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.

comeinside

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.

nidhogg

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.

 

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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.

Screenshot (1)

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.

Regency Solitaire

This is a strange one. A solitaire game set in Regency-era England where a young lady must restore her house to fortune by making money somehow through playing a card game by herself. (It’s not really explained.) It’s kind of charming, and the setting distinguishes it from a lot of other stuff coming out every day on Steam, but I ultimately found the plot a little too open-and-shut: the bad guy runs off without making too much trouble, the lady has already caught the dashing gentleman’s eye even before getting her family’s finances back in order. Everyone is as they appear at first glance. The plot doesn’t develop; the king and queen illustrated on the card faces don’t figure into the story. I couldn’t tell if the heroine was gambling to solve the debts incurred by her brother’s gambling, or what. And the ridiculous way money is earned adds to the underpinning of farce that’s usually present in these situations when you’re in the perspective of someone of high upbringing in a rigidly class-based society. I find myself wondering if there’s some turnip farmer waste-deep in shit a few miles away, dying from something curable, and completely barred from making his own money through magic single-player card games.

You do 10 rounds of solitaire to advance to the next level, which feels like padding, especially once you find out that the “Retry” button only brings you back to the start of the current round with no other penalties. (They don’t tell you how it works, but they should.) In a game with several luck elements (the order of cards in the deck, or the use of powers to shuffle or destroy certain random cards) it would be asking too much to get 8-9 perfect rounds in a row without using Retry. It feels almost like a free-to-play facebook game toward the higher levels where the odds are so stacked against you that you’re pressured to buy the in-app purchases. Except that here, the things that feel like microtransaction cheats–the retries, special energy powers, and joker cards–are all free. They become necessary, but invalidate the challenge, and this isn’t even motivated by real-world profit. It’s a balance that doesn’t really work quite right for anyone.

Likewise, I can only see people earning the high-combo achievements by throwing several matches in a row just to pull wildcards out of the deck, and then spending them all in one hand. You’ll eventually realize that the two destructive bonus powers don’t add to your combo when they remove cards from the playing field. This means they’re actually lowering your potential maximum combo. If you’re not stacking wildcards, then, you can only otherwise wait a very, very long time for the right RNG values to come along. Again, the sense of challenge is largely fake.

What I do like about the game is the sense of progression. I was never the type to waste time away playing Microsoft Solitaire. But set that in a world with art and people, sprinkle some plot between matches, allow the player to buy bonus abilities (reveal face-down cards, add jokers to the deck, etc.) and you’ve got my attention. (Mind you, for better or worse, this isn’t Klondike.) It’s just a little too shallow to get my endorsement.

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.

Bully: Scholarship Edition

Bully is like a GTA game in a smaller sandbox, with no ability to drive cars or listen to the radio. You dominate various school cliques in missions much like you would conquer Saints Row gangs. The game shows its age. I had crashes that made me have to redo entire missions again, and I couldn’t tell you why it doesn’t autosave mission progress or update collectibles when you pick them up. Maybe autosave was a fringe belief in 2008.

It was nice to see Rockstar try a different setting, and the game has some endearing qualities, but they could have tried harder. It still adheres too closely to the GTA mission-and-minigame formula. (I should put a little disclaimer that I haven’t played GTA V yet, so I can’t speak to how it might or might not differ.) It would’ve been good to see some choice in quests, allowing you to take on school in a way that appeals to you. The protagonist is kind of bland and unlikable, and I didn’t especially appreciate initiating some awkward 10-second wish-fulfillment kiss through the lips of that short-ass Bobby Hill motherfucker every time I wanted to restore my health. The Rockstar character humor also felt a bit formulaic within their South Parkish comfort zone, and while I didn’t by any means hate the dialogue, it didn’t have me barking out loud.

I had been excited to see what the classroom stuff was like, as that was the major component of the game that was particularly not Grand, Theft, or Auto, but it mostly consists of QTEs, other janky minigames, or being tested on whether you already know where a country is on an unlabelled map. I would have liked to see influence from something like Persona 3 here, which really did a lot of cool stuff with with classrooms, scheduling, and its classmate characters, though even its classroom gameplay was still ultimately nothing other than choosing dialogue options. GTA IV incorporated entire stand-up comedian routines that you could go watch, so if they had given Bully as much polish, it might’ve been cool to listen to humorous takes on class lectures while actually sitting at a desk and choosing either to participate, or to be a shitty kid who shoots spitballs at the nerds in front of him. Maybe actually learn something. Balance your academic success on one side, and your classmate respect in not being a teacher’s pet on the other! Throw a paper airplane at a kid’s neck right when he’s about to raise his hand, and steal his opportunity to answer! Choose to answer questions correctly, sarcastically, or just plain wrong, with an Alpha Protocol dialogue choice system! This would be a completely different and far more interesting game that I’m describing, I think.

They spent a lot of effort incorporating various activities–racing games, skateboarding and BMX riding (one of the most fun things to do is hop around on a bike, but there’s no grinding or challenges to do a 1080° spin or anything like that), rhythm games (music class), dodgeball, shooting galleries, photography, stealth (instantly fail a mission if you’re seen, no proper stealth mechanics), tower defense (or at least a mission where you can knock out some guys with traps before they reach you)–but none of these million things go above a state of mediocrity.

And while they have all these things, the fundamentals of movement and camera control aren’t even handled well: the player character doesn’t turn with the camera if you try to adjust it as you run, so you need to take your thumb off the left stick before the game recalculates which direction you’re heading in. (Movement in GTA IV was awkward too, though I couldn’t say off the top of my head whether it was as awkward as Bully’s.) Using various punching and grappling moves in combination with debilitating items is actually more interesting than GTA IV’s awkward cover shooting, but it has a kind of “generic third-person action-adventure game” mechanical feeling, by which I mean the multitude of N64-PSX era action platformer games, or something like Psychonauts, which had more than enough charm, cleverness, and good writing to compensate. With nothing really standing out, and more than a few missions that try a player’s patience, Bully wears out its welcome before you’re through.

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.