Varying Degrees of Disappointment: Mini-Reviews for GRAVITY RUSH, THE LAST OF US, AXIOM VERGE, and LONE SURVIVOR

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Gravity Rush

There’s a lot of potential in the gravity-shifting mechanic so central to gameplay but, following inFamous and [Prototype]’s stead than Portal or The Talos Principle, is simply an amusing method of mobility albeit with poorly implemented combat.

That gameplay loop would be tolerable, were hostile AIs not the most non-commital and least creative of all monsters — nebulous black goo with glowing weak-points. It clashes with the aesthetics of Heksville, densely-populated floating city districts with art nouveau architecture and steampunk technology in spades, when something (likely troublesome to design and program) like malevolent robots would be more fitting with that setting. Though the plotline is as incohesive as the combat, interesting creative decisions are made including a sidequest of carrying out a full conversation with a married couple “unstuck in time” akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.

There’s this conceit that the protagonist, Kat, is in search of her past due to (of course) amnesia but that goal post keeps moving further back to the point it’s also part of the cliff-hanger. The game’s story is so episodic yet regularly reminds you of a mystery that is only hinted at further, often by characters who obviously know more but refuse to elaborate to play up the “Mystery Box” aspect, which only soured me despite a fondness for the visual presentation and admittedly charming cast. When taking the review by Ben Croshaw of the sequel into consideration — summarizing it as slightly different but still more of the same — it’s hard to feel enthusiastic enough to give a second chance.

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The Last of Us

If I can give Naughty Dog credit for anything, it’s that they understand cinematic language better than most other game developers (but especially David Cage). Whenever there was a cutscene, I could not help but find myself intrigued by the world and these characters — yet, unfortunately, the gameplay got in the way.

The combat and sneaking mechanics work perfectly fine (the game is never lacking in polish) but such sections are elongated to the point of exhaustion. Getting into gun-fights with post-apocalyptic highwaymen or quietly avoiding fungzies would be entertaining enough as brief interruptions but, when they go on for half an hour or more, it began to test my patience. This is not helped by the player character, Joel, being the most unlikable and least interesting person alive while Ellie, who is endlessly amusing and ridiculously adorable, tends to act as tag-along whom hostiles don’t acknowledge though her presence is what drives the plot. People may complain about escort quests in videogames but in cases like IcoDead Rising, or Resident Evil 4, they added a level of tension that would be lost with its omission. The dissonance is as distracting here as it was with Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite — we’re told of their importance, but their lack of ludic acknowledgment shows otherwise.

The saving grace, I suppose, is the ending with its disdain of closure as a narrative concept while reframing an act of heroism as selfish and even detrimental to the world itself. It’s a total downer with little sense of hope, but I can’t help but applaud sticking to such a creative decision. There’s too many a dénouement where poetic justice is dished out and everyone’s better off as though obliged, but that’s not the world we live in and need that reminder in post-apocalyptic fiction — otherwise it’s another insipid power fantasy that’d make Tyler Durden proud.

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Axiom Verge

Thomas Happ and I seem to share a good number of sensibilities: a fondness for the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, the aesthetics of H.R. Giger, and minimalist (almost obscurist) storytelling that’s less ludically dissonant than many other games. The fact he did all this by his lonesome is something that is both impressive and, to my shame, makes me feel quite envious I lack the skills to the same. I really, really wanted to like this game for all those reasons but can’t help but feel lukewarm about it.

It starts off well enough, introducing you to this truly alien setting — where the biological and mechanical are one, a place in which reality itself can glitch as if it was digitalized — with a clear sense of direction leading you to the first set of upgrades. The loss of interest came about when new modes of movement opened up and required backtracking, making me realize just how poorly-differentiated these levels are. They may have a distinctive background but the foregrounds are always these blocks, with a pallet swap from one area to the next, making navigation increasingly difficult as well as dull. Though the biomechanical alien nature of the setting was still appealing, the strange names for each section of the map — when coupled with the samey visuals — further dampened my enjoyment as I’d trek back and forth wondering where exactly I was or going to.

This wasn’t an issue I had in, say, Symphony of the Night as each area was entirely different and laid out in such a way that going between them didn’t feel like an arduous chore (except the clock tower with those goddamn flying Medusa heads). Even with the creative weapon selection, particularly how the Address Disruptor causes enemies to have their functions altered in numerous ways, it wasn’t really enough to keep me invested. But, all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Thomas Happ has next on his plate…

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Lone Survivor

Much in the way Axiom Verge was an homage to Metroid, Lone Survivor is a love letter to Silent Hill — practically being a 2D remake of that game and its sequels (at least developed by Konami). As someone who liked that version of survival horror over Resident Evil’s cheesy take on the genre and always wanted more of it, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued enough to play it.

Unfortunately, like Axiom Verge, I become gradually soured on the experience the longer it went on. It wasn’t just the fact navigating endlessly similar corridors with rooms and branching paths, while constantly having to look at the map, is an exercise in annoyed boredom but that the game has less of an identity of its own than Thomas Happ’s title despite the comparable level of iteration. My eyes practically rolled out of their sockets when the titular protagonist finds a room with a woman he may or may not know imprisoned behind metal bars — it’s referential fan-service of the worst kind, next to most of the enemies being Cronenbergian meat puppets without faces.

Why be so slavish and just remind me of another game I already played? Why not use Silent Hill as an influence for something a little different? It doesn’t have to give me the moon or involve innovative gameplay mechanics — simply a work of Art that can stand on its own. Yet I can’t imagine why anyone would play Lone Survivor unless they were aware of Silent Hill, as its existence hinges on those games so much and there wouldn’t be much appeal to anyone not privy to its many tropes. Red Candle Games’ Detention, on the other hand, does not fall into this trap and — the atmosphere and folklore featured being symbolic of living under a military dictatorship, remembering the best monsters in horror are humans themselves — has a lot more to say than simply “I totally loved Silent Hill too!”

[Originally posted on 6/25/19 @ Medium.com]

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