VA11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

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Va-11 Hall-A is a product of our new global culture. A game from a Venezuelan studio, set in an fictional North American city, published by a Singaporean company, infused with an anime aesthetic and powered by Japanese game design; a game that sees you mixing drinks in a dystopian cyberpunk metropolis to the plodding but addictive electronic hum of a retro-futuristic synth soundtrack.

Vallhalla (I’ll write it that way for simplicity) sees you assume the role of Jill, a 27-year old bartender working in a well-kept bar in a lousy part of town. It’s 207X and Glitch City is a festering cesspool of megacorps and street violence, where nanobots suffuse your bloodstream and monitor your every waking moment. But the game doesn’t take you down the dark paths of future-noir hyper-violence and body-horror – it weaves a strangely prosaic narrative web; telling tales of the lives of the people that live in this checkered megalopolis. As a bartender, you listen to their confidences, you get to know them, and the only thing you can give is your undivided attention and a pinch of conversational brio.

But the game handles all that for you, because Jill herself is a full-fledged character. The only control you have over her is the choice of drinks to serve to customers. And here, the beauty of this minimalist game design shines through, because the game basically forces you to pay attention to get good narrative outcomes, and the causal connection between the choice of drink and the outcome is not transparent. It’s hard to “game the system” to win, like it is in a game like Mass Effect where you basically know in advance what choice to make to achieve a certain Paragon/Renegade outcome.

But at the same time, the choices are simple; almost binary. So all you have to do, is really just to be the best and most attentive bartender you can. And while in terms of raw gameplay variety, there isn’t much – there are really only 25 drinks and you get tired of the mechanics of drink-mixing really fast – there is a simplicity to that concept that I find appealing – it drills down to the core of roleplaying and what it means to assume a persona in a video game.

And for the most part, the narrative and stories are compelling enough to sustain the interest in the game despite the monotonous gameplay. Characters that are sly subversions of their own anime-inspired tropes abound – the robot sex worker who takes pride in her professionalism, the big-busted serial-dating hacker who isn’t a femme fatale, a white-haired genki boss with a colorful history but a real human touch, and Jill herself, a normal girl with a checkered but utterly relatable past. Writerly witticisms, sly cyberpunk references, and intimations to the wider universe shared by Read Only Memories complete the package and turn this into a special, if somewhat brief, experience, that in many ways really pulls you more into that world than a lot of narrative games with ten times the graphics budget.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Zen Stars

 

 

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Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

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Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime is a game with a saccharine aesthetic and a simple premise. You pilot a ship across brightly colored expanses of outer space and try to save cosmic bunnies while blowing up enemies.

There isn’t much of a story beyond some vague intimations about a fight between the forces of love and anti-love; obviously the players are the lovers and the enemy sprites are anti-love. The aesthetic is beautiful, with different campaigns having different types of “space terrain” that create gameplay variation – one campaign might feature floating spheres of water that refract weaponry; another, in an icy space cavern, might feature icy gales that push your ship. There are enemies that are covered in impenetrable ice unless you shoot nearby stars, causing them to emit ice-melting bolts of plasma. And despite the premise, some levels can get downright creepy at times – with neutron stars and, at the end of one chapter, a creepy skull-faced berserker boss whose eyes glow a malignant green.

Ship components are upgradeable by collecting different jewels; installing a jewel and mixing and matching different jewels gives rise to different types of weapons, engines and shields. Collect a metal gem and your dinky laser pea-shooter becomes a spiked flail; mix it up with a beam gem and the flail transforms into a flail that shoots frickin’ laser beams out of itself. Upgrades could come in the form of an engine that fires powerful beams that kill enemies but propels you in the opposite direction, or shields that just keep accreting enemy projectiles. The various options are quite creative and the many possible combinations of upgrades make for a nice element of discovery in the game.

That said, what really elevates this above a conventional albeit beautiful 2D platformer is the ability to play the game on the couch with friends. Each of you operates a different part of the ship – one on the engines, another on shields, and yet others manning the various turrets at each cardinal direction. Some degree of teamwork is involved between everyone to get the ship where it needs to go, and in some cases, orient it to help turreteers kill enemies or achieve objectives.

It’s quite an elegant idea that really adds complexity and replayability to what would otherwise be a pretty but short game; at only four chapters of 5 relatively short missions each. I think this really is the way it’s meant to be played (the “lovers” premise bears it out too), and I couldn’t imagine it playing it any other way, to be honest.

I give this: 4 out of 5 healing planets

Hitman

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I bought Hitman on the assumption that assassination was a super apropos way of giving significance to sandoxy, emergent gameplay, in the style of Dishonored. But Hitman is, in the end, more of an arcade experience than I anticipated.

Hitman is an episodic game that plays out over a series of brilliantly-realized maps depicting realistically-scaled environments. As Agent 47, you as the player must find ways to navigate the environment to put the drop on your targets. There is a campaign that features a plot filled with shadowy power brokers and clandestine conspiracies – while it’s paper-thin and light on character development, it does lend the gameplay sufficient narrative resonance to keep it interesting for someone like me.

The environments may be the best part of the game – beautiful, varied, full of life and vibrance and sense of place. From the tranquil snowy heights of the Hokkaido level to the dusty, crowded streets of Marrakesh, Hitman’s level design provides the perfect mix of complexity and eye candy to provide interest and exploratory potential for a game of this type.

In terms of gameplay, Hitman is an exercise in obtaining environmental mastery of the map, and exploring its nooks and crannies to find the various ways of achieving your assassination goals. In classic (or so I hear) Hitman fashion, one of the most common ways to do so is to basically steal disguises that enable you to get close to the target. In many cases, these disguises, when worn by a dead-eyed six foot bald dude with a bizarre barcode tattoo on the back, can come across as rather outlandish – lending this aspect of gameplay a rather bizarre ludo-narrative dissonance.

More broadly, while Hitman is often described as a sandbox, I see it more like a maze with many paths. While playing the game, it was not that clear to me that the game offered real freedom of expression in creating creative ways to manipulate game systems to achieve the target – it was more like just finding out the secret path to achieve the goal. Once you’ve found a way, you tend to stick to it – because it’s generally simpler to do so than to jump to another course of action, which would require you to “start over” on another path.

The game tries to encourage people to approach each level in multiple ways – once you’re done with the level, you get points that unlock new weapons, starting locations, and tools. There are also challenges, such as to play the entire level wearing a certain costume or to assassinate the target using a particular weapon.

Honestly, though, the different routes are so similar to each other in broad substance, and the various game systems so non-intersecting, that I find myself lacking the motivation to replay a level I’ve already finished. That’s not the fault of the game, but in the end, it’s really just a function of the limitations of this particular style of game in piquing my interest – the lack of true systems-based emergent gameplay and the reliance, by and large, on crafting a large number of parallel but non-interacting linear paths to achieve your goal.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 distraction coins

Dishonored 2

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In the trifecta of virtues that all story-driven video games should possess, Dishonored 2 achieves a solid 2 out of 3.

Much like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 has a simple conceit – sneak, slink, or fight your way (with or without creepy magical powers) through non-linear environments to dispatch the enemies that have taken everything from you in a variety of ways, from merciful to cruel.

Gameplay is the first virtue in which the game excels. Dishonored 2 presents the player with a painstakingly crafted environment that allows them ample opportunities to play however they want. The game affords you with a multitude of powers which you can combine to dispatch enemies in a myriad of creative ways. Within the confines of the level, you are given the chance to use environments to your advantage, find nooks and crannies to gain an advantage over enemies, and search for runes that afford you more powers.

The game succeeds in making exploration enjoyable, because it rewards it richly, with runes and bonecharms that augment your abilities. Dishonored 2 understands that exploration shouldn’t just be about terrain traversal. The pleasures of exploration in Dishonored 2 lie in the fact that it is a cognitive puzzle to be solved, and the richest rewards lie in the application of game systems to reach a hard-to-locate place.

It doesn’t hurt that the game’s environment, setting and art direction are top-notch. Karnaca, a city wracked by the neglect of its ruler, swarming with bloodflies, and yet peeking through with shards of its former elegance, is a worthy successor to the brooding Dunwall of the first game. The world of Dishonored is one of the more interesting settings I’ve come across in fantasy, an original blend of gothic and steampunk vibes, a world with deep history and mystique. Soaring, impossible mountains shepard gale-force winds that howl through the city’s Dust district, blinding the player with occassion in a torrent of sand. Whales roam the vast ocean, harvested for their blubber that serves as the fuel that powers the entire civilisation, and have a mysterious connection to a place called the Void, where strange and powerful gods lurk.

That said, one aspect in which the game doesn’t do so well is in giving the cities life through populating them with human inhabitants. The grand environmental drapery is all well and good, but Dishonored 2 seems to have neglected in its character department. All around the levels the same character models and canned dialogue are reused. The guards all look identical – blue-suited, troglodyte-like with brutish faces and huge hands, either reciting bawdy verse or talking about their families in a transparent attempt to get the player to realise that they’re not faceless gooks, which loses its lustre after the 100th time some random guard spits out the same story. Characters provide some dressing to the gorgeous environments, but most of the time the city feels empty except for the guards, making levels feel like what they are – game levels with a flaking coat of verisimilitudinous paint.

And guess where that leads us? Dishonored 2’s most glaring flaw is in its insipid narrative, flat characters, and terrible writing. It is in the writing that Dishonored 2 reveals its setting and story as nothing but a convenient vehicle for its gameplay intentions. In a sense, it’s hard to fault the writing for being so – convenient, for want of a word. True to the point of the game, the story needs to always contrive a way for the protagonist to make a merciful choice or to make the straightforward, violent one. But the scenarios that the writers have come up with border on the fantastical in how convenient they seem – there is always some badly-hidden clue that leads to your enemy’s downfall somewhere, some achilles’ heel that will lead to their downfall. There is no added challenge in being “good”, making your choices just about your “playstyle” – and there is no uncertainty in deciding to play good guy or bad because the payoffs are so straightforward and predictable. The actions that contribute to either outcome are clear as crystal. The Witcher, this game is not. Although I think that to make your choices meaningful, it is usually a bad idea for the impact of your actions to be telegraphed to you so obviously.

And the game keeps doing that – it keeps shoving morality in your face, despite not making you think about how to be moral. All the characters keep questioning if you will do the easy thing or the good thing. It’s grating because it is not a question of morality but playstyle – to play a certain way – there is no connection to the character that makes the player want to inhabit that character’s headspace and choose how they would have chosen under the consequences. Instead, it’s all about playing the “low chaos” route. The characters – Corvo, Emily, etc – have no interiority. They are just platitude spouting engines of either justice or revenge.

And the game doesn’t respond to your actions – the bad guys never regroup, never learn –  even as you kill or dispatch them one by one, the ringleaders of the conspiracy never take any action, and every guard is still as chill as ever as you slowly take out section after section. The world is static – it exists only for player utility. It is a gamespace more than a lived-in place, a set dressing decorated handsomely but ultimately falling somewhat flat in its evocative powers.

In the end, Dishonored 2 is a game that depends on its great atmosphere but thin story to give it a thin raison d’etre for its great gameplay. It doesn’t have anything much to say about anything, its characters are not relatable, and its narrative beats are metronomic – you plod through missions to the inevitable, predictable finish. But heck if it isn’t satisfying to link three goons together and fell them all with a single sleep dart.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 black bonecharms

2064:Read Only Memories

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A pleasant if somewhat twee game that uses its cyberpunk setting as a lens for advocating a socially progressive message.

2064: Read Only Memories is a point-and-click adventure game set in the retro-futurist city of neo-SF in – you guessed it – 2064 (the reason for the neo-prefix appellation is never really clearly explained). You play a down-on-their-luck investigative journalist, who, one day, is visited by an intrepid robot (ROM, in the game’s parlance) named Turing. Turing turns out to be the world’s first truly sapient artificial intelligence, and enlists your help to locate their creator, who has gone mysteriously missing. In true cyberpunk style, this lead rapidly escalates into a conspiracy involving shadowy corporations, rogue AIs, and killer androids.

 

ROM is less of a game than it is a kind of interactive visual novel – a point and click game where all you do is choose conversation paths, solve absurdly simplistic puzzles from time to time, and generally follow the story along a linear path to one of a few branching conclusions, based on how you’ve treated your compatriots along the way. Such games stand and fall on the strength of their writing. Luckily, there is an intelligence to ROM that is belied by its somewhat cartoonish presentation. Its characters are your standard cyberpunk tropes – genius kid hackers, shady corporate billionaires, murderous androids – and they all play their roles to the hilt, sometimes almost to the level of caricature. But there are underlying threads and bits of lore and worldbuilding that you can find if you take enough time to talk to characters, and they paint a compelling portrait of a 2065 San Francisco.

A large part of this is the game’s abiding mission to present a socially progressive vision to the player through its characters. ROM features a plethora of LGBT characters for whom their sexuality is just one unremarked-upon facet of their identity. In fact, most of the characters in ROM are either gay or genderqueer in some way. The game uses gene-modified human animal hybrids as a stand-in for the latest discriminated-against minority, and leaves it to the player to show solidarity or not, which has some small bearing over the eventual conclusion you get. The allusion is a bit strained – because hybrids, after all, choose to be hybrids – so the narrative makes it so that many hybrids don’t become hybrids voluntarily, but it’s supposed to be a part of wide-ranging gene therapy. It’s a bit of a convoluted metaphor to generate some degree of social commentary on privilege. The game is better at being just a kind of safe space for LGBT players, who can experience a story in which there are many gay people and that’s that – no thematic significance to that part.

Turing’s character is also a way for the game to expound on its calls for greater tolerance and diversity. As the world’s first sapient robot, Turing is an unknown, an “other” – whose charm and humane nature shine out beyond their chrome exterior. The game is a journey of sorts for Turing, who tries to fashion human-equivalent identities, such as gender, age, or the right of autonomy. It’s up to the player to embrace Turing rather than push them away to get the better ending.

To sum, ROM is a short, simple, at times tacky – but ultimately intriguing cyberpunk adventure with a progressive message to bear. While hardly a game, ROM thrives on the strength of its writing and the surprising depth of its cyberpunk setting. Just make sure you check your non-hybrid privilege at the door first.

I give this: 4 out of 5 milk cartons

 

Obduction

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Obduction is the rare puzzle game that manages to make its narrative a vital part of its core puzzle-solving experience.

The puzzle game genre is an expansive one, and contains all sorts of mechanics, but the unifying principle that makes a puzzle game is the application of deductive logic to manipulating game mechanics, in order to accomplish objectives in the game.

In The Witness, there was only one mechanic – drawing lines that connect two points in a maze, repeated in various forms across the entire span of the game. In The Talos Principle, there were a few well defined ones – lasers, boxes and disruptors – that interacted with each other to create complex puzzles, often requiring emergent thinking. Both games were sterling examples of the craft, but their mechanics were decidedly synthetic – they were orthogonal to environment and plot. Swap the island of The Witness for another environment, or the Greco-Egyptian setpieces of The Talos Principle for Medieval castlery, and the games would fundamentally be the same, because their mechanics are the same.

In Obduction, by contrast, the mechanics are part of the environment and the narrative of the game space. The puzzles and conundrums in Obduction are diegetic – they require you to observe how the world is laid out and understand how things in the world affect each other. A diesel engine lies dormant and there are switches and dials and a long snaking cable that extends to something that vaguely looks like a gas station. It’s up to you to figure out the logic of starting the engine with the visual and environmental clues laid out before you. While the inventory of actions that you can undertake is limited – pushing buttons, pulling levers – the challenge is to operate those buttons and levers in ways that make mechanical sense, and to find clues and context while exploring that enable you to piece together the required constituents to find a solution.

That’s what makes Obduction stand out as a puzzler – its gameplay is inextricable from its setting. And in turn, its setting is inextricable from its narrative. And the act of piecing together its narrative from the clues is the crowning meta-puzzle of the game. Swap out the environments for other ones, and you swap out the puzzles and the narrative, and you end up with another game – a spiritual cousin, but not the same.

And the narrative is brilliant – once you make sense of it all. As you start the game and get past its enigmatic opening sequence, and first stumble into an inexplicable world – an Arizona ghost town seemingly scooped out of the earth and plonked in the middle of a vast, purple alien landscape – you would be forgiven for being utterly nonplussed. The game’s only clues are environmental in nature – old recordings from vanished people, paper signs posted on walls, and the idea is to begin to look around, read the clues, and understand what on earth is going on in this fantastic landscape.

Solving each puzzle in the world gets you another narrative clue – and slowly, you piece the pieces together. Despite its seemingly nonsensical premise, Obduction is undergirded by an intriguing, utterly original science fiction premise – which I won’t go into because explaining it would ruin the experience of going into this game blind, as the protagonist does, and experiencing that sense of initial confusion that blends into a greater surety of purpose as you feel your way around the world.

The narrative isn’t perfect, by any means – there is still a bit of ludonarrative dissonance. Everything is just cryptic enough to be challenging to decipher, and yet clear enough that the clues are all there. The one or two actual speaking humans that tell you to do stuff are almost irritatingly stingy with giving clarifications to their enigmatic statements. Of course, if they were to tell you how to do everything step-by-karffin’-step, that’d be no fun at all, would it. And so it goes.

The beauty of Obduction is in how it gives the act of puzzle-solving a narrative significance. In The Witness, there was no narrative to speak of, only the inherent appeal of puzzle-solving to get you through the game. In The Talos Principle, the overarching narrative existed on a different plane than the puzzle-solving. In Obduction, the story is the puzzle – and to figure out its many moving pieces to form a coherent and satisfying storyline is the chief pleasure of the game, and possibly the most challenging – and high-stakes – puzzle of all.

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 batteries

Titanfall 2

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Titanfall 2’s kinetic verticality and the variety of mechanics afforded by its Titan-Pilot dynamics make this an FPS of rare innovativeness and charm.

Titanfall 2 is Respawn Entertainment’s sophomore effort in fulfilling every gamer’s power fantasy of putting on giant mechanical exosuits and duking it out with other giant mechanical exosuits. But it’s a lot more than that. Titanfall 2 makes you spend a lot of time out of that suit, but the resulting gameplay is anything but unsatisfying. As a Pilot, you double-jump and wall-run your way around the environments, flanking your hapless enemies and employing an arsenal of creative weapon concepts. Titanfall 2 is a floaty FPS in terms of movement, but a satisfyingly meaty one when it comes to shooting, and while it’s not nearly as gritty and realistic in its combat, movement, and animations as Battlefield One, it nevertheless feels like it’s really nailed satisfying gunplay. And then you get into the Titan and the game just changes into a floaty affair into a high-octane bullet-hell sort of a affair, which brings with it its own primal appeal.

I got into Titanfall 2 because of the single player campaign, which I’d heard was an absolute blast. Some reviewers compared it favorably to the Half Life 2 campaign in terms of sheer inventiveness. While I still think the HL2 campaign is unbeaten in terms of its seminal influence over video game storytelling, I have to admit that the campaign does exceed all expectations I had going into it (even with the hyperbolic praise heaped onto it), at least for a game that seems to have been built up as a multiplayer shooter first and a narrative experience second.

The plot itself is generic cookie-cutter military sf, but it’s not really what sets the campaign apart. It’s an impeccably choreographed theme park romp through the game’s beautifully crafted environments, full of visually interesting setpieces that serve to put the game’s various mechanics through its paces. Other than the usual wall-running, double jumping shenanigans and the titan brawl boss battles, the game has a couple of other plot-related mechanics up its sleeve, which, if not quite Portal‘s portals or HL2’s gravity gun, are at least in a similar spirit (coincidentally, Titanfall 2 runs off a very heavily modified Source engine). The Titan loadouts are fun too, and the player gets to try them over the course of the game, with different loadouts more well-suited to tackle different types of enemies.

The campaign’s chief virtue is that it gives the player a sense of empowerment amidst challenge. There are your usual challenging boss battles, locked-room fights, and frantic gauntlets to double-jump out of, but there are also those sequences where you’re in a Titan and mowing down the hapless bad guys with lock-on missiles. Many games think that the level of challenge needs to be uniform, but Titanfall 2 shows that single player campaigns can always benefit from a bit of a break from unrelenting difficulty, as long as the diversionary activity can leverage on deep mechanics to be engaging and fun (in other words, not QTEs).

It’s just too bad that the campaign’s a little short, but Respawn’s success with its campaign gives me hope that its incoming Star Wars game will also deliver that vaunted Star Wars narrative videogame experience I’ve craved since KOTOR 2.

I give this game 4 out of 5 Arks