Game Review Drabbles
~ Exactly 100 Words Each ~
Super Metroid – 5
The original Metroid was lonesome, oppressive, alien. This sequel is atmospheric but friendlier, familiar. It’s less a hostile world and more a videogame space, domesticated by map rooms, recharge stations, and save points. This Metroid cares.
The player is guided through seemingly open environments at a steady clip, but without the threat of loss, without real risk, it’s just the same old metroidvania story: empowerment articulated through space. A world fit exactly to your need.
It’s a fine game, a thoughtful sequel, but a lesser experience. This may still be many players’ idea of great game design. It’s not mine.
(January 2014, Wii U Virtual Console)
Flappy Bird – 7
It’s in the weight of your bird. In the heavy dives and saves. The rhythms of maintaining your position amidst a monotony of pipes.
The pleasures of Flappy Bird are modest, but they’re enough. This is a game that doesn’t flatter or reward you. It doesn’t even bother with increasing difficulty. It just sits there, exactly itself. It doesn’t care about you.
It becomes a test of endurance. How long can you stay aloft? Each attempt’s a brief vigil, each player a steward of flappery. You’ll fail most often by flying too high. A mistake this game does not make.
(February 2014, iPad)
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – 3
A gorgeous game, and that’s the problem. It dazzles with debris and clutters the screen until you confuse garnish with ground and die. It follows the Rayman school of just-in-time platforming with contortions so flashy and desperate to entertain that they exhaust rather than delight. And the elaborate boss sequences, they repeat until you simply go apeshit.
All this graphical fuss distracts from what is really just a safe, unfocused sequel. It’s Donkey Kong: World Tour (now with more Kongs), not the strange frozen tropics promised by its title.
This is ultimately a game with no good reason to exist.
(February 2014, Wii U)
To the Moon – 4
I wanted to like To the Moon. It is earnest and sweet but also tedious and maudlin. It tells its convoluted story with the heaviest of hands, signaling exactly how to feel with every note of its score, begging for laughter with endless banter.
Its central premise – wish fulfillment via cutting-edge technology – echoes the function of many videogames, but here the game doesn’t dwell. When the tearjerking finale comes, you are meant to ignore how treacherous this technology is, how it betrays the truth of the central female character, and just bask in all the feels of a wish fulfilled.
(February 2014, Mac)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – 4
So let’s have them explore, but first let’s catalog and label the world. Let’s number even the secrets.
Let’s add fast travel so no one needs to deal with all that open sea. Let’s keep ‘the adventure’ seamless.
A ship is unwieldy and that’s what satisfies. But let’s still make it easy to be cool on foot. Awesome should never be more than one button away.
Let’s add some metafiction that admits we’re order-loving Templars at heart. Self-awareness is our best defense.
Add some terrific sea shanties too. Make them surprisingly moving.
“Haul away your anchor!” Well, maybe next time.
(March 2014, PS3)
The Swapper – 6
What an evocative game, full of sublime moments of quiet and reflection, with a fascinating conceit – the creation of clones and the transfer of agency between them. Among recent titles that explore controlling multiple avatars at once (Mario 3D Land, Badlands, Brothers), this is one of the most thoughtful and resonant. Losing yourself amidst your own clones is an existential crisis and a delight.
What a shame, then, that The Swapper is also just a collection of nonsensical puzzle rooms. Stop everything, stare at the screen, and forget once again that it’s movement that makes our onscreen selves come alive.
(March 2014, Mac)
Threes! – 4
It comes down to this: I don’t want to keep playing. Threes! pleases move-to-move but doesn’t grip me. It’s slick, but I don’t care. A single game’s too long, and I’m never sure how I’m doing until it’s too late. Luck matters too much, or not enough, and after a few hours, I’m done.
Threes! feels incomplete. The idea of collapsing units into smaller spaces is interesting, but score-chasing doesn’t feel like the right focus. I wonder whether its many clones suggest not only that the core idea is compelling but that something’s also missing. Not that they know what.
(March 2014, iPad)
Monument Valley – 3
What’s the difference between delicate indie beauty and the louder aesthetics of the AAA blockbuster? To love a videogame for either is to love the video more than the game.
Monument Valley exists to be admired more than played. It is lovely and hollow, a contraption that says: touch me once, then watch the wonders unfold. It doesn’t even seem to understand the appeal of the isometric, of moving through two dimensions as if three, not just staring at them.
It might make for a beautiful set of posters. It certainly makes for an empty game. Play Crystal Castles instead.
(April 2014, iPad)
Left Behind (The Last of Us DLC) – 8
My favorite videogame moment so far this year focuses on the face of a teenage girl – freckled, flushed, screen-lit. She’s playing a broken arcade machine with her eyes closed, listening to her best friend narrate a Street Fighter fantasy. It’s an act of trust, of shared imagination. And in this moment, Ellie is seen.
Left Behind repurposes its AAA mechanics – the shooting (of waterguns), the lobbing (of bricks at cars), the quick-time-event (her face) – not for domination or survival but connection. It left me longing for entire games of altered verbs. Of fumbling connections. Games of seeing and being seen.
(April 2014, PS3)
Dark Souls 2 – 5
How many times can you have a profound videogame experience? Which ones can be repeated? Before it all goes hollow.
Here’s Anor Londo, drowned. Here’s the Palace of Boletaria, overgrown. The sequel as remix. Except shallower, to be toured rather than inhabited, built by level designers instead of architects.
Here are more bosses, here is more death. The sequel as more. More environments, segmented by more bonfires, cluttered with more enemies at once. And less memorable. With less character. Less soul.
Dark Souls 2 is a decent enough sequel. And I do not accept the premise of the videogame sequel.
(April 2014, PS3)
A Dark Room – 7
Minimalism and expansion are the twin principles here. Minimalism that drip-feeds your complicit imagination; expansion that is not about accumulation but level-shifting. Together they twist your expectations – just as you master one rhythm, the music changes. If A Dark Room doesn’t deepen much upon replay, there’s still nothing like your first time.
So the less said, the better. But if you want more, you’ve been warned.
Why so rapacious? Why explore a system, a world anyway? Where does it end? For when wonder yields to hunger, unsatisfied, unsatisfiable, we end up alone, in rooms, playing endless games in the dark.
(May 2014, iPad)
Super Time Force – 7
Most videogames are time-travel comedies. With enough can-do spirit and plenty of failed timelines, the army of me prevails.
Super Time Force resurrects the ghosts of our less-winning selves to create a playable palimpsest. By collapsing time and making legible every past informing your present, the ordinary, everyday videogame experience is revealed. The gaming mind becomes temporarily visible to itself. Time the flat circle indeed.
I don’t love its chunky pixel art or endlessly referential humor, but I admire its gusto. We get a meta-videogame without the hand-wringing, one that embraces all that’s silly and profound in a beloved genre.
(May 2014, Xbox 360)
Wolfenstein: The New Order – 7
This is how you take your schlock seriously. Not with fake guilt or thematic cleverness applied to familiar mechanics. But with big-ass guns to shoot Nazis who’ve taken over the world.
And what a world it is. The New Order commits to its fiction through its spaces. Levels expand beyond mere shooting galleries and offer relief from the usual mayhem by articulating a monstrous alternate history. Perhaps most surprising, the women in its world are strikingly diverse, believable, even adult.
This is not a game that transcends its genre – it fulfills it. This Wolfenstein knows itself, and its confidence shows.
(May 2014, Xbox 360)
Where Is My Heart? – 6
The core idea is simple and fantastic: fractured windows on a contiguous world. A gentle puzzle-platformer that is all parts, no whole. Your characters traverse cohesive spaces; your eyeballs do not. A return to wholeness may be the thematic arc of the game, but it’s also what’s required of your mind to navigate each level.
Where Is My Heart? never quite follows through on its ideas, though. Only one character has an ability uniquely related to the fragmented landscapes, and the game seems content to follow the usual videogame trajectory of recombining elements towards increasing convolution. Thankfully, it is brief.
(June 2014, PS Vita)
Mario Kart 8 – 5
I get it: it’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s Mario Kart.
Why is that enough? The perfectly-tuned Nintendo spit-shine only takes us so far. No wonder Luigi’s death stare has dominated discussions. What else is there to talk about?
Antigravity features barely register, and new tracks amount to little more than twisting HD reskins. Its best level ~ Mount Wario ~ is almost a place.
Updated classic tracks lay bare 8’s guiding philosophy: the uninterrupted thrill. Why bother with dynamic traffic in Toad’s Turnpike when you can boost along the walls instead?
Now That’s What I Call Mario Kart! Vol. 8.
(June 2014, Wii U)
Shovel Knight – 4
I have played all its NES precursors. I sure enjoyed them at the time. But why should this be considered a good thing? Why can’t videogames suffer a little more anxiety of influence? Great videogame design is not timeless anyway.
Shovel Knight is merely pastiche. Pastiche with hot colors and killer music and weightless platforming and useless economics and bad deaths. It’s a competent medley, lovingly arranged. It’s not much more.
Shovel Knight and its rapturous reception make me very afraid that most gamers really just want to play the same games, remixed and slightly updated, over and over, forever.
(June 2014, Wii U)
Mountain – 3
The pet rock has gone virtual and proclaimed itself God.
Though an actual pet rock has the good sense to remain silent. When this Mountain-God speaks, it’s just like most videogames: poorly written.
“I am digging this somnolent day.”
“I feel super chill inside this day of days.”
Our Mountain is a mad-lib, minus the mad. It reaches for Eastern wisdom but never makes it past California.
Conspicuous objects crash into it. Days, seasons, weather cycle too quickly. It knows nothing of actual stillness. It’s not boring enough, not empty enough, not strange enough, not mountain enough. Not nearly enough.
(July 2014, Mac)
1001 Spikes – 8
The videogame as machine of death. In which you must become a machine to survive. One so precisely calibrated that flow is not optional. It’s the only way through.
Its difficulty isn’t about triumph or accomplishment. It’s about recognizing the machine for what it is, recognizing the machine that is you. One will adapt to the other. And 1001 Spikes does not adapt.
It is, not coincidently, a game of fathers and sons, of anxiety and repetition. In the end it feels complete, the final word on its own masochism.
The final words of the actual game? ~ Thanks Mom
(July 2014, PS Vita)
A Wolf Among Us – 7
Noir is the genre of stylized rot. How perfect for videogames.
As with The Walking Dead, it’s our moral imagination being provoked here, though this time with a more withering focus on community. Its failures are familiar too: uneven episodes, stale adventure conventions, a terrible villain (Bloody Mary).
But A Wolf Among Us is also about something unseen. Its stylized rot has economic roots. And only in the last moments does it become clear just what the unseen had to do to get our attention.
Look at us.
And what were we doing the whole time? Playing the hero.
(July 2014, Mac)
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – 1
The woman you rescue has a bomb in her vagina. No spoiler warning? Too bad. Her name is Paz and she suffers rape, forced child rape, and vivisection before she explodes. The bomb in her vagina is merely the final twist. The punch line.
What about the game’s length? Its sandbox of guns and guards? What about the vision of Hideo Kojima?
Ground Zeroes is not the work of a visionary auteur. It’s the work of a man. A man who puts bombs in vaginas.
A review is a response, and this is mine: Mr. Kojima, go fuck yourself.
(July 2014, PS3)
80 Days – 9
80 Days binds the fantastic to the mundane. Repack your suitcase too slowly and you’ll miss that once-a-week train to a city full of robots and riot. Big choices or small, great interactive fiction doesn’t discriminate.
You encounter wonderfully diverse – and historically overlooked – people on your journey. As they share their stories, your servant-character too begins to define himself beyond his oblivious master and a vain 80-day wager.
This evokes a richer sense of world, beyond Jules Verne’s imagining, and something essential about travel: that feeling of missing out. How one choice eliminates countless others. How once is never enough.
(August 2014, iPad)
Half-Life 2 – 4
It’s got set pieces, forward momentum, ten varieties of escalation. Man is it exhausting.
Half-Life 2 tries to do so many things, but none of them well. Here, have some stiff guns, some stiffer men, some antlions. Want to drive one clunker? Drive two. Each element is both underdeveloped and overused, making every level feel twice too long. Even its best idea – the gravity gun – fails to develop much beyond furniture-mover-slash-zombie-cleaver.
Perhaps the longing for Half-Life 3 is a desire to experience such breadth and ambition again. Portal, though, suggested we go the other way. Focus tends to age better.
(August 2014, Xbox 360)
Hohokum – 8
To play Hohokum is to be reminded how little you understand any game, really.
You are a line, a minimal form, a sinuous path through. Your end, it lingers a moment behind. You trace shape and sound, you activate figure and ground, you bear witness to a generous, singular beauty. Each landscape is a world unto itself, built upon a logic to be unraveled, upon desires to be sussed out, upon a rigorous whimsy.
Hohokum never settles down. It refuses to establish conventions and then repeat them. It’s risky to test a player’s negative capability like this. But I’m grateful.
(August 2014, PS3)
Mega Man X – 3
I missed this back on the Super Nintendo. The Mega Man series seemed to figure itself out with its first sequel, so I never played any further.
What surprises me now is just how basic this game is. Its levels are barely even designed. I’m left with weightless jumps, simple pea-shooting, and the insubstantial, flickery feel of the thing. The wall-slide is the only way to feel I’m even there.
Mega Man X requires precision and yet is so empty and repetitive. It’s not a good enough platformer, not a good enough shooter. It’s a hybrid, and it bores me.
(August 2014, Wii U Virtual Console)
The Walking Dead: Season Two – 3
If you want to make a game about a young girl, then make a game about a young girl.
Don’t treat her like some generic adult protagonist. Don’t have her do every pivotal little thing. Definitely don’t give her a sit-down with the villain where he explains how she’s just like him.
Decent writing and voice acting aren’t enough. It’s how she exists in the gameworld and how that world responds. If her subjectivity, her vulnerability, her circumscribed choices are truly important, then design the entire game around them.
Because if I don’t believe in Clementine, then what’s the point?
(August 2014, Mac)
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – 4
This story of ‘Ultimates’ falls somewhere between melodrama and allegory, and it mostly works. That is, until it decides to explain every mystery and human motivation in excruciating detail.
Danganronpa just doesn’t know what to do with its narrative extremes. The shocks come so regularly they bore, and the conservative mechanics can’t keep up. Schlepping down hallways, clicking on clues, mini-gaming each trial – the game settles into rhythms that are already stale by the second murder.
And it goes on so very long. A 5-hour story stretched over a 15-hour game. This must be what they mean by ‘Ultimate Despair’.
(September 2014, PS Vita)
Destiny – 2
Destiny pairs epic posture with perfect gunfeel but possesses not a morsel of respect for the player.
Grinding and farming, levels and loot – it’s all debasement in the end. The fabled Loot Cave has proven the perfect allegory of our debasement. It cannot simply be patched out. Because it’s not something in Destiny. It is Destiny, distilled.
So we remain in the cave. We refuse to leave. We convince ourselves again – this is gaming. The fire of our screen burns bright with colored treasure. It casts so many shadows on our wall. We can’t even imagine the sun.
(September 2014, PS3)
Crypt Worlds – 7
Crypt Worlds taps the subconscious of the first-person shooter. It takes spaces both cavernous and claustrophobic, steeps them in a vision of transgression and creep, and fashions some sort of nightmare videogame bricolage.
What’s surprising is how well it all hangs together – its lovely-gritty textures, its terrifically droning sound design, its broad humor and critique (Shiggy Miyamoto and Clifford Baseball tip their hats to you), its peeing mechanic, its shifting world-states and cowboy glitch infections.
If it becomes less compelling once you figure out its economy, by then it’s too late. Crypt Worlds has already wormed its way inside you.
(September 2014, Mac)
Hyrule Warriors – 3
Your moves are embarrassingly rad, but then your enemies are basically endless. You are always playing catch-up. Less power-fantasy than putting-out-fires-fantasy.
You have a lot of women warriors to choose from. But as Hyrule history makes clear, there are only so many because past Zeldas were full of female helpers and sidekicks. That they finally get to fight alongside the boys in a little meta-gaiden like this is no consolation. The new female villain, Cia, isn’t even allowed a true lust for power. She’s just lovesick for Link.
Hyrule Warriors is ultimately a feckless episode of Zelda Superfriends. Move along.
(September 2014, Wii U)
Desert Golfing – 9
Here’s what I love about Desert Golfing:
Every shot counts.
The natural drama of a line.
Doing math – arcs, slopes, rebounds – by sight.
The drab orange on beige.
The imperceptible color shifts that follow.
The genuine event of a cactus, a cloud, a stone.
The continuous landscape.
The haunted hole.
The pixel-grains kicked up by your ball.
The title: golfing, not golf. The playing, not the game.
No menus or options. Nothing but golfing itself, every time.
The moment you realize that’s all there is.
This is radical game design. This is one of the best games of the year.
(September 2014, iPad)
Endless Legend – 5
Sweet Jesus, the map. Those cliffs. That sprawl. Every shimmering detail. The irresistible combination of hard geometry and alien fecundity.
Then I realize that ‘moss pearls’ and ‘ruby cactus fields’ are just fancy names for money and science bonuses. Faction differences are compelling, but there’s something so samey and familiar about the mid-game slog.
It’s still just Civ.
Nothing is more gripping, turn for turn, than a good 4X game, and yet they leave me feeling so vacant and wasted afterwards. The whole experience lacks some essential shape, and satisfaction never arrives. As the endgame peters out, I’m just spent.
(October 2014, Mac)
Helix – 7
It’s a beautiful motion, a primary path, drawing a circle, closing the loop, my finger on screen, skating on glass, feeling the surface, very 2D, but I press too hard, with my blinking eye, or my beating heart, these orbits atomic, round scraps and debris, flora or fauna, coarse microchips, we surround and confine, we lasso, hem in, all passive-aggressive, did you think you would win, gaps must be minded, in between days, seconds elided, we can’t even begin, you have your limits, I do too, reverse, change course, find a way out, space is a weapon, who circles who?
(October 2014, iPad)
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call – 5
I was there in the Final Fantasy heyday (IV through X, minus V, plus Tactics), but I lapsed soon after. As a fair-weather fan, though, I half-enjoyed this.
Surprisingly, it’s not “Terra’s Theme” or “J-E-N-O-V-A” that swells my heart, but the songs I never knew. I tap along to almost-familiar melodies from the first three games, and it’s like some parallel dimension of my videogame history opens up, imagined afternoons with games I never actually played.
Then another dead-eyed poppet shambles across the screen and I win more useless RPG junk and I remember why I stopped playing Final Fantasy.
(October 2014, 3DS)
Consensual Torture Simulator – 3
It fails to be consensual because I get no real sense of a person on the other end.
It fails to torture because the pain evoked is so robotic and sterile, so clinical and distanced. It’s not human or messy. It is not felt.
It fails to simulate because the choices are simple, stilted, the responses canned and lifeless. The rigid system and anemic prose are not up to the task.
I want to explore more meaningful violence, but this feels like a prototype, not a finished work. As is, it’s just a hyperlinked explanation of kink, well-meaning and flat.
(October 2014, Mac)
With Those We Love Alive – 8
I almost quit, twice. I felt trapped in the familiar twine architecture, in the alien words, with nothing to do but ‘sleep’. Only the music sustained me.
But this trap was the point. I slept, and my sleep was slowly redefined. I reapplied hormones, and glyphs rose to the surface of my skin. Words were made flesh, or flesh words, and I felt their substance. I saw how my days, my skills, my damage helped create my sovereign oppressor, my queen.
As the final song crashed over me, I realized I’d just played one of the essential games of 2014.
(October 2014, Mac)
The Sailor’s Dream – 3
The puzzles that crippled Device 6 are missing, thank god. But what’s left behind is so slight, so precious and twee, that it leaves almost no impression at all.
Unnamed characters and places aren’t mythic or universal. They’re forgettable. Names are anchors, but everything here is adrift. I remember only Archibald (a dog) and Lily Christine (a boat). The rest is dishwater.
The Sailor’s Dream wants to feel full of secrets, but it’s all intimation. The only thing it really suggests is a kind of respectability politics for gaming. Artisanal and generic. A handcrafted ship in a bottle, going nowhere.
(November 2014, iPad)
Transistor – 3
That voice. That hushed, clipped, cloying voice. Every phrase so full of import and adolescent conspiracy. I thought we were adults here.
There’s no escaping him. He talks over the music, dominates the game. Icky execution aside, how is a voiceless woman with a sword-lover who will not shut up a good idea? Why even care about the gorgeous (but samey) art and modular (but samey) combat when the narrator won’t let you get a reaction in edgewise? When he spoils the mood with his constant swordsplaining?
I appreciate that Supergiant wants to experiment with narration. But sometimes experiments fail.
(November 2014, Mac)
Super Castlevania IV – 7
What an awkward, rough-hewn, gangly tween of a game. And still my favorite Castlevania.
I play it mostly for the music. Somber, jazzy, mournful. The next-gen trickery of its time feels silly now, but it does give the game room to stretch and breathe, to unfurl its bleak ambience and moody rhythms at leisure.
Super Castlevania IV offers neither the chunky lockstep of the NES games nor the urbane manners of Symphony of the Night. It’s loose and gimmicky, like Simon’s 16-bit whip, which I like to wiggle about for no reason. It feels, all these years later, strangely soulful.
(November 2014, Wii U Virtual Console)
Bayonetta 2 – 5
I like Bayonetta, the character. I like the attitude, the bombast, the click of her heels. I like fighting alongside her mom best of all.
The trouble is not her design so much as the masters she serves. Here comes another boring boy. Here comes another baroque monstrosity. Scold me with that stone award. I’m fine with that.
What do you do if you appreciate the ‘depth’ of a system but have no desire to master it? What if basic dodging and countering are good enough to get you through? What if you need more than mechanical mastery to climax?
(November 2014, Wii U)
Far Cry 4 – 2
Here’s an idea: no more videogame ‘playgrounds’ set in developing nations. No, not even fictional ones. What ever emerges but colonialist mayhem?
How many sandboxes do we need? What is detail and authenticity worth if it’s all just local color? If it’s all serving the gun-fucking, world-skimming, kitchen-sinking cynicism of a videogame sequel?
When I lived in China, I met so many Westerners with the playground attitude: this is my place to have fun, to chase pleasure, to escape. No one knows me here, and no one is real. I don’t give a fuck. And I don’t have to pretend.
(November 2014, PS3)
*Next: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Kentucky Route Zero (Act III), Candy Crush Soda Saga
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