HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST (2021)

My gaming comfort food during the pandemic — stupidly, I’m literally someone known for writing about comfort food games — have been open-world games; almost exclusively ASSASSIN’S CREED games. Their doling of bite-sized, mostly frictionless, quests have been a balm while trapped inside.

It’s been a while since I’ve played HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, but I recall it as being a rather concise, smaller open-world game, one that doubled-down on plot and character rather than scenery and scale, and I greatly appreciated it for that.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN DAWN is the polar opposite: it’s absolutely overwhelming and mind-bogglingly grandiose. When I think of the hours spent to make this, I feel a bit sick. While I think it could have reeled in its scope, I did find it notable in a number of other ways.

UNRULY HAIR

Aloy is one of the most fascinating triple-A leading videogame characters of recent times. A clone of one of the most influential scientific women of the game’s fictional history, she steps up and fills her shoes, although she does so while also being petulant and impulsive, all while still missing her ‘mother’ (her search for her was arguably the focal point of her introductory game, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN).

She also has some of the most dynamic, radiant red hair in videogames. Hair is a touchy subject when it comes to tech, as it’s often a point of programmatic pride, rarely born of character motivation. While it’s a film and not a videogame, look no further than Pixar’s BRAVE for a quintessential example, which was explicitly created as a way for them to show off their hair rendering tech (and similarly features a vibrant redhead).

As someone who has had long, wavy hair for far longer than I have not, and as someone who often thinks about hair and identity and representation, seeing anyone with unruly hair (or as Guerrilla Games labels it: tousled hair) in media has become oddly strange to see, as production models for entertainment have skewed closer to generic hairstyles to maintain continuity and production costs. While Aloy’s hair isn’t exactly curly, it is remarkably distinct and, in real life, would require significant management, something most folks don’t often think about. Long hair moves, it gets in the way; it’s something you are always aware of. It’s either in your vision or in your mouth or getting caught on something or in somewhere, and how Aloy’s hair is animated — always in motion, always cascading around her — reflects that same sort of bodily self-awareness. Even if some folks seem to think the hair animation is a bug, I see it as a feature.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, a number of people don’t realize that women have hair elsewhere.

THE FUTURE IS FEMALE

One of the most amazing things about HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is that it’s all about women repairing the damage that men have wrought. Almost all of the men alive and dead are villains or sidekicks, and the game is more than fine with that, but never explicitly calls attention to it which, for a triple-A videogame meant for worldwide consumption, seems wild, which is a sad remark on the state of blockbuster videogames.

SHAPES AND SIZES

One other brilliant facet of HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is its variety of character models. The world consists of people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and hues; it’s not your standard post-apocalypse of wafer-thin white people, and the game doesn’t commit the standard narrative sin of playing someone’s girth for laughs or pratfalls. They’re just people trying to survive in a world that is constantly trying to kill them.

TALKING TO ONE’S SELF DURING THE END OF THE WORLD

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST features an absolutely astounding and exhausting amount of dialogue. I can’t even begin to fathom the script, but it consists of reams and reams of lore, meant to flesh out the world that was sketched out in the first game. However, a good portion of the game features Aloy simply talking to herself. While most of that dialogue is meant to prod the player towards goals, quite a bit of it is purely observational. Aloy is depicted as a singularly individual person, one used to being alone, one used to supplying her own entertainment, of comforting herself in her own way because who else would? Who could?

A NEW MODERN

All of this culminates into a game that comes across as remarkably fresh, as opposed to the hoary male-led misery porn of most modern big budget games. HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST feels like a new frontier for gaming, at least with its command of characters and scenarios, even as it leans on the old model of open-world gaming, of FAR CRY-ish puzzle towers and checking off map-centric quests. It’s a world that one can luxuriate in and explore to your heart’s content, and not hate yourself for doing so.

P.S. One facet of the game that is missing is any semblance of sexuality whatsoever, so I’d like to boost this piece.

P.P.S. Even I as a very white, prior New Englander felt that a number of character designs and attributes were not what they could have been. I’m definitely not qualified to critique this game’s Orientalism, so I’ll leave this here.

DISCO ELYSIUM: THE FINAL CUT (2019)

DISCO ELYSIUM feels like an imaginary videogame, the sort of game nostalgically described in hushed whispers by the protagonist in a cyberpunk novel; a game too lunatic, too distinct, too arty to actually be willed into the world. Yet, here we are.

However, when one spells out the basics of what DISCO ELYSIUM is, it sounds like an indistinct late 90s videogame: you’re an alcoholic cop investigating a brutal murder in a cesspool of a town populated by colorful, often distasteful weirdos, navigating around via an isometric RPG interface with walls and walls of text.

In reality, DISCO ELYSIUM’s real roots are in text adventures, in heading north, south, east or west, in finding the right responses to someone’s dialogue fragment. This is a game you read more than you watch or interface with. Not to belittle the complexity of the game’s systems — which are intentionally obtuse, complicated, and a fresh take on RPG levelling — but this game is first and foremost a vehicle to deliver writers’ words, and they’re some of the most enigmatically twisted and idiosyncratic words to describe the game’s unique, but also familiar, world.

Fundamentally, DISCO ELYSIUM is about introspection, identity, and masculine reckoning with a hostile world. Or maybe it’s not, and that’s just what I encountered in my initial play-through. Either way, it is an extremely dense, extraordinarily complexly detailed world, strikingly portrayed by Aleksander Rostov, one that feels a bit like HALF-LIFE 2 via cult-favorite adventure game series SYBERIA. In other words: bombed-out Eastern Europe.

If there’s one fault with DISCO ELYSIUM it’s that it is buggy, but I suppose that comes with the territory. Save early, save often. Otherwise, this is an astounding interactive experience, a game that will be talked about in hushed whispers in the years to come.

Favorites of 2021: Video Games

Despite having acquired a PlayStation 5 in 2021, I played far fewer games than normal this year, opting instead to mindlessly whittle away at long-haul interactive experiences as opposed to short-form works. Nonetheless, here are my favorite gameplay experiences of 2021!

ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA

Thanks to the pandemic, the Assassin’s Creed series has been my interactive comfort food. I’ve sunk way too many hours into AC: ORIGINS, AC: ODYSSEY, and now AC: VALHALLA — as these series have been relatively non-taxing, rarely frustrating fare that allows me to routinely press buttons in order to check out of the hellscape of the last few years, which feature some surprisingly well-penned characters and situations, a far cry from the prior franchise games.

One of the great things about major franchise games like Assassin’s Creed are: you can play one of the entries when it launches, then wait a year or so and it’s a completely different experience, especially if you’ve purchased a season pass.

While I completed VALHALLA in 2020, I returned to it in 2021 for the two extremely generous DLC packages, which allows you to travel to both Dublin and Paris. The mission types are nothing new — really, very little has changed about the ASSASSIN’S CREED gameplay since the days of ASSASSIN’S CREED II — but the writing and character work has become far sharper and, it must be said, hornier.

These are games you can spend hours and hours and hours playing, especially if you’re like me and wants to clean the world maps of any unfinished tasks. While VALHALLA’s DLC isn’t terribly memorable — there were a number of missions where I explicitly uttered to no one: “Well, this mission is absolutely no fun.” — it works as the distraction toy that I needed for the end of 2021.

DEATHLOOP

An hour or two into DEATHLOOP, I questioned whether this was a game for me, as it was maddeningly difficult and, while it featured Arkane’s signature reliance on stylish vertical level design, I was turned off by the sweaty dialogue; it felt like it was trying too hard to appeal to youths.

By the time I made it to the third or fourth hour, I’d found a groove and realized how the game wanted you to play it. Really, it’s far simpler than you’d expect — although I admit I have yet to complete the game — so far this isn’t the roguelike loop that one might expect.

Additionally, the combative dialogue? The overly agressive landscape? It grows on you. It still feels slightly performative, at least at the point I’m at in the game, but it’s a game that gets to have its cake and eat it too: slyly smart while being stylish enough to sell.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR

A completely unexpected, but very welcome remake of an adventure game/visual novel few of those in the US were even aware of. Oh, and it’s from Satoru Okada: the director of KID ICARUS and METROID, and the brains behind the Game Boy.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/10/famicom-detective-club-the-missing-heir-1988-2021/

PSYCHONAUTS 2

“15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it […] does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.”

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/12/28/psychonauts-2-2021-pc-macos-ps4-xboxes/

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE

While RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE has — rightfully — gained a lot of attention due to the very tall Lady Dimitrescu, it’s also a thrillingly executed bit of action-horror that only falters in the final act. It’s immensely playable, and I can’t wait for the upcoming DLC.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/02/resident-evil-village-2021/

In my queue:

  • THE ARTFUL ESCAPE
  • CHICORY: A COLORFUL TALE
  • THE GREAT ACE ATTORNEY CHRONICLES
  • LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS
  • METROID DREAD
  • OVERBOARD!
  • SABLE

PSYCHONAUTS 2 (2021)

(PC/macOS/PS4/Xboxes) A bit of backstory: the initial PSYCHONAUTS (2005) was the first game from the fledgling studio Double Fine, founded by ex-LucasArts adventure game designer Tim Schafer, and not only was it not an adventure game as one would expect, but a platformer, but it was a very troubled production. Microsoft started off as publisher for the game but, halfway through development, dropped out, leaving Double Fine in the lurch. They eventually found a publisher via now-storied Majesco, and the game was finally released after a — for the time — lengthy development time of four and a half years.

PSYCHONAUTS has a lot of the hallmarks of a great Schafer work: a terrifically realized world, a unique and striking look, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and empathy for its characters. Unfortunately, it was also often a frustrating platformer, with fussy controls and level design that felt obvious to them, but not to the players. In case you are not familiar: it’s about a kid named Raz (short for Rasputin) who has psychic abilities, but who comes from an extremely physical family circus troupe. He is fascinated with a group of other psychically-gifted folks who try to help people by sorting out their mental mysteries, whose tales are told through a series of comic books, but then gets his chance to enlist via a summer camp.

Twenty years later, PSYCHONAUTS 2 has been released through a similarly complex development period. Long story short, like with PSYCHONAUTS, it took far longer to fund and actually shape the game.

My initially impressions of PSYCHONAUTS 2 were, I will say, unpleasant, perhaps because they expected players to be more familiar with the game’s systems and blend of platforming. Also, perhaps my platforming skills are rusty. However, I haven’t played PSYCHONAUTS in many, many moons, and PSYCHONAUTS 2 throws -a lot- at you in the first few hours. I traditionally play games at normal difficulty, occasionally raising it to hard or extraordinarily difficult upon a very rare replay (e.g. games like VIEWTIFUL JOE or BAYONETTA), but this time I added all of the control assists because I’m too old for this shit.

After the first few hours, I started settling in and really started enjoying it, but kept the control assists (which were much appreciated) the same. While the game spent far more time in development than Schafer expected, the effort shows as it’s an extraordinarily detailed and epic game, while still first-and-foremost being about family and mindful about mental health. However, unlike the first game, PSYCHONAUTS 2 is more about be a mental examination of the prior Psychonauts and the trauma they’ve been living with. So, yeah, not exactly a soothing balm for these COVID times, but definitely in TED LASSO territory.

Sadly, the level design does not meet the heights of PSYCHONAUT’s Milkman level, but it also doesn’t hit the frustrating lows of the Meat Circus. (I vividly remember swearing so much during that level that my partner-now-wife asked me if I was okay.) That said, it doesn’t have to, at least in these times. The single-mindedness and pure-pleasure of 100%ing a game right now is so very appealing to me — I’ve done so for a few ASSASSINS CREED games, and will likely do so for PSYCHONAUTS 2 — as a way to simply numb myself from a lot of the bullshit of the current world. Also appealing: I can drop-in and drop-out of the game as necessary.

15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? (I can’t count the VR game because I don’t have any VR tech.) Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it — again, like TED LASSO SEASON TWO — does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.

DETENTION (2017)

I have to admit that, prior to finding out about a film screening of an adaptation of this videogame, I had never heard of DETENTION.

DETENTION is a very SILENT HILL 2-esque guilt-centric 2D horror point-and-click Taiwanese game that takes place during the White Terror which dovetailed with the U.S.’ Communist witch-hunts, except that instead of being blacklisted, you were abducted and killed.

DETENTION takes place in the mid-60s, in a Taiwanese high school and is relatively straight-forward, as adventure games gome. I’d love to discuss some of the specifics, but sadly, spoilers.

Yes, the translation work is not great — it’s extremely clumsy — but the original dialogue may have been overwrought from the get-go. Yes, the artwork is a bit flat, and the animation is stilted. Sure, it often feels like a student game.

Nonetheless, it’s an amazing piece, buoyed by it being a love letter to the political and cultural shifts with Taiwan. It’s utterly earnest and enlightening and engaging, and uses horror motifs and self-reflection in a way that few games do. It’s a bold piece, and one that doesn’t demand much of your time — you can finish it in under four hours — and it’s well-worth that time.

SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES (2020)

Oh, I loved this. I wrung every bit of web-slinging joy from Insomniac’s prior Spider-Man game, but never quite loved the story, given that Peter Parker was basically re-enforcing a New York City police state.

SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES takes everything that’s great about Insomniac’s prior SPIDER-MAN game and improves on almost every facet of it. The mechanics are just as silky-smooth, if not better, than the prior game. However, what really makes the game shine is the writing which, for a triple A blockbuster superhero game is a minor miracle.

(I’ll quickly note that I’m not at all familiar with Miles Morales apart from INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. I’ve read zero of the Marvel Ultimate comics.)

Miles (now a younger Spider-Man) and his childhood friend Phin are teenage nerds. Not contemporary nerds, but old-school smart nerds who get excited about science and space and tinker on projects together! They’re still struggling with finding their space in the world — as teens do — but they’re not too terribly awkward, and they have a very tight brother/sister dynamic. But really, these two are unapologetic brilliant nerds, it’s the springboard for the game’s arc, and I love it.

There’s also an earnestness and idealism that I adore about the game. Yeah, there’s a lot of overwrought conflict that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a J.J. Abrams work, you have to suspend disbelief for the sheer amount of tech created within such a short period of time, and I’m a bit shocked at how some of Miles’ moves would -definitely- induce death — for example: you can turn human bodies into bombs — but overall it’s an extremely playable game about biological and adopted family and the love for your original and adopted boroughs.

Did I mention that the game is goddamn gorgeous?! Insomniac also lets you tweak what you prefer from your visuals. Want high-end visual fidelity? You’ve got it, locked at 30fps! You demand 60fps? You can have it with a few downgrades you’ll never notice! Want it to look like INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE? No problem, just make sure to bank some activity tokens first.

If there’s one flaw, it’s that Miles’ powers seem far too powerful, and the game occasionally tries to course-correct this with power-negating guns and/or throwing waves and waves of criminals at you, invoking occasional frustration, but that doesn’t last long. Eventually you’ll suss the proper rhythm.

This is blockbuster gaming done right and I hope other studios learn from it, and I’m very happy that I waited for a PS5 to play it. In fact, I’m still playing it, because I love the bodega cat costume so much, which is only available after starting New Game+.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR (1988/2021)

When the original FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR was released in 1988 (solely in Japan for the Famicom add-on Family Computer Disk System) it was deemed an adventure game, but nowadays this HD remaster for the Switch would almost certainly be labeled a ‘visual novel’, even though the HUD does feel quite a bit like a verb-based LucasArts SCUMM interface. (I’ll define the difference as: adventure games rely on puzzles to break up the narrative storytelling. Visual novels lack puzzle-based obstructions, relying on narrative-based ones, although THE MISSING HEIR does have one very weak puzzle that reminds me of Sierra’s MANHUNTER which, if you’ve ever played it, should make you wince.)

THE MISSING HEIR, written by Yoshio Sakamoto — also responsible for many METROID games, as well as KID ICARUS and WARIOWARE — features a bit of interactive detective fiction, along with a lot of soap opera: the head of a family business has died, and the heir cannot be found. An extremely young detective — around the age of 17 — has been brought in to investigate, at the request of a long-lasting butler of the Ayashiro family.

Unfortunately, the young detective — who, as in the style of the times, you named yourself — has taken a tumble and has amnesia, and essentially has to restart his investigation into the Ayashiro family.

I don’t want to give too much away about the tale so, apart from a few frustrating interface facets — there are times where you have to select certain menu options five or six times before a character will open up (rule of thirds, folks) — it’s a enjoyable but slight murder mystery, one of which is completely in my wheelhouse, and I’m looking forward to playing the HD remaster of the prequel, THE GIRL WHO STANDS BEHIND.

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE (2021)

Yes, I mostly played RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE to partake in the cultural conversation as, apart from RESIDENT EVIL 4, I don’t care much for the series’ trademark blend of jump scares and camp. (Although I am now very tempted to dive into RESIDENT EVIL 7, which I initially wrote off as an interactive facsimile of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.)

VILLAGE severely overtaxed my ailing PS4 — my poor console’s fan was working so hard that it trampled over any aural atmosphere Village may have — but it’s undeniably a triumph of tech and scenic design. The attention to details is astounding, mesmerizing even. That said, it feels like it’s design-by-commitee that succeeds in spite of itself. If it reminds me of anything, it’s HALF-LIFE 2 with its regimented and sectional use of mechanics. Hell, Heisenberg’s factory feels like a whole-cloth rip of HALF-LIFE 2’s final chapter, sans gravity gun. (That said, HALF-LIFE 2 doesn’t hate hands nearly as much as RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE.

Still, it’s a fun time! As you’d expect from Resident Evil, the characters are all half-baked, even though they’re clearly cribbing from Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid boss book, so it’s a bit sad to see characters that could have been interesting reduced to caricatures, but it’s Capcom and it’s RESIDENT EVIL and to expect anything more would be wishful thinking.

PARADISE KILLER (2020)

It took a while, but I just wrapped up PARADISE KILLER, an extremely stylish, absolutely bonkers murder mystery game for Switch/PC. It’s so bonkers that, when my wife asked why it was named PARADISE KILLER, I had to think for a bit and then responded: “It’d take me at least five minutes to detail why, and I don’t have the energy for that right now.”

That said, I do love a challenge, so here it goes: humanity has been visited by gods and, in a way to appeal to the gods’ sensibilities, a faction of semi-immortals (who go by the moniker The Syndicate) have been building ideal islands — this may or may not be a riff on Gaunilo’s ‘Lost Island’ argument, who knows? — by kidnapping mortal humans to build said islands. Unfortunately, each of the prior 24 islands have been corrupted by demonic influence, causing them to self-destruct the island and move on to a new, more perfect island. The immortals get to ascend to the new island, whereas the mortals are ceremoniously slaughtered. Island 25, dubbed Perfect 25, has been built and The Syndicate are transferring over, but halfway through the migration the leaders of The Syndicate are murdered. To solve the mystery, Syndicate investigator Lady Love Dies is brought out of her multi-million year exile. (She’d previously been tricked by a demon to help undermine an island.) The game itself has you navigate Lady Loves Dies throughout the mostly empty vaporware aesthetic of Island 24 to interrogate the remaining Syndicate members, gather evidence, and then dole out sweet bullet justice.

Phew. See? Absolutely bonkers, and I didn’t even go into the blood crystals, reality drive, or lingering ghosts.

Now, please don’t take this post as an ecstatic recommendation. This game is practically tailor-made for me, thanks to its high-concept pitch, exceedingly idiosyncratic dialogue, non-sensical item collection, low-anxiety stakes, absolutely infectious soundtrack and casual romancing, but it’s not exactly a ‘good game’. Most of the time you’re roaming around the island for hours to find someone to talk to, all while getting distracted by the numerous items that litter Island 24. You can purchase a few power-ups, which consist solely of ways to allow you to explore more of the island, slightly faster, which you’ll appreciate because you will get lost, a lot. It’s an open world game, but lacks the hallmarks of what one expects from open world design, such as sensible urban layouts or proper landmarks, or even easy fast travel. (You can fast travel, but it’ll cost you.)

Also, the end is more than slightly underwhelming. It’s worth noting that, while it’s a murder mystery, you can accuse anyone you want, regardless of evidence. Even after the trials are over, you can dole out justice haphazardly by executing or exiling anyone left on the island.

That said, it was a perfect game for me at this time, as it helped me through the tail end of winter and eased me into spring. I desperately need to pick up a copy of the soundtrack.

METAL GEAR SOLID 3: EXISTENCE (2006)

(YouTube) You may be thinking: wait, METAL GEAR SOLID 3 (MGS3 from here on out)? That’s a video game! I’ve played it! It’s not a film!

Surprise! METAL GEAR auteur Hideo Kojima released a three-and-a-half-hour non-interactive version of MSG3 as part of the METAL GEAR SOLID 3: EXISTENCE (MGS:E) limited edition version of MGS3. While Kojima insists that it isn’t a film — partially because I suppose folks have assumed he’s always wanted his games to be films instead of games, due to the extraordinarily lengthy cut-scenes he utilizes — but let’s call a spade a spade: it’s a film. Nowadays, folks don’t hesitate to discuss the influence of video game camera and storytelling techniques on films — I had the gall to do so when I wrote about ENTER THE VOID a few months back — but MGS3:E was one of the first non-full-motion video games that I can think of where the creator tried to take their game, repurpose it, and sell it as non-interactive entertainment.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the end result is extremely clumsy[ 12/9/20, 5:16 AM Almost verbatim what I said ~14 years ago.]. A lot of that boils down to the fact that Kojima has historically been an aspirational-but-graceless storyteller (see: MGS1 & MGS2) often riffing off of works he likes instead of weaving something new. For what it’s worth, it feels like with MGS3, Kojima finally started figuring out how to write proper character arcs, and even managed to pen a heartfelt ending, but if you rob the view of the interactive efforts it took to get from point A to point B, well, you end up with a lot of dull flailing.

That said, it’s still a noteworthy attempt, and has helped mold his current storytelling sensibilities into something more subtle and interesting via DEATH STRANDING. (Well, subtle for Kojima.) While it’s a narrative best experienced with the interactive core it was built for, this effort is still a fascinating curio.

If you’d like to read more about METAL GEAR SOLID 3: EXISTENCE, check out my initial write-up from waaaay too years ago.

http://thenewgamer.com/content/archives/metal_gear_solid_3_snake_eater_film

The full ‘film’ can be viewed at: