52 Reviews liked by akanta
The game starts with a battle inside a train. In the aftermath, the beaten thugs stay on the floor until the train stops. Once off, another fight begins. After that, you proceed to the next screen and another fight begins. This one has no end, just a fade to black and a title drop. No catharsis on any punch or on any victory. After that, another message. A year has gone by. The same gang feud is still going on and getting worse.
After this skip, the first thing you see is Ringo's professor telling him that the last days of high school are coming up, and it’s time to decide where to head on with your life. In here, the already decontextualized beat’em up setting gains a new dimension when noticing that the violence is not just non-cathartic, but a background. Some gangs fight each other, some others want to fight you, you can run away from any of them and if you get beat up there is no fail state, just another action in the world and waking at home after some rest.
This may be a disheartening view of the world just because, but when examining your own actions, it becomes evident that there is no other way, or not easily so. You have no financial support and will starve for most of the time, at the very least on the first days. Your only income source is to pick money from beaten thugs, by your own hand or not, and it’s easy to assume that most of the teenagers around are in a very similar place.
The means for covering basic necessities is just a small part, since Ringo’s life is explored in all its aspects, since he wakes until he goes to sleep. Here it is interesting to see his approach to hobbies or interests like literature, studies, or even exercise, be it through fights or through training with some masters. In any case, the result of taking interest in those topics will be some numbers going up. Simple abstraction or not, intentional or not, despite whether Ringo is interested in what he is doing or not, what remains is a cold number, an objective. This could be compared with how modern Persona games free time actions help you build stats making every decision a strategic decision, at least partially, but here the answer is more vague, or directly non-existent, there is no benefit to what to do or not to do because there are no good or bad outcomes. The usual short length on most events, just a few lines of dialogue, help to convey both the fugacity and sudden impact of the small moments and their relative insignificance on the bigger picture when searching for a change.
The game takes influence from Yakuza and Shenmue, and while it’s easy to see where it comes from, there is a major difference. There is no immediate catharsis on the infinite time for side activities like in Yakuza and no real objective to struggle for like in Shenmue. If anything, it looks more like what San Andreas would be if there were no missions, just going around the neighborhood as the days go by. But the days will eventually end. To me, the most similar game to Ringo Ishikawa is Boku no Natsuyasumi.
Of course, with a very different tone, there is a similar sense in getting up every day and going around from one screen to another looking for things to do in the city. Also, at least in my case, a certain routine started to appear, making each day like a small poetry exercise. I liked to go to some places at some time, to repeat some activities, to create my own daily plan in both games. In both, the intention is to get the better of every day. In Boku no Natsuyasumi, the conclusion was that even the days when nothing happened were as good as any other. In Ringo Ishikawa, even when something happens, the sense is that of still being lost, and then marching another day trying to find something.
Here is a lot to praise about how the map and the scenarios are constructed. Even though the tall infinite buildings can be seen in the background of many screens, the feeling when running around is that the place is too small and that there is a kind of life that cannot be escaped whatever you do.
If Kunio-kun and the eighties manga school gangster aesthetic suggest some sense of freedom through the sheer strength of youth, Ringo Ishikawa uses the template to illustrate the opposite, the end of the fantasy and the realization of how hard it is for a teenager to escape from where they are, or if it is even possible.
I went to school every day because I knew my friends were there.
Can’t wait for this game to be unfairly and completely ripped to shreds before annoying online personalities in a few years release “Starfield 3 Years Later: A Hidden Masterpiece?” This is inevitably a Bethesda game after all, but there is something magical in waiting for a new release. Todd Howard’s passion project love baby - so intricately dense and in parallel shallow with the same issues that plague anything he touches that, if I can’t lie, was exactly what I expected. And at the end of the day I can’t really complain - Hundreds of hours will be put into what’s made here - exploring, scavenging, talking and raiding until I’m left slamming my head wondering why I even bothered. Don’t even bother reading many reviews. It’s Starfield.
Suggested by @moschidae for this list. This probably wasn’t the kind of review you were hoping for, but I must be honest with my opinions.
Warning, this review does talk about suicide in the section about story.
To be honest, I haven’t played that many survival horror games. I’ve played a few Resident Evil games, Parasite Eve II, and little else. However, I think I have a decent grasp of how the genre usually works. Looking at the GameCube version of Resident Evil, you can see a lot of systems working together to make an incredible horror experience. Resource management, tight exploration, a few puzzles, story, atmosphere, etc etc… Maybe I’m being a bit harsh comparing one of the greatest of the genre to Yomawari: Midnight Shadows, but I do think it does a good job to show just how much this game falls on its face.
Let’s start with the gameplay. Most of the gameplay is walking around at night avoiding ghosts, exploration, and a few puzzles. You have a flashlight that can help you see spirits and a few items. As simple as this is, ghosts being invisible without the flashlight does add some good tension to gameplay. Anyway, let’s say you see a spirit and you want to get away from it. What do you do?
1. Just run away from it.
2. Hide in an object and wait for the ghosts to leave.
3. Throw one of two items at it.
2. Hide in an object and wait for the ghosts to leave.
3. Throw one of two items at it.
This is 9/10 encounters in the game. Very few enemies non-boss have unique properties, and even the ones that do are very simple. Shining the flashlight at this enemy makes it stop. Shining the flashlight at this enemy wakes it up. Etc etc…. Almost all either have a set path/location or will chase you when you get close to them. Maybe if this game was super short this would be acceptable, but it lasts for 7.5 hours according to Howlongtobeat.com (It took me just short of 9 though). Even if it was short, this wouldn’t excuse just how cheap some of the obstacles can be sometimes. Often, the game feels like trial and error, especially since you die in one hit, honestly. This isn’t the worst because of how plentiful save points are, but the abundance of save points also means that there’s rarely any tension. You’ll pretty much never lose more than a minute of progress. The game even did the thing that Resident Evil did where you need a usable item to save, but pretty much every save point had one lying nearby, and I always had more than half of the max. It literally serves no purpose, along with all the other resource management. This is because not only are items plentiful, but most aren’t super useful. Maybe I’d be compelled to use them a little more if there was any tension, but usually just running past an enemy worked fine regardless. The most interesting items were extremely rare. There was one item that’s basically a portable hiding place. In a better game, there would be a few of these strewn about, such that it was a rare resource, but still have an impact on gameplay. Combine this with sparser save points, and this game would automatically be significantly better. Instead, this item only shows up in one area of the game. Why is this the case? Who knows.
Since horror can’t be derived from gameplay tension, it’s mostly done through jumpscares. Honestly, I’m not averse to jumpscares as a concept, but I find them more funny than anything, especially since I’m usually not startled by them, especially when I know it’s gonna show up. It’s not my go-to for what makes good horror, and this game is no different.
Next let’s talk about the exploration. It’s not particularly great. While you can ‘explore’, there are two caveats. One, you must go to a specific location to progress the story, and two, the game aggressively nudges you to go that way most of the time. There’s very little to find exploring. There are a few collectibles, and seemingly many optional areas, but these are not particularly important to a casual playthrough. So, there’s really no reason to actually explore, and the game the game doesn’t want you to anyway most of the time. Cool.
Honestly, the game got ever so slightly better in Chapter 6, as the checkpoints become more sparse, leading to more tension. This gave me a bit of hope. Of course, the game couldn’t let me be happy. First, they introduce an enemy that, while unique in behavior, is completely useless. All it does is block you. It can’t hurt you. WHY?!?!? One of the few unique enemies and it has no impact?!?! Then, there’s another new enemy type. All these guys do is sit there. That sounds easy to get around, right? Wrong, because the hitboxes on these guys is absolutely nonsensical. I know it’s a top down game though, so I thought, “Maybe it’s just perspective”. But just watch this!! Honestly, this would be a slight annoyance in most games, but it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back here! WHY?!?! WHY DOES IT DO THAT?!?! WHY CAN’T THIS GAME LET ME BE HAPPY!?!?!?!?!?!?
Most Survival Horror games have puzzles, and Midnight Shadows kinda does. There’s few overt puzzles like the kind in Zelda or Resident Evil. The most puzzle-esque moments occur in the ‘boss fights’, where the game foreshadows how to defeat them with cutscenes, books, items, etc.... I like this, despite how obvious some of the hints can be. However, it’s not enough to make up for just how boring the rest of it is, especially since actually executing on the solution to a boss is just as boring and annoying as the rest of the game.
Since I’ve been really negative so far, let me give a positive: The game is really good when it comes to horror by exception. What I mean is that it knows when not to show you something. As I said earlier, you can’t see most spooky creatures unless you shine the flashlight on them. However, to run away from them, you obviously have to turn around. As such, when you’re running, you never know quite where the enemy is. This is pretty effective in a vacuum. A few neat things are done with the hiding mechanic too. Most of the time, it’s not great. You just go in a bush or whatever and wait for spirits to go away. You can’t see them, sure, but you also know they can’t hurt you while you hide. Not super engaging. However, they actually do something with it near the end. Yeah, just sitting there is annoying, but there’s a pretty effective moment later on where spoilers a monster basically kills another one while you’re hiding from them. It was a well-presented moment, and it sold me on the power of the spirit I was running from. Still, this moment wasn’t necessarily effective for gameplay, it was mainly just a story segment presented with a game mechanic.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the story. Let me tell you, I rolled my eyes when the game opens with a character hanging themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I take this topic seriously. However, this game just throws it out right in the beginning in the most manipulative way possible. Why should I care about this other than basic empathy? I know nothing about this character! I’m fine with a story tackling pretty much any subject matter as long as its done with respect, but there’s nothing respectful about this! It’s manipulative!
Does the story really justify this? Not really, at least not in how voyeuristic it feels. If they wanted this opening, I think just implying suicide would’ve been better. The actual reason this girl hung herself was because her dog and dad died and her friend was leaving town. That and ghosts of course. I can’t really say the suicide element added anything overall, despite a literal noose being in the game logo. So we’re off to a really bad start here.
Okay, what if we ignore all that? The story is still mediocre. Spoilers, I guess? Early on, each chapter of the game goes like this: Haru is trying to find her friend Yui. At the beginning we play as Yui for a bit. Then, we play as Haru searching for Yui. Often Haru goes to where Yui was earlier, but Yui is no longer there. Then, Yui is in a new place now for some reason. There’s other stuff, but it doesn’t matter at all in terms of the overall story. As such, it feels pretty repetitive and meandering. I forgot to mention that there’s another character here, Yui’s dog. It’s a dog. For some reason though, it seems to always know where Yui is. It’s not a bloodhound, mind you, but a little Pomeranian. I looked up the breed of the dog, as I’m not a dog expert. However, the dog is a ghost expert for some reason. Honestly, the dog probably does more to find Yui than Haru does, at least in the first half of the game. Really, the dog is little more than a plot device though. The dog runs somewhere, and you have to follow it. Haru wouldn’t get anywhere without this dog. Why isn’t the dog the main character anyway? It can probably hold a flashlight in its mouth. Just let me play as the dog. At least then I wouldn’t have to listen to Haru’s dialogue, which basically adds nothing. Everything she says is either exactly what you’d expect her to say or is just an obvious observation that feels patronizing when pointed out. Later, they try to give her an arc of becoming braver and not being scared of the spirits, but this comes out of nowhere, and it doesn’t actually change the gameplay. She can say she’s not scared all she wants, but the gameplay still revolves around running away, and the heartbeat effect still gets really fast when a spirit is close. The dog was never afraid of ghosts though. Just let me play as the dog, please.
Anyway, surprise, it turns out Yui has been dead this whole time. This isn’t a surprise, considering she hung herself in the opening (Haru is the friend I mentioned earlier, in case you couldn’t tell. The game seems to imply she was dead for a decent amount of time though, and that her and Haru hung out a little bit while she was a ghost. This doesn’t make sense to me because later Haru can’t see her. What changed? That aside, this implication doesn’t make sense at all. Haru is a kid, so I’m sure she told her parents what she was doing. If Yui was missing or known to be dead, wouldn’t people question her about this? Maybe this did happen, but I’d think Haru would’ve brought it up. I guess there’s plausible deniability in this case.
The ending is honestly alright. It does one unique thing regarding actually taking advantage of being a game, and I liked how it ended with Haru having to let Yui go. It’s nice, but it’s also connected to the rest of the game and the actual message wasn’t built up to particularly well. So overall, the story is not great either.
I think the best part of the game is the audiovisuals. All of the backgrounds and monster designs look really good, and the game has some really good sound design. I really love how the menus are made of the main character’s drawings, as it really reminds you that you are indeed playing as a kid. I only had one problem with the audiovisuals, honestly. Occasionally the layers of objects will be off, like an object that should be behind Haru will appear in front of her, for example. Other than that, it’s really great, and it contributes to a decent atmosphere. It seems that this was the bulk of the effort, but it makes me wonder why the creators didn’t just make a manga or anime, considering how basic the gameplay is. It doesn’t really take advantage of the medium in any way that a show or comic couldn’t, and the best parts are the audiovisuals and story, which is perfectly doable in a show.
Anyway uhh… This game is awful. It’s a failure on almost every level. 2/10, although much closer to a 3. It’s saved by the audiovisuals. It’s been a while since I played something this bad. Play Luigi’s Mansion instead or something. Sorry @Moschidae. At least I enjoyed reviewing it.
On the one hand, I think gacha is an interesting move for Project Moon. For the billion problems inherant to the genre, the gameplay in previous Project Moon games could easily fit well into it, and a game like Arknights (and maybe ONLY Arknights, though im sure theres others out there under my nose) proves that the medium has legitimate value as a means for some pretty excellent long form storytelling. And the sheer amount of money involved with a successfully operating gacha enables high production values and things like high amounts of voice acting and out-of-game official content, which i personally feel could be well suited to Project Moon's styles of game design and obscenely long storylines.
On the other hand - oh god project moon made a live service game, it has already fallen apart, and they will probably not get away with it. It runs like complete shit, it has already required enough maintenance to justify them sending out 20 free pulls to everyone, it is buggy beyond belief, and the general user experience is absolutely terrible in a genre that will eat you alive for not being tip top in terms of polish.
Main thing that needs to be said is that Limbus company is a game that feels an awful lot more complicated than it actually is. When you get down to it this game is heavily streamlined versus most Gacha (Genshin is a more complicated game than this, unironically), and the gameplay is essentially a bottom of the barrel autobattler with a colour matching minigame beforehand. The UI and onboarding process are utterly abysmal and really dont help matters, as the game flashes by way too much information way too fast, and then obscures pretty important stuff such as the coin flips and support skill stuff to an extent where it really just feels like a game you're meant to outlevel and turn your brain off.
This is compounded by the game being way too RNG heavy. It's not like its a game where you can really influence rolls or work to create strategies which work with variance, the game is just constantly flipping coins and rolling dice on what skills and stuff you get and who's getting the upper hand in fights. And it all happens so quickly its so, so easy to glaze over everything thats happening.
Maybe it's just knowledge of the other Project Moon games, but the whole thing has this impression that its really just another game in their universe that's been crowbarred into a gacha format rather than something built from the ground up to accomodate and really work with the model. It really shows with the particularly bizzare decision to make the game consist of only 12 units, with you essentially rolling your gacha for alters and special moves for them. I get it's going for a sort of MTG planeswalker thing where they show up in different forms all over and whatnot but, still seriously feels like writing yourself into a huge hole for a game set to be being built upon for years and years.
It isn't helped by a truly shit launch. If gacha gamers have standards for anything it's polish, and boy does this not have that. Performance is terrible, with hitching and frequent stutters on mid range phones and god forbid you've got anything over a few years old. Servers have already crashed multiple times, they've had to pull a pack from the shop for being underpriced (not a good move). Some UI buttons just don't work! Tooltips and menu stuff still come up in Korean! I can only imagine the state it must have been in before it got delayed.
I do still think the conceit of Project Moon doing a gacha has potential, but this isn't the realisation of that. This is more like another Project Moon singleplayer game that's been chopped and beaten into a gacha shaped hole, when they have two perfectly serviceable and extremely content rich games right there!
The writing and art chops of Project moon do seem to be here, even if "Mysterious amnesiac becomes commander of cool team" as a setup in gacha has now been beaten like a dead horse, and despite what's claims to the contrary, this really doesn't seem like the best jumping on point to the moonverse. And frankly, I would have serious doubts that the loyal fanbase can prevent limbus reaching end of service before it's story is done.
Maybe I was too naive with my hopes, but Limbus Company really just is a worst case scenario. Beloved developer goes live service, reaps all the negatives without a single thing for the good.
(Finished on Normal mode with Type A on [double digit] credits) Ehhhhh I didn't jive with this shooting game that much. It gets a bit too much brutal for my liking and the aesthetics don't appeal to me. The laser mechanic is cool, but I don't see myself wanting to replay DonPachi in the future. Good effort coming from Cave, but definitely better out there I bet.
'As from the darkening gloom a silver dove upsoars, so fled thy soul into the realms above, regions of peace and everlasting love.'
– John Keats, As from the darkening gloom a silver dove, 1814.
– John Keats, As from the darkening gloom a silver dove, 1814.
Within two years, Steven Meretsky had established a solid reputation with his work on Planetfall (1983), Sorcerer (1984) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984). In 1984, Ronald Reagan's re-election against Walter Mondale was a historic landslide, with Mondale only managing to win Minnesota and Washington, D.C. This resounding victory was due to the favourable economic climate, as the recession had eased in 1983. At the same time, commentators pointed to the inadequacy of Mondale's campaign compared to Reagan's: while Mondale's policies were very liberal by the standards of the US political landscape, they were seen as inimical to the interests of the middle class, who were more aligned with Reagan's agenda. Ultimately, Mondale's defeat was a setback for the progressive ideas fermenting on college campuses and elsewhere. A poll by the College Voice of Connecticut College, released on 6 November 1984, showed a significant preference for Mondale among students (51% to Reagan's 37%). But more interestingly, when asked 'Which candidate better reflects your views on the following issues?', Mondale emerged as the clear preference on all social issues (Equal Rights Amendment: 76/16; Abortion: 82/15; Social spending: 72/22; Nuclear freeze: 64/28) – on economic issues (47/46), his honesty undoubtedly worked against him. 
The Reagan presidency: a political critique
Reagan's landslide re-election was therefore a bitter disappointment for progressives. For Meretsky, making a political game as a way of taking a stand became a necessity. In contrast to the humorous style of his previous titles, A Mind Forever Voyaging was intended to be a serious piece of fiction, on a par with the classics of science fiction. Meretsky clearly incorporated the legacy of the classic counter-utopias: the characteristic themes of Yevgeny Zamyatin's My (1920-1921), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with their depiction of totalitarian states imposing tight control over their populations, are particularly evident. Just as Zamyatin described his disillusionment with the October Revolution (1917) and Huxley explored the socio-economic crisis following the 1929 Crash, Meretsky anchors his work in a critique of the key policies of the Reagan presidency. A Mind Forever Voyaging should therefore be read as a continuation of this critical tradition in science fiction.
The player assumes the role of PRISM, an artificial intelligence that has reached the singularity in 2031. The game manual begins with a short story that introduces the genesis of the PRISM project, which lived in a simulation to gain consciousness and emotions. In Perry Simm's fake life, the computer knew his parents, fell in love and married a woman called Jill. One day, Perelman, the head of the PRISM project, informs the AI that it was all a simulation and that he needs its help to evaluate the effects of Senator Richard Ryder's proposed Plan for Renewed National Purpose. The player, in the life of Perry Simm, can then explore the United States of 2041, ten years after the implementation of the Plan, to measure the changes in society. The game is not about solving puzzles, but about recording events and discussions and passing them on to Perelman's team. In the first act, the populist, war-mongering, neo-liberal rationale of the Plan seems to be followed by positive effects and economic recovery, just like the Reagan Doctrine. The streets are full of life and the population is generally happy. The cinemas offer a wide range of films, including a Korean production, Freefall. Cultural life is vibrant through a network of museums, concert halls, galleries and libraries.
From political commentary to interactive fiction: exploration and immersion
However, the player who embraces the non-linearity and freedom of exploration can already see the latent signs of economic inequality. While the city centre is welcoming and vibrant, the industrial area to the east is in a more dilapidated state, highlighting the lack of public support for this less privileged population and the superficial development projects that mask the structural problems. In some respects, the geography of the city is reminiscent of Chicago, and the problems of racial segregation, which will be exacerbated later in the simulation, are already apparent. The Border Security Force, already created in 2031 and anticipating the creation of Homeland Security (2002), also gives a glimpse of the armed force of the executive, ready to defend its interests and its conception of society. In any case, Perelman is satisfied with the results of the 2041 simulation, but he still has some concerns and asks PRISM to continue to study the simulation in depth to ensure that the Plan does not have any negative consequences. A dive into 2051 gives way to a very different picture of American society.
It has become largely radicalised, and from the very first moments the player witnesses scenes of police brutality, even in the protagonist's own apartment. As Perry moves from one street to the next, he is stopped by violent incidents and observes the deterioration of the socio-economic context: freedom of the press has been largely curtailed by the government, while religious proselytism has reached a critical point, with the success of a new religious sect taking precedence over traditional Protestantism and Catholicism. Cultural life is in decline, while environmental problems are on the rise, with mentions of over-exploitation and acid rain – classic environmentalist tropes of the 1980s. Perhaps most striking are the scenes of family life. The player can interact with Jill and observe how changes in society affect domestic harmony. This approach predates the main idea of Norman Spinrad's novel Russian Spring (1991), which also uses family relationships to explore the socio-political context of an alternate world in which the Soviets have emerged victorious from the Cold War. In A Mind Forever Voyaging, when the BSF invade the family home, the political changes take on a much more personal tone for PRISM, and Meretsky uses the power of interactive fiction to convey these emotions to the player, in contrast to the generally neutral and cold descriptions of totalitarian violence outside the protagonist's home.
A defence of a liberal and patriotic America
Subsequent simulations show a dramatic worsening of the situation: the family unit is completely disrupted, while public executions, concentration camps and the return of slavery, driven by the Church of God's Word, increase. Meretsky's critique is not subtle, but he contrasts this dystopian world with his own patriotic vision of a liberal United States. He attaches great importance to the democratic republicanism of the US, as evidenced by the negative valence given to the dismantling of statues of former presidents. His approach to food is also positivistic and carnist. When the player visits Burgerworld – the new name of Burger Meister –, meat has been replaced by algae and soy alternatives, which are portrayed as abhorrent.
Insofar as Meretsky's positions are in opposition to the Reagan presidency, A Mind Forever Voyaging is not intended to be a resolutely radical pamphlet either: it borrows many themes from contemporary social movements without indulging in the political activism of the 1960s Black Panthers or the Berkeley campus, which in fact culminated in the deadly confrontation at People's Park (1969) during Reagan's governorship. The symbolic power of the game lies in its less subtle elements. As the simulation progresses, the likelihood of the player dying for various reasons increases, a situation that culminates in the final section of the second act, where every action seems to be fatal for Perry. Armed with all these experiences, PRISM and Perelman must take action to prevent the Plan from being adopted, despite Ryder's threats. This last passage is the only puzzle in the title that requires the player to consult the documentation in PRISM's library. The player is then treated to a touching epilogue, which I must admit is one of my favourite moments in any video game.
A Mind Forever Voyaging is therefore not outstanding for its puzzles, but for its scale for its time. At the end of the era of text-based games, it offers a dense, exploration-oriented experience, with scenes in every corner of the city. In the first act, Perelman provides a list of events to record, but this disappears in the second act, where the player is free to explore and record whatever they wish. There is a real curiosity in comparing the simulations to see how the situation deteriorates over the decades. Perry is a witness in this cruel universe, where he has no control over his surroundings; when his family life collapses, he can only console Jill until it no longer works. At most, a command line 'RECORD ON' gives hope that these snapshots will allow Perelman to use his full weight to stop the Plan. A Mind Forever Voyaging is a unique work from the 1980s and retains its critical charge at a time of global far right resurgence. Just as it is always enlightening to revisit classic science fiction literature alongside more recent releases, so it is ever appropriate to reexamine A Mind Forever Voyaging.
 Connecticut College, College Voice, 6th November, 1984, p. 1.
 Connecticut College, College Voice, 6th November, 1984, p. 1.
Unlike the vignette Swampstar by independent collective Geography of Robots, Norco is too much of a game to spare it from a rating in favor of an appreciation as a piece of art on its own and in that context, it might look like I disagree with a majority of critics, giving the interactive amalgam of an RPG and a Visual Novel raving reviews, but I will actually not be able to say much different about it. My astonishing conclusion though is, that I'm still not all that impressed.
In theory, alternate Louisiana in Norco could be a fictional alien world to me just like Neo Tokyo or a city on Mars. I was even joking if the title describes narcotics for Trollans until I found out it was actually a brand name for pain medication. Little did I know, however, that Norco is also an actual census-designated place in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana that derived its name from the New Orleans Refining Company and is home to a major Shell manufacturing complex. I'm learning every day.
You don't have to think much about why the company in the game Norco is called Shield and with the Shell facility having experienced catastrophic explosions twice the story sure appears less far fetched. I recommend reading the Honeysweat interview with GoR's Yutsi if you'd like to know more on his growing up in sight of that factory, comparing it to Midgar in the world of Final Fantasy.
Even without knowing Norco specifically, I was of course aware of the condition our world is in and I think it's hard to not see how close the narration stays with things happening in reality. It sure is condensed and emphasized, but we have everything from AI to ponzi schemes, messed up religious beliefs, unregulated capitalism or privately organized space travel. It's not like Orwell is predicting the future a couple of decades away, it's more like holding up a mirror, showing us the dystopia we're creating for tomorrow or a day after.
Born and raised in a small town bordered by the dilapidated ruins of an industry, having watched a company burning down to the foundations and knowing the history of a group buying out farmers to build a production plant in the area, I can nothing but relate to protagonist Kay returning to Norco. It's what you recognize best at a carnival. There are those who are too young to escape and those who never made it out, but then there are other people in their thirties or rather forties, returning to family business - taking care of parents or bringing up children of their own in an environment that appears at least more family friendly than the big city.
For Kay it's late. She has tried to cut loose and ignored her cancer infested mother trying to get in touch. Time doesn't stand still when you're away and as much things don't seem to change as long as you're there, everything is weirdly different once you turned your back and tried to start a life of your own independently.
Norco uses pixel art to illustrate this story and I don't really understand how this can be seen as innovation, because digitizing photographs for instance is something going back to the old Amiga days at least. It's not ugly at all, but, especially with the retro trend of recent years, something I'd rather call standard opposite to some of the reviews I've read. Recreating that off grid Amiga feeling especially with the first person solo adventure layout is another cup of Grog.
I've mentioned it before in my review for One Night Stand, when playing Our World Is Ended as one of my first actual visual novels, I was missing interaction with the screen other than clicking text. Despite being described as a point'n'click I was lucky to read up enough on Norco before to not expect it being the familiar third person story puzzle, so I was merely amazed at first that Norco was allowing me to dive into the scenery as much as I'd define the character by text choices.
One thing I also enjoyed was the use of a mindmap to elaborate a thought process and reflect on the information received via dialogue, even though it often rather bothered me as doubling what I already understood. That tracking though also led to me speeding up reading to pass the character's annoying mumble (doesn't have to be voiced, but please…) and therefore forgetting key information I would have needed to authenticate for additional lore via the follow up Shield Nights (available for free on itch.io) that seems to consist mostly from background information I dug out elsewhere or could make sense of on my own, so I'm not tempted to replay Norco just to read some more liner notes.
The reason I'm not keen on revisiting Norco, not even to check for different character developments rather than the endings I think I caught the best from anyway, is that despite its captivating atmosphere it wasn't that much of a revelation to me. The fictional elements are better seen as surreal than to be dissected for a consistent explanation and the mood isn't the most welcoming happy place, so that adding an awkward fight system (autofight available after patch), clumsy boat ride or text adventure staircase mechanics acts as a repellent on me.
From a standpoint of classic graphic adventure gameplay Norco isn't very good even after the added expert mode. Most of the time it's either just not challenging, which is fine as long the plot goes on, or it's nerve wrecking in execution, which is destroying the flow. What Geography of Robots don't understand is guiding the player through puzzles alongside with the narration to unfold information seamlessly.
Ironically the distributor Raw Fury also has Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine by Clifftop Games in their catalog and Norco would fit perfectly as the spiritual tie in I was wishing for between those two brilliant point'n'click adventures. It's almost frightening how precise Norco combines ethereal elements from the first and a probably more obvious futuristic technology from the latter to another mystery plot. It's possible that makes me biased, but I'm actually more dreaming of how exchange of expertise between those indie developers could be a benefit to all of us.
With a splendid post-industrial depressive black metal track scoring the rolling credits it was rather a relief to end this adventure. I couldn't stop playing but didn't really enjoy Norco in the true sense of the word. For that, it's too much a reminder how fucked up this world is, it's too close to the somber atmosphere of a rat's nest I tried to escape but always returned to somehow after traveling around no matter how long. It also causes awareness, not only for losses of the past, but also how my parents are becoming older, giving me a hard time deciding to move to the other end of the country for an actually awaiting future.
Told from both the perspectives of Kay and her mother with party members joining on and off Norco to me is a maelstrom that should at least offer satisfaction by putting some things in order, though it treats its puzzles rather as part of a minigame cocktail, so you won't just click text and look at some scenic pictures. I always appreciate media including toilet needs, but I would have required a little more than a few gags to possibly miss while exploring the environment.
It feels harsh to say after an otherwise enthralling story, but maybe that's what you get after spawning from a multimedia documentary by a pseudonym collective that might not yet have the experience to make a full grown game rather than a gaming part within the initial project. It's sad that Norco could have been the equivalent to calling Grave of the Fireflies the best anime you never want to watch again, but it wasn't meant to be. It's far from being comparable as a full emotional experience.
For that reason and hoping Geography of Robots can find a way to create a more wholesome product, I don't even think their demo End Millennium is a step in the wrong direction. Maybe writing is their strongest capability, so focusing on a text adventure would be a logical conclusion until they find support in puzzle design should they want to attempt the genre at all.
Sure, Norco can also function as an exercise for the collective to improve on, but then we should not hype for something that isn't present. I wouldn't mind supporting them with my purchase as much, had I been downloading the game from a niche indie platform, but I bought it from a major distributor for way above my average price.
My expectations weren't sky high and maybe I'm wrong when so many others seem to love it anyway, but I would rather have preferred the packaging to say "This is the best we can do at the moment, support us so we can improve on our promising art", because that's what it comes down to. And with that in mind it's something like an unpolished gem for an atmosphere of desolation and despair, justifying a generous playthrough.
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This review contains spoilers
On December 23, 2022 I wrote the following: "The day has finally come. Let's not kid ourselves. This was always going to be my GOTY 2022."
I then added: "EDIT: Had a great time with it so far, but uhhhh definitely gonna pause and wait for a patch. This cake is tasty, but it's not exactly done in the middle."
It's now July, and Sports Story has been looming over my head ever since it shadow-dropped back in December. It had been one of my most-anticipated titles ever since it was announced, but the state it launched in was pretty bleak. I told myself that I’d wait for updates and then I’d play the game once it was finished, but the devs put out 5 updates pretty quickly, and we’ve had nothing but radio silence since February 24th.
Sadly, I think this is as “finished” as we’re gonna get.
Over the past week I committed to finishing the follow-up to one of my favorite games of all time, no matter how disappointing things got. And they got pretty disappointing!
Now, a lack of polish and an abundance of bugs aren’t the only things that set Sports Story apart from its immaculate predecessor. Everything the previous game did has been reimagined, but unfortunately it’s a downgrade in every regard. The golfing mechanics were great in Golf Story, but features like curving the ball, adding spin, and altering the height of your shot arc have been completely removed. Your control over the ball has been neutered while courses have become more complicated and unpredictable. The caverns golf course is the low point, where it’s unclear which obstacles will trigger hit detection and which ones are floating above the field of play. It’s baffling that the devs felt the need to re-invent their golf controls instead of just keeping them as they were. The one interesting thing they’ve done is include different types of balls with effects like bouncing towards the pin, being unaffected by wind, or bouncing on water. I enjoyed each of these and used them when I could, but each special ball is a rare consumable item, so once you’ve used them, they’re all gone (until the final area where you can purchase them, but they’re quite pricey). The number of obtainable golf clubs is also sparse, which was such a highlight in the previous game. The concept of meaningful upgrades seems to have been an afterthought here, and that doesn’t just apply to the golf, your equipment is extremely limited for EVERY sport.
Now we’ve got to address the other titular sports contained in the game. It’s abundantly clear that the devs spread themselves too thin by trying to create compelling mechanics for too many sports. Or rather, I should probably say the “dev”, because contrary to the ragebait articles which did the rounds earlier this year, there seems to be a total of one programmer at Sidebar Games. I’m sure you’re aware of the secret dev room easter egg, where a team complains of being overworked while poor management constantly changes plans. Since the game was in such a bad state, players assumed that this was left in the game by actual miserable employees, but from everything I can find online (as well as the game’s credits), this game was made by one programmer, one composer, one lead artist, and a team of 5 additional artists. That’s it! So it’s important to realize that the narrative spun up by a handful of articles which told a tale of a large team being abused by inept leadership is nothing more than fantasy. In truth, this game is a sad tale of a single dev spreading themself too thin. Where they were able to master Golf Story’s mechanics in 2017 (there are definitely some BIG OPINIONS about Disc Golf out there, but I felt it was intuitive and I quite enjoyed it), the task of handling golf, tennis, cricket, soccer, baseball, BMX, fishing, running, volleyball, and a little bit of RC racing proved to be too daunting. I’ll address each of them briefly.
Golf: Downgrade in every way, as previously stated. Omnipresent frame stutters often occur while lining up a shot, so there were a few times where I completely missed a shot simply because the game froze for a second while I was hitting.
Tennis: This is the one that the most time is spent on (other than golf, of course). I managed to get the hang of it by the end of the tennis storyline, but it’s largely unresponsive. The ball would frequently clip right through my character while I was swinging, yet sometimes I would hit a ball that had already passed me. You’re unable to aim your shots for the most part, only hitting a ball with a maximum angle of about 10 degrees to either side. When you’re trying to whack a ball past an opponent, it would have been nice to do something other than hit it straight forward. Scoring is also glitched, because if a ball is hit out of bounds, but bounces back and ends up hitting the net on the other player’s side of the court, the person who hit the ball OOB will still get the point. It just feels bad to play.
Cricket: I still don’t understand cricket! A whole game is never played, you'll bat and you’ll block, but that’s it. Like tennis, the hit detection is rough, with balls sometimes passing through the cricket bat unphased.
Soccer: This one’s bad. There will be small challenges where you freely run around and kick something into a makeshift goal, and those handle just fine. But most soccer activity is set up like penalty kicks, which are aimed and kicked with golf mechanics, often with a LOT of wind. They feel really bad and are the only challenges I ended up skipping.
Baseball: Funnily enough, the in-game sports corporation PureStrike apparently hates baseball, so owning a bat is illegal. There are batting cages (and a tiny bit of lawless outdoor baseball) in the game, but just like tennis and cricket, swinging and hitting a ball isn’t done well here either.
BMX: It’s Excitebike for the NES. There are multiple lanes and you drive left to right with raised platforms, obstacles to jump over, and boosts. The momentum is really weird though, if you failed on your first attempt at a challenge but ran out of time while still going fast, your second attempt will start you with whatever speed you had built up at the end of your previous try. The biking as a whole is fine, but there’s one really weird problem. Your objective is to finish races before the clock runs out. If you crash, you start again from the beginning, but the clock keeps going from where it was. However, it is IMPOSSIBLE to complete any of these races (with maybe one exception where there was time aplenty) after resetting this way, as there is simply not enough time left over to run the track. Definitely worse than Excitebike!
Fishing: This is done quite well! The mechanics for spotting, baiting, hooking, and reeling in fish vary for different species and you have to plan accordingly for each fish. It’s legitimately quite clever and didn’t feel like any other fishing minigame I’ve played before. This one impressed me!
Running: It’s the BMX minigame, but more baffling. Like the bike, you hold B to… pedal? There are running challenges in the regular levels where you just move around like normal, but suddenly when it’s a left-to-right footrace, it handles like a bike. It’s weird!
Volleyball: Another entry that’s sparsely explored. It handles fine, but it’s very bare-bones and it only happened like twice.
RC Racing: This is barely here, I’m not sure it really counts as a sport. It’s fine!
The vast diversity of activities is, in theory, a good thing! I definitely understand what they were going for, but they simply bit off more than they could chew here. Much of the game becomes filled with fetch quests, feeling quite similar to the low points of Sierra adventure games of yore. There’s a long late-game trade sequence in particular that is the worst kind of obtuse. For example, two identical NPCs are standing right next to each other and ask for vague help. It turns out they’re not conjoined twins, they’re glued together, and you need to pour oil on them to free them. Roberta & Ken Williams, eat your heart out.
But while King’s Quest games can be saved by charming dialogue, Sports Story somehow let me down hardest in this department. In my 3 playthroughs of Golf Story, I constantly laughed out loud through the whole journey. I adored every word, loved the characters, and was fully engrossed in the story. But this time? It’s SO. BLAND. The last game had a fantastic rivalry with Lara, a hilarious relationship with an incredibly reluctant coach, a compelling late-game antagonist in Max Yards, a sleazy deal-with-the-devil situation with Lucky, and practically every other side character left an impression. But here? If you had told me this dialogue was written by the dev a decade before Golf Story while they were still finding their voice, that would have made complete sense to me. Any returning character is a shell of their former self, and I often couldn’t tell if the game was being legitimately serious or if the seriousness was meant to be a joke. There were maybe 5 times when the text made me smile, yet they went crazy hard on the sheer amount of dialogue this time. There are VHS tapes you can rent and TV shows you can watch which each drastically overstay their welcome with uninteresting stories, and any conversation you finish can NOT be skipped if you accidentally enter it a second time! There is a LOT of prattling on, and you’re gonna sit through it all, whether you like it or not. Though the dialogue when the houseboat was docking was legitimately great, and a good chunk of the final major area had some of that Golf Story charm.
And the GLITCHES, man. It’s hard to tell what’s an oversight and what just was never finished. Where you have to stand in order to press A to interact with things or people varies wildly. I got locked on a black screen while entering an area and had to reset. I made it to the other side of a crevasse (where I apparently wasn’t supposed to be) and when I spoke to a character there, the game tried to move me back across the chasm to where I was before, but my character wound up trying to walk into the abyss for a full minute before it allowed the conversation to continue. There are a surprising amount of typos and misspellings. I accidentally blew up a button I needed to push by throwing a golf ball at it, meaning I could not complete the quest without resetting the game. (WHY WAS IT EVEN CODED TO BE BREAKABLE) Loads of purchasable items seemingly do nothing at all, including “Junk” which you can buy from popcorn machines (?!?!?) which only has “Junk it up” as a description. In Golf Story, every item has a purpose. But here you can quite easily waste all of your money on useless crap. There are entire quests which are inconsequential as well. Does anyone have a clue if something happens after you rescue all the flamingoes?? The aviary lady said she was going to be able to sell the building and all its birds now, but there’s no player reward of any kind.
And to TOP IT ALL OFF, the climax is as underwhelming as you could possibly get. The story just kind of ends, with a prominent character telling you “okay, you finished the other stuff, now there’s a big sports competition!” But unlike Golf Story’s championship at the Blue Moon Dunes, there’s barely any story leadup, and you’re not directly competing against anyone. There are no clearly-defined stakes, no rivalry, no antagonist. Some mystical creatures randomly show up as you golf your way through non-golf scenarios, with seemingly arbitrary points being awarded, and then… you just win. I have no idea if there’s even a way to lose here, there was no target, I just finished the tasks.
There are glimpses of something greater here. I really did want this game to be a masterpiece, but we got a rough draft of an ill-conceived idea. I’ve put in my time, and I will now refrain from ever touching this game again.
Oh, and the post-credits scene was arguably the most clever and funny part of the whole game. Shame it’s teasing a sequel that will likely never exist!