Subsurface Circular

This is a short, dialogue-driven game. Your character, a robot detective, pursues his case entirely from the seat of one subway car, talking only to the people who sit down next to him. Essentially, he’s getting the public’s perspective, or otherwise that of those who have explicitly sought him out, picking up conversation topics as if they were items. There are some little bits of reactivity sprinkled about, but mechanically, the game doesn’t really do anything I haven’t seen many times before. The best thing it has going for it is the cool visual style and setting — the lighting flatters the scene, and the robots look cool. Their flat geometric designs keep the devs from having to compete with AAA facial expression realism, a daunting task for any indie.

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The train advances to new stations only as you reach milestones in your conversations, making it purely a background narrative device, despite its prominent spot in the user interface. It’s a gimmick with unrealized mechanical potential. If they kept the part about not being able to leave the subway network, but added a time component and allowed you to switch lines, that would have opened up some interesting space to design a game about being in the right place and right time to conduct interviews. For example, learning a character’s home and work stops, and then budgeting time to ask two or three crucial questions per stop. Something in the vein of Disgaea Infinite. Instead, you’re fed some puzzles that have a shallow relationship to anything that’s going on, or no relationship at all; non sequiturs like being asked to do a logic grid puzzle before a character will answer your questions. I like those puzzles, but I can do them just as well from a book.

This is from the Thomas Was Alone people, and though it looks very different, it’s not so hard to imagine the same people behind it. I do think it’s a step up from that game, but I also don’t care much for the central story here. It all comes down to your character making a choice between supporting a revolutionary effort or the status quo. In this case, though, the revolution presupposes that humans can best find meaning in their lives from menial labor — the jobs being done by the low-intelligence robot models — while the robots should take over as the decision-makers in society. (I also didn’t learn from the expositional phase that humans were the one in charge of “Management”, and only found out when I was being asked if they should be killed at the first sign of resistance, which probably isn’t the best way to go about it.) No real explanation is offered for how this new arrangement could be better. Personally, I’m alright with taking the humanity out of government and jobs of varying levels of complexity, while keeping people around to work in artistic and social roles, as nannies and caregivers and the like, which are jobs that come up in the game. But staging a coup ostensibly to put humans back in Amazon fulfillment centers? Are you fucking mad? Even if that wasn’t the work that was intended, the discussion comes to an end quickly, without any opportunity to press for clearer intentions. It’s a shame, too, because I almost like this world.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

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Metal Gear

No time like the present to finally get into the Metal Gear games in earnest, starting with 1987. Like all Metal Gear games, or at least the first five or so, there are a billion versions of Metal Gear, forcing me to do a bit of homework. I wound up playing the PS2 version, which is the definitive port of the MSX2 original. It has an updated translation, better graphics than the NES-based ports, and tracks some stats for replays/challenges.

It’s pretty hard to call this a stealth game. You can get overwhelmed if a camera sights you, at which point you’re flooded with enemies until you leave the zone you’re in, but there’s otherwise no reason not to play this like a Contra instead. The new endgame stats show how many alarms you tripped and how many guards you killed, which means you can challenge yourself to avoid these, and I like this feature, but it’s admittedly kind of shoehorned into the PS2 port just for fun. It didn’t really seem appropriate in gameplay itself to worry about it: there are several points at which alarms are unavoidably sounded, and there are no nonlethal means of incapacitation, though you can stun someone with a blow to the head for a couple seconds and they won’t freak out once they recover. On the other end, it can be so unintuitively easy to avoid a guard’s narrow laser-beam-like field of view that it’s poorly tuned for an immersive stealth challenge.

True, some of the classic stealth ideas are here: you won’t always want to fight, and loud noises like gunshots attract attention, for instance (you quickly find a suppressor for the pistol and SMG, making this rarely worth worrying about). But for the most part, going loud only affects the screen you’re currently in, and everything resets when the screen moves. Cardboard box aside, it feels closer to the 1986 The Legend of Zelda than to a Metal Gear title.

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The cardboard box is cool though.

Elsewhere, it’s simply an unintuitive game, another in an era where the focus was on stalling or expecting players to buy guides. Snake often has to blow up walls that don’t appear more structurally unstable than others, not even to find hidden upgrades, but to beat the game at all. Bosses are only weak to specific weapons, like the helicopter, which requires the grenade launcher, but for some reason can’t be harmed by remote-controlled missiles. This is where Snake’s radio comes into play, but it’s cumbersome to use, you often won’t get a response, and the people you do contact don’t tend to say anything fun, so I tended to put it off. Their dialogue is also determined by the room you’re in, not what you need to do next, which is confusing, and means you’ll need to call a specific person from a very specific room to get the help you need. In at least one case, this is not just for a hint: calling in gets someone to unlock a door for you. I’m pretty sure you can get the game into an unwinnable state by offending one of this radio contact, too.

Instant-death floor traps are more evidence of weak game design, as they can only be avoided through trial and error. And if someone is playing blind, they can only randomly backtrack to each of the doors they previously couldn’t open each time they get a new keycard, as players aren’t told which keycard opens a door, and can only try each of them, one by one. It’s ridiculous both in that the doors aren’t numbered or color-coded, and that keycards don’t work automatically without being equipped. It’s just bizarre that Snake has to take off his gas mask in a gas-filled room to equip a keycard before using it.

It’d also be nice if a pickup would just fill your ammunition or rations to the max, since they’re going to reappear every time you exit and reenter the rooms anyway.

Frankly, this hasn’t held up as anything special, and is only played today for the reason I played it: to experience the series in its entirety, and for familiarity with the events on the timeline. This is set in 1995, taking place after MGSV, and a deep reading of the MGSV lore does add some interesting context here, but there’s no sense getting into that. The young Solid Snake learns about Metal Gears, and we meet Big Boss, Grey Fox, and a couple other characters, but there’s not really much in the way of writing here to inform the rest of the series. 99% of the dialogue is telling you where to go, or how to blow something up. Big Boss betrays Solid Snake (an extremely basic spoiler anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the series knows already), first by providing bogus radio tips to make things more difficult. This is creative in the sense that it moves the plot within the context of 1980s NPCs serving as nothing more than terse, dispassionate hint dispensaries, but it’s a small thing. In the end, the Wikipedia article for this game does more to explain Solid Snake’s background with Big Boss than actually playing through it does, but it’s not long either, so I wouldn’t discourage hardcore Metal Gear fans away from it.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

It’s obviously unfair to judge an NES game by modern design standards, but that’s more or less what I’d like to do here. I’d also like to take a brief look at what also might have been feasible with the limited control scheme and other contemporary limitations. I honestly have no idea what can even be done with 128 kilobytes or whatever, but it’s not like I’m planning my own romhack; I’m far too lazy and untalented for that. Just think of this as a fun exercise.

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Speaking of fun exercise… Link? What’s going on in there?

In any case, Zelda 2 wasn’t pushing the system to its limits. It also doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the first. It’s an entirely different game, which is somewhat admirable: at this point in the franchise, the only certainty was that Link has a sword. But nothing they tried here really took hold in the games that came after.

Combat is the most interesting thing going for Zelda 2. You hit high or you hit low, or you block high or low, and you fight a number of humanoid creatures that do the same. They’ll also draw their weapons from behind, giving you an animation frame to know what’s coming. You can often just jump and focus on hitting their heads, avoiding any chance of taking a blow to your own legs, but for the most part, the difficulty in terms of reflex requirements, and the actual risk to the player in each minor encounter, are far higher than they should be.

I feel like pointing out that the reason it’s so uncompromising is not because gamers in 1987 were more hardcore or mature in the face of a real gameplay challenge than gamers now. Rather, they had nothing to choose from, so they would take one game that should be over within three hours, and play that for like a year. How many “great” or even memorable NES games were there, really, from 1983 to 1990? The first Zelda, a couple Marios, and maybe a dozen other nominations that are, for the most part, simple platformers? There’s been about five thousand titles to hit Steam in the first half of 2018. The reason they don’t make games so brutal anymore is that nobody would have the patience for it when there are a billion others to play. I only did so myself because I was exploiting save states.

You can grind, gaining levels, but this doesn’t really fix anything. It would have been far better to pace Link’s growth with weapon and heart piece upgrades obtained in dungeons, but instead you’re incentivized to hit the stat cap early, taking every edge you can get. Because you get enough exp to reach your next level-up, rather than a predetermined amount, when you touch a shrine, the best play is to grind in the first dungeon for 20-30 minutes, pumping all your points into attack to raise its experience requirement, and then cashing out for perhaps 2000 experience points from the shrine, instead of what would probably only be 100. Once you’re maxed out on experience, there’s also less pressure to fight everything, because a lot of tough enemies have nothing in their loot table. If these were conscious design choices, none of them make much sense, but it’s the kind of thing we expect from the NES era.

I do kind of like how drops come after every 6 kills within a specific enemy class, instead of being purely random.

When I asked myself how the combat might have actually been better, the game I thought about most often was actually Nidhogg, which also limits itself to two buttons, jump and attack. Nidhogg is a simpler game, just arena fighting, but far more fun than Zelda 2. Although you don’t crouch, up and down will somewhat similarly lower and raise your sword stance (with down doubling as a roll with directional input), but enemies die just walking into your sword, and the actual thrust attack isn’t always the best strategy. It’s even complete with the disposable weapon-throwing mechanic we saw in Breath of the Wild. Obviously, I can’t see Link getting murdered and respawning ten times per screen like a Nidhogg character, but I think there’s some merit to the comparison.

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Nidhogg

You might also add the option to replace your active “B button item”, as you could in the first Zelda, replacing your thrust attack with a different item, while keeping the sword at the ready. Casting magic with the Select button isn’t so terrible, so this might not be necessary, but it does open up some more possibilities.

I’m not too fond on the design of Zelda 2’s magic, either. You tend to just use the one Shield spell to double up on health, and otherwise save your mana for hard-counters to very specific scenarios: Jump to get up high, Fairy to get up higher (this seems a little redundant, but there you go), Fire to harm enemies that are impervious to everything other than fire. I’d prefer if Link’s mana recharged over time, as more of a cooldown system than a “save it for when you really need it” system, while also being less of an easy way out of a jam (in other words, no Shield or Thunder spells). Meanwhile, Reflect should have been an item, a mirror shield upgrade.

While I’m not going to suggest anything that sounds entirely unfeasible, like adding the Magnesis rune, here are some suggestions: rework the “Spell” spell for its transmogrification ability as a projectile attack, maybe also keeping Thunder in that form, instead of as a screen-wipe. Fire can be kept more or less as-is, if cooldown based, but it’s otherwise too annoying to have hard-counters that end up not having enough mana to even use when you need them. It’s possible to come upon an insurmountably high wall without having left yourself enough MP to cast Jump, and without any slimes nearby to farm for mana potions. If this happens, your best option is just to kill yourself and get your mana back on your next life. I’m not really a fan of that.

If you’re doing disposable weapons (holding up while attacking to whip your sword across the room) you could also add a spell which conjures a new, relatively weak weapon. Just a thought.

It’s also pretty much impossible to figure out where to go without a guide. At one point, Link has to interact with a featureless table in an empty house. At another, he has to walk through a fake wall in a dungeon, which looks the same as a real wall. Maybe there are NPCs hinting at what to do in these places, but since the NPCs all look the same and run endlessly through town, and they communicate in baffling and robotic sentences probably averaging around five words, I wouldn’t count on it unless you go in knowing you have to write everything down. I kind of think the presence of multiple towns with NPC chatter was too ambitious for this game. It’s still a ways off from Link’s Awakening and its sidequest chains, and even those were obtuse.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

Assassin’s Creed III

I’ve put this one off long enough that Assassin’s Creed IV has been given away for free, but I’m still a little interested in seeing how the franchise has developed, so here we are.

AC3 does have a few good ideas. Namely the naval combat. Just about everything else has been executed sloppily. The bugs are endless. I had to limit my framerate in Rivatuner just to interact with horse wagons. I’ve rocketed up into the sky to die from a fall. I’ve been stuck in rocks and other objects until I reloaded from a checkpoint. I’ve crashed on loads, and in one case, had to finish a cutscene on youtube after it autosaved past it. Icons have randomly disappeared from my map, including the ones I needed to quick travel to. Geddan.

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hello darkness my old friend

Even putting aside the overt bugs, the game is a full quality pass short of where it should be. Goals are sometimes unclear and mechanics are poorly explained, especially returning AC2 features I’ve long forgotten about. Objectives can be failed before you’ve been told about them. Sometimes, when imploring you to take a straight linear route to an objective, the devs failed to properly fence off the rest of the world, and you end up instantly failing because you stepped on the wrong wooden beam.

The interface feels sluggish, although I remember simple things like opening the map taking even longer in AC2. It takes a couple seconds to switch weapons. Coming from Breath of the Wild, where Link’s weapons pop up instantly on clean white tiles without first wasting a second on small flourishes, AC3 felt rather intolerable. And this is only by the standards of BotW, which was hardly unwilling to waste the player’s time. I can’t list every little thing or I’d be here all day, but one clear example of shoddy interface design would be custom map markers vanishing after quick-travel. It doubles the number of times you need to open your map.

The elaborate parkour animations feel underwhelming after some no-frills free-climbing in more recent games, too. Honestly, I don’t think it’s so bad in Boston or New York when you’re making the choice to get on top of a house, but when you’re asked to leap between a linear path of stalactites in some cave, what’s the point? You’re just looking for a crack on the wall and pushing one direction on a stick. It’s sad, and it makes me feel sad.

Although I’ve generally appreciated the Assassin’s Creed control system for delineating high- and low-profile actions with the right trigger button as a control modifier, the fact is that it’s a bit absurd that I spend 90% of the game holding it down. An analog run is a bit interesting, but probably unnecessary. I’m sure every Assassin’s Creed player has experienced the goofy jumps onto stair railings when they’re just trying to climb down some stairs, or failed-scrambles up a featureless wall when trying to turn a corner during a chase, but rather than hoping players will learn not to be pressing the right trigger in those instances, they should really be dedicating a button to those climbing actions.

Guns are a thing now, and looking for human shields does keep the combat from being too mindless. There’s really nothing to it other than learning which guards have to be disarmed, and fighting proactively enough to get a good kill-streak going (another unexplained feature I forgot about from AC2). Animal hunting diversifies the experience a little, but it’s not much worth talking about. You can whistle to lure guards, something I don’t remember from before, but there’s weird gaming logic that arbitrarily determines when Connor is capable of whistling, which is irritating, because a lure would be useful anywhere.

The homestead development was a nice improvement over what Ezio was doing in Monteriggioni. I appreciated the cast of characters and the effort that went into giving them jobs, places to be, and conversations with each other. But it’s another example of sloppy execution, too: your only real interaction with this system is the clumsy sidequest task of documenting them at work, and it seems to be based as much in RNG as time of day.

Mission quality varies; the good ones are still a little open, and, when they get difficult, you can still puzzle it out. Swimming out to a couple of ships and blowing them up is tough without being seen, but you can find your moment to isolate one guard and start opening up greater gaps in the patrols. Lesser missions are interactive cutscenes. Or they’re just chaos, like when you’re chasing after Thomas Hickey, and every NPC in the crowd chooses to leave Hickey alone and do their best to shove you to the floor. The next time you do the mission, maybe you get lucky, and Hickey takes twice as long.

And while I mentioned how I liked the cast of the homestead, the story was mostly vague morality talk without managing to sell or explain much of any position on what the assassins or templars really do or stand for, which is tiresome enough even without the long-winded death speech every jerk in the series gets. The only real takeaway the game tries to provide is that the founding fathers of America got up to some reprehensible stuff and weren’t pure heroes of good, having owned slaves and the like. I’m no history buff, but this is rather obvious. They barely even begin to cover the full extent of the Native American genocide — Andrew Jackson was a ways off, but there’s nary a word of what’s to come from the guy who puts all the cringingly unfunny diatribes in your database entries. He’d rather go on about how British colonialism wasn’t so bad. Gross.

(Personally I can’t wait to see the series clumsily address the French Revolution, maybe with a concurrent reading of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Unfortunately, I’m still like three games behind that one.)

Politics aside, the character arc wasn’t much better: young native child playing hide-and-seek and coming back to a burning hometown felt like the most cliched thing in video game plot history. Nobody could have thought that was a good idea: it was just one of those things writers force themselves through to get to the parts they actually care about. I mean, I get it: writing is hard, and filling in those bothersome gaps between your good ideas is like eighty percent of the job, but come on. When it’s this lifeless, you have to try something new, or have the guts to skip past it and find some other way to have the narrator tell you his mom died in a fire later.

Let’s get to the crux of it. After Breath of the Wild, with the insane open toolset potential (magnetic control, octorok balloons, korok leaves and all that) — and with Metal Gear Solid V still relatively fresh in my mind too, with its ridiculously polished and robust mechanics (see: cardboard box, D-Walker mech) — what does Assassin’s Creed, as an open world stealth combat series, really have going for it? Purely as a game, and not just as a historical odyssey? Here in Assassin’s Creed III, we do QTE fights with bears. We push two control sticks to try and keep two irate villagers from punching each other. We get a checklist of period events and look on in disbelief as these are crammed awkwardly into missions, with little care as to whether these events might be mechanically suitable… such as tagging along on Paul Revere’s ride, or that joke of a mission where you trot between groups of soldiers and command them to shoot their guns (as if they couldn’t possibly have figured that out for themselves). I’m not at all surprised to see from a cursory glimpse at Wikipedia that both subsequent Assassin’s Creeds — Black Flag & Rogue — stuck with the naval combat theme. After all, it was their only good idea.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Apart from some decent environments, The Pre-Sequel feels incredibly phoned-in. You have an air tank with a jump boost and ground slam now in place of your old relic slot. These don’t do nearly enough to make the game feel different. Everything else is the same, including everything I didn’t like about Borderlands 2. A number of quests are recycled: Help the guy put up the flag again. Safeguard another freight container for the moonshot cannon again. The postgame “raid boss” is just the end boss again with more health and damage, which is particularly insulting. With the game as empty as it is, I couldn’t imagine buying DLC to raise the level cap for NG+, or to add more characters to play the game with, but those are things that shamefully exist.

There are some legitimately funny lines, but the success rate is probably about 10% or less. A lot of the humor is referential–THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT STAR WARS–and a lot of it is just people shouting and being goddamn wacky. It’s not all bad, and there are some likeable people, like Janey and Pickle. Jack still has some of the best dialogue as well. But this doesn’t nearly carry the game. It also doesn’t bother to do anything funny from the perspective of gameplay–I’m not a fan of the direction the Saints Row games have taken, but those were probably most effective when they had you do something ridiculous, rather than just having you listen to ridiculous things. Borderlands mostly talks at you, and it does so in a format that often gets in your way. Audio tapes get interrupted by quest dialogue, and quest dialogue interrupts itself.

As with previous games in the series, it often does a poor job formatting itself best for cooperative play or repetition. You’re made to listen to repeat dialogue even more so than in Diablo 3 (and Borderlands doesn’t share Deebs’ non-campaign game mode). Even on your first playthrough you’ll find yourself standing around at doors waiting for characters to finish their wacky unskippable exposition so you can move on, as if you’ve listened to it three times already. Story shouldn’t ever be an obstacle to the player, but there’s also just nothing especially engaging here. You go deliver a parting message from Zarpedon to her daughter, and I find myself trying and failing to imagine someone who has possibly found enough in this character to give a shit. This game may be closely tied to the Telltale one, but they’re miles apart.

The combat itself does offer a fair number of diverse and enjoyable enemy mechanics, damage types, skill builds, and so on, but it’s far from perfect. Game feel is a hard thing to express, but the best example is probably the awkward collision detection, which makes every moment of jumping up rocks or walking up a steep slope or whatever feel like you’re trying stupidly to break the game, even when you’re taking the only path available to you. An object you’re standing on starts to move, and you just sort of vibrate until you’ve fallen off. Characters in Overwatch are similarly cartoonish and attacks are also expressed in that game in terms of hitpoints and damage values–you bounce off roofs and generally feel awkward trying to parkour around there, too–but The Pre-Sequel, and the Borderlands games before it, just feel a lot less right.

There’s also a lot of the old dated MMO mechanics kicking around–the game can’t even cope with the thought of communicating the details of two quests at the same time–and these are of course incredibly shallow experiences in single player. I did not (and would never think to) solo this game.

If I were to spend any more time in The Pre-Sequel, it would only be as something mindless and dull to occupy myself with while listening to a podcast. Getting even a couple friends together at the same time to play something is difficult enough already when the game is good.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Gods Will Be Watching

I was expecting a point-and-click adventure, but I tried not to hold my false expectations against it. What GWBW is, I guess, is a “turn-based balance maintenance” game. Each level (there are about 8, give or take) involves pushing one variable in that aforementioned balance without throwing off another. Tell this person to dig for the next half-hour, but keep an eye on his stamina. Stall for rescue during torture without confessing to everything, but give away enough that you don’t die before rescue comes. Sacrifice your crew’s morale by having somebody forego sleep to hunt for food at night, but don’t let it drop so low that crewmates freak out and run off into the woods to die.

I’m not crazy about it. It’s heavily RNG-based, which I’ve never been fond of. To me, good game design centers around the idea of incentivization, and in my experience having less control over an outcome causes players to fail to adapt meaningfully to challenges, to feel less responsible, to be more frustrated and to experience less satisfaction upon victory. A later update to the game added difficulties which remove elements of chance, although the exact nature of the changes is poorly explained. While this is an admirable thing to do, the game was still envisioned with those elements, and gameplay feels unsatisfying and simple at times… even though the game doesn’t necessarily become easier.

For example, instead of attempting something when the success rate reaches 60%, you would have to wait for the full 100% success rate to even try. In terms of difficulty alone, this is usually balanced out by the disappearance of random failures, but it also reduces the design complexity. When playing with RNG you can allow yourself to be caught in a lie during torture and still waste some time, but without RNG, you can’t even choose to lie until you’ve spent some time getting your teeth pulled while thinking out the particulars of the story you planned to spin. It becomes very simple trial-and-error, and the optional challenge goals are made unavailable (think FTL‘s achievement system, but without getting cool new ships). I found myself switching the difficulty a few times, doing some levels with it and others without.

FTL was random as well, and to some extent there is a place for randomization. You don’t want to know the correct antidote ingredients when you start, or there’s no point to working out how to synthesize it. And look at other games: in Minecraft you don’t want to have one seed where you know where all the diamonds are already. If the outcome of a dice roll is that you have to adjust to a new variable, like one of five equally-difficult but differently-handled problems springing up, that can be interesting, but if there’s a fifty percent chance of something great happening and a fifty percent chance of something that immediately ends your run, that’s pretty awful. If every good or bad bit of fortune is significant enough to matter to players but not significant enough to guarantee failure, and the challenges run long enough that the “law of large numbers” comes into play and the good and bad balance out, that can be passable, which could perhaps be said of something like dice rolls in Dungeons & Dragons. I still don’t think that’s a perfect system, but GWBW also has some longer-term challenges and in its case that essentially only leads to more opportunities for instant failure and frustration.

While the non-RNG mode feels too simple on some stages, even guaranteed lengthy trial-and-error can be better than highly randomized lengthy challenges. Doing the desert navigation level with the RNG off, winning was just a matter of making a handful of suicide runs in different directions to map the unchanging terrain, so I would know where to find shelter or an enemy stronghold when the time came to try for real. And yet I sort of enjoyed this busywork more than a lot of the rest of the game, because I could get a sense of my progress by looking down at my map as it became more and more detailed. I couldn’t imagine wanting to throw myself at this mission dozens of times with an ever-changing desert, but looking at some online guides for the level, “extreme frustration” appears to be a recurring sentiment.

I’m a sucker for pixels, I’m not crazy about the art here. It’s not bad exactly, but it has some issues, especially blown up to the large size it expects you to display it at–you either go full-screen–which, with a modern screen resolution, blows up the pixels too much to be ideal–or you try to resize the window by hand, and the relative pixel size ends up all over the place. Good pixel art means having all the blocks on the screen adhere to the same rules, but there are UI features and the like in GWBW that aren’t pixelated and which end up drawing attention. Not having fixed resolution settings also means not being able to draw pixels at perfectly scaling multiples as well, which ends up distorting text and other graphics.

For a game that’s all about survival via number balancing, the UI is also somewhat bad about showing you these numbers. Sometimes you have to go talking to an NPC and clicking through a couple screens of conversation choices to reveal stats like a character’s proximity to death by cold exposure, when these things really should have been shown at all times as bars above people’s heads, or else freely revealed at any time with the press of a single keyboard button.

The story is somewhat interesting, and I like its hook, but right from the first scene I saw its tendency to bloviate with the writer’s meditations on ethics and terrorism and whether ends can justify means. Having written things for years I definitely can see a bit of myself in there, having shared that same tendency. That’s probably why I feel qualified to call the writing juvenile in form; something in need of restraint. It pulls us away from the characters themselves.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.