease with which this can be achieved in Elden Ring is its unique selling point, and thus why I think it’s so appealing to newcomers. An open space dotted with intransitive challenges allows players of all skill levels to enjoy themselves in the way they want to, and never hit any brick walls. For me though, the most memorable parts of the series were the times like Blighttown and the drop into Anor Londo, when I knew that my only real choice was to press onwards against all odds. Elden Ring is clearly an artistically ambitious game, and I can applaud and respect it for that, but now that I’ve finished it, I’m left without any similar moments to remember. I’ll certainly recall playing it, but I’m afraid that the feelings associated with “to be remembered” will simply be lost.
The other day I was playing The Adventures of Bayou Billy, a beat-em-up for the NES developed by Konami. It was incredibly ambitious for its time, packing brawling, lightgun shooting, and 3D driving all on one cartridge, but what stood out to me wasn’t the technical mastery, but the fact that it was hard as balls. Even as someone with Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and Gradius under my belt, this game was absolutely ridiculous. I looked up some info to see if I was doing something wrong, but as it turns out, when localizing the game for the west, Konami more than quadrupled the difficulty. You deal half the damage and last half as long in the brawler sections, and when driving you don’t get a health bar at all, instantly dying from any mistake. After my desperate struggle to finish the game, I booted up the Japanese version and beat it in one shot without dying. So, not only was I upset at Konami for putting westerners through that, I was also annoyed that there isn’t a, for lack of a better term, correct version of the game. One is way too hard, but the other is so easy that you can just stand in one place mashing the punch button and get through just fine.
The reason I bring this up is because Contra: Hard Corps was also tweaked for the West, but that might not be obvious when you first boot it up. It plays just like any other Contra game; you jump around trying to upgrade your gun as fast as you can so you can fill the screen with bullets before enemies kill you in one shot. So, what did they change? As it turns out, in the Japanese version you have a life bar, which seems like an alien concept to the Contra series. Dying in one hit is one of the little things that gives the series its identity, so this time when I tried the Japanese version after the American one, I had a much more puzzled reaction. The game was still hard, and I enjoyed how the repetition was much lower, but there was a feeling that it wasn’t quite right. Before jumping into Hard Corps, I had beaten Contra, Super C, 3, and 4 back-to-back, so the aforementioned departure in gameplay, combined with its shift in aesthetic, made it feel more like an imitator than a true member of the series. It didn’t make the different characters and weapons any less cool, and the set-pieces were still the best in the franchise, but it didn’t quite feel like Contra.
So, the question now is how much that feeling is truly worth. If analyzed by retro-gaming fans, I’m sure they would say the western version is definitive, while reviews done in a contextual vacuum would likely prefer the smoother Japanese version. What makes this extra complicated is how it’s influenced by a factor outside the game’s control, and even outside the control of the games it’s compared with. Contra used to be a huge name in gaming, but now it’s been more than ten years since any well-received titles have come out, and the cultural knowledge of what Contra means is fading from memory. So, what’s considered the better version of Contra: Hard Corps may slowly change over time, purely through a slow evaporation of the cultural context which set it apart from its contemporaries. Even that might be optimistic thinking though, considering how this game has never seen a rerelease, and is likely to disappear as soon as the brand consciousness which anchors it to gaming history starts fading away. That would be a shame since I really love this game, BOTH versions of it, so to help keep Contra alive, play this one. Remember what Contra was all about.
Here’s a very non-rhetorical question for you: do you rate games based on how much you enjoy them, or how good you think they are? They’re often the same thing, but in the case of Parasite Eve 2, I’m almost shocked at my own rating compared to how much I enjoyed it. It makes incredible use of the PlayStation hardware, it mixes the classic survival horror I love with some fun powers and unlockables, but… it’s not very good. The idea of this sequel was to innovate on the survival horror genre in the way its predecessor explored the idea of a cinematic modern RPG, but it lacks the same level of focus. It muddles atmosphere-building tools like tight camera angles and slow movement with power fantasies like bottomless ammo boxes and on-demand magical healing. It uses a quiet, understated pacing to continue a narrative that was operatic and grandiose; it carries over just enough of its old ideas to sink the potential of the new ones. Not only that, but the features removed in the process of survival horror-ization were some of the most unique, like exchanging properties of different weapons to create 12 gauge SMG’s that shot lightning, and replaced them with the weapons Resident Evil fans were used to. However, maybe it’s that level of familiarity that still makes this game enjoyable for me. There’s a certain catharsis in casting a spectacular firaga instead of praying that I have enough grenades, and getting out of sticky situations by magically enhancing my ammo feels like I was allowed to cheat. That’s the sort of novelty I can appreciate, in spite of how it’s a result of being uncommitted to either its RPG roots or its new direction. If you’ve played Parasite Eve and were looking to jump into the sequel, I would genuinely recommend playing a couple Resident Evil games beforehand to get the most of it. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for a game that will mentally prepare me for The 3rd Birthday.
Note: I played all the Dishonored games back-to-back, so my thoughts on Death of the Outsider directly follow my review of Dishonored 2.
Well, here it is. A Dishonored game that trusts in the player. The chaos system is gone, you don’t have to restrict yourself to one playstyle anymore, and decisions can be made organically. Instead of being told to go kill someone, then getting pulled to the side for a nonlethal option, you’re simply presented with a situation and handle it as best you can. It’s a bit more in the vein of Deus Ex, where the choice-based gameplay is about the way you move through the world, rather than narrative branching points. As such, the Outsider never feels the need to pop in and explain the idea that choices have consequences, and Billie doesn’t pontificate to the audience either. The game just… goes. It breathes. It lets you do what you already know how to do and doesn’t treat you like an idiot.
The downside, of course, is how it was designed this way as a result of its smaller scope. Dishonored games are known for being short, and this expansion pack is shorter, so the possibilities are the most restricted they’ve ever been. Billie only gets three powers: a blink, a scouting tool, and a way to impersonate other characters, and there are no runes to upgrade them or unlock more. Unlike before, the tools here a directly stealth-oriented, so I get the sense that the idea was to make up for a smaller scope with a tighter focus. This is about as close to a pure stealth game as Dishonored has ever gotten, which might compound with the removal of the chaos system to disappoint players who value experimentation and replayability. The game also isn’t very good at explaining what makes its limited toolset interesting, since the first level is done without powers, and one of the most important features in the game is hidden behind an optional bone charm. This charm, which I feel the need to highlight/spoil because I find it so key to making the game play smoothly, is called Third Eye. Billie’s version of blink is the shortest in the series, and it’s meant to be mitigated with how she can blink to locations she tags in the scouting mode. It’s an interesting idea, but in practice, it can end up meaning that doing a single blink involves standing still, using Foresight, placing the marker, switching back to blink, blinking, then doing it again. It can feel painfully clunky until you find Third Eye, which allows for the placement of two markers at once. Not only does this shorten the amount of time spent placing markers, it more than doubles the amount of clever tricks you can use the ability for, chaining blinks and creating contingency plans in interesting ways. When I see people say the powers in this expansion are useless, I wonder if they just never found this feature and were stuck playing a much clunkier version of the game than I was.
When evaluating Death of the Outsider, these are the situations that keep coming up. I really loved the new spin on the blink ability, but some people might miss an essential piece and not enjoy themselves. I always played these games in full-stealth, so focusing on that was great, but others might miss having a kit of assault abilities. The patronizing nature of the chaos system and choices always bothered me, so I appreciate how they were removed, but seeing the changes associated with each chaos level was a boon for replayability. When summarized this way, it becomes apparent that what makes this expansion interesting to me is in the ways it deviates from, rather than iterating upon, the Dishonored formula. After two games and a sizable DLC, this sort of departure is everything I wanted, but an expansion pack relying on being tired of its own series is in a tenuous situation. At the very least, it might explain why Arkane has gone on to make games so aesthetically different from Dishonored; they may have felt like they had done a fine job exploring the idea and it was time to do something new. I really commend them for that, I’m glad I could replay the entire franchise in one go and enjoy it all the way through, instead of reaching Dishonored 5: Dude Where’s My Honor and wishing it ended a long time ago. As much as I’ve complained about the narratives in these games, at least Arkane has shown they know how to wrap up a franchise in style.
Note: I played all the Dishonored games back-to-back, so my thoughts here directly follow my review of the first game.
I wasn’t certain of myself when bringing up the cynicism I felt in Dishonored, since there wasn’t a way to factually nail it down, but that same patronizing tone is so persistent in the sequel’s writing that I feel much more self assured. In the first game, it was a result of the chaos system, with its punishments and blatant signposting to ensure that players didn’t make the wrong choices, but now it’s directly presented through spoken dialog. The Outsider’s voice has changed, not just in the literal actor, but in the tone they strike when speaking to Emily, our new protagonist. They used to speak in a way that was detached yet intrigued, but now all subtlety has been replaced with direct questions like “What choices will you make? Are you clever enough to accomplish your goals without spilling a river of blood?”. Emily soliloquizes cliches like “What will I have to do? What will I have to become to stop Delilah?”, it’s all so direct to the audience that it’s practically a fourth-wall break. A large percentage of the dialog in general is dedicated to yelling at players that their decisions will impact Emily’s relationships, rather than using it to actually flesh those relationships out.
This builds into the wider problem with Dishonored 2’s story, how Emily, her relationships, and her struggle have no substance. The thrust of the plot is that Delilah, the illegitimate sister of the previous empress, launches a coup against the young heiress Emily. Delilah’s entrance is certainly violent, but that’s the full extent of Emily’s justification to become judge, jury, and executioner for everyone involved. Her entire motivation is to take back what she feels belongs to her, completely missing the irony of how she’s doing the exact same thing Delilah just did. What doesn’t help is how she constantly talks about how horrible of a ruler she was, how she never paid attention to the papers she was signing, never looked into how the provinces were being ruled, and never listened to what people were telling her, so the first time she shows any interest is after losing the associated privileges. Her allies occasionally call her out for being a terrible person, but it’s sparse and toothless. Here’s my least favorite exchange in the entire series as an example:
Emily: There were parties like that in Dunwall. Full of toadies sucking up to me, stabbing each other in the back.
Meagan: Poor Empress. I could see those party lights from across the river in the abandoned butcher shop where I slept… in the flooded district.
Emily: I know you grew up hard, Meagan. I used to wander Dunwall with my face hidden, but when I got tired of it, I could always go back to the Tower. Karnaca’s given me perspective.
Meagan: Good. After you’ve eliminated the Duke, find what he’s holding for Delilah and take it.
Meagan: Poor Empress. I could see those party lights from across the river in the abandoned butcher shop where I slept… in the flooded district.
Emily: I know you grew up hard, Meagan. I used to wander Dunwall with my face hidden, but when I got tired of it, I could always go back to the Tower. Karnaca’s given me perspective.
Meagan: Good. After you’ve eliminated the Duke, find what he’s holding for Delilah and take it.
There’s so much wrong with these four lines that it blows my mind. Emily jokes about how irresponsible she’s been and responds to Meagan's tragic story with a level of shallow sympathy that borders on flippancy, but the statement that she’s gained perspective is enough to let it all slide. Worst of all, this is the most character development we ever get for Emily: she never questions her own right to rule, her beliefs are never challenged, and even our devil’s advocate, the Outsider, only seems concerned with how many people she kills along the way. Part of the reason why might be because Corvo can also be selected as the protagonist, using the same powers as last time and throwing the narrative structure of the series in the bin. Corvo’s arc was already complete with the first game, he had power, lost it, and seized it back in a way that reflected the nature of mankind; it was everything a story titled “Dishonored” needed to be. Bringing him back to rescue the same person from another similar threat with the same powers would be questionable even if he was the only protagonist, but mixing it in with the canonical choice of Emily brings us back to that same old player-directed cynicism.
As much time as I’ve spent thinking about it, I can’t come up with a reason why Corvo would be a playable character other than a concern that people wouldn’t want to play as a girl with different powers. It makes sense to include his abilities if they were already working in-engine, but was his character really worth hobbling the plot for? The counterargument is that it lets the gameplay have more depth and variety, and this is where I have to do the exact same thing as the last review: concede how even the feeling that the developers thought I was an idiot who didn’t understand choice, or a pitifully fragile gamer who didn’t want to play as a girl, still wasn’t insulting enough to stop me from enjoying an otherwise well-made game. The environments and level design are fantastic, some of its set-pieces have become legendary, from a technical side it’s all great… but I’m still left hoping for a Dishonored game that trusts me enough to actually appreciate it.
Dishonored’s chaos system fascinates me. On the surface it’s a basic kill-counter, where actually using the fun lethal magic is punished with increased guard counts and a pessimistic ending, and this naturally rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. When given the ability to stop time, what people want to do is take down an entire squad all at once, queue up ten projectiles for when time resumes, move someone back down the stairs, and so on, not just sneaking past one particularly stubborn guard. When given the ability to summon a devouring swarm of rats, the idea isn’t to possess one and sneak it into a drain pipe, it’s to make an explosive and terrifying entrance. Dampening that enjoyment with negative consequences seems like an unambiguously bad move, but the narrative framing that surrounds it leads into an analytical hall of mirrors. These powers are granted by the Outsider, a manifestation of the indefinable void, and their reasons aren’t very clear. They state that it’s because our protagonist is interesting, and they’re curious of what will be done with these newfound abilities. Just as the Outsider grants Corvo powers and a burden of choice, so too does the designer give them to the player, which, to a degree, lets us correlate the ideals of the two. To craft these levels with smart patrol routes, entry points, optional objectives, and bonus dialog takes a ton of effort, so the hope was that players wouldn’t choose to miss that content. While they made it possible to do so, they don’t actually want players to walk in the front door, shoot everyone in sight, and finish the game thoughtlessly in two hours, so some level of punishment was implemented. Similarly, the hope of the Outsider is that Corvo isn’t going to be boring, he won’t just give in to his base lust for revenge, and will instead give some insight on the nature of humanity. Once the uninteresting aggression has been pared off, the choice is then between taking out the high-priority targets lethally or non-lethally, and this where the situation actually becomes nuanced. All of the non-lethal, low-chaos options for eliminating targets are arguably worse than death: being branded with a hot iron and cast into a plague-infested city, being worked to death in a mine, kidnapped by an obsessive stalker, or put up for the same kind of public execution Corvo was originally destined for. The optional dialog in each mission really hammers home just how horrible things will be for those who receive your mercy, with the same overseers who mention the heretic’s brand being the same ones who reveal its horrible implications, and the prophesying heart making it clear that the spared Lady Boyle will soon die in abject poverty thanks to your beneficence. I believe this is the dilemma that the Outsider, as a being outside mortality and time, wants to see. Corvo himself was almost executed outside the law, but now he has all the power in the world and nothing to lose. What perspective on life and death does that give a person? Would he see even the most brutal rat-swarm death as justice, and maybe even merciful compared to the torturous and prolonged alternative? How much is mere existence worth?
However, that perspective rests upon the ever-shaky foundation of determining the developer’s intent, and it’s questionable how much of this is simply overanalysis. After all, every one of those horrible non-lethal options contribute to the low-chaos ending, with its bright skies and optimism. What could have been a dilemma worthy of the Outsider’s interest, one with no right answers, ends up as a right-and-wrong binary choice. This might be another example of the full-lethality problem, where the developers wanted players to have a choice, but had to associate some options with punishment to force players into thinking. With this, we arrive at Dishonored’s infinite mirror, of asking why players are given a choice if one option is almost objectively inferior, which can be answered with the idea that this effect is deeply woven into the narrative, which can in turn be questioned when it means interesting dilemmas are made into binary choices with inferior options, and so on, to infinity.
To be honest, I don’t know what my takeaway about Dishonored’s chaos system and its story really is. On one hand, I love that I get to question these things, but on the other, I wonder if its choices being blandly sorted into high or low chaos was just a cynical move, an anticipation that players might not pick up on the worldbuilding details and say there was no point to it all. Giving the murderous players a dark and stormy final level was considered the best way to show that the world was reacting to their choices; non-lethality had to be rewarded with smiles and sunny days, the feeling of being patronized is inescapable. That sneaky bitterness of cynicism is about the only thing that keeps me from really adoring the game, since it does everything else so beautifully, the world is so unique and interesting, the levels intricate and the powers satisfying, it’s the exact sort of originality I love to see. I just wish I could be confident that the game thought as highly of me as I do of it.