Archives for category: Game Reviews

Warning: Contains Spoilers

The marriage of gameplay and narrative marks the pinnacle of video game design. Interactivity is after all the defining feature of the genre. By creating a seamless union, a game truly merits the title “Art”. Hence, the brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus in which the player must tightly grip the controls while the character grasps for dear life. Bioshock also strives to transcend the genre, but in the end falls short of that promise, mired by uninspired repetitive gameplay.

Bioshock immerses the player via worldbuilding, the game’s selling point. After an absolutely sublime introduction involving a plane crash, your character, Jack, enters Rapture, an underwater society founded upon the principles of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”. The first glimpse of the art deco city doesn’t fail to astonish, but needless to say, it’s not exactly a utopia down there. Jack has stumbled upon a city divided by civil war and overrun by monsters. His only hope: the guidance of Atlas, the rebel leader…

Unfortunately, the early levels are nothing to write home about. They consist of fetch quests and battles against mutants and cyborgs while audio logs unveil the back story. There’s some element of moral choice regarding the little sisters, but the choice doesn’t really impact gameplay. Whether you save them or kill them, the result is the same. It also doesn’t help that a single weapon works for all enemies, removing all need for strategy. In the end, the routine gets tedious.

Even the worldbuilding loses its sheen. Take the vending machines. Am I supposed to believe that a dictator trying to throttle a rebellion would allow ammo to be sold on every street corner? Come on! Such things, though minor, ruin the illusion and force the player out of the immersion. For a game like Bioshock with dull and repetitive combat, this is fatal. Instead of exploring an underwater city, I was navigating labyrinthine video game levels.

At some point, I started wondering “Why?” Why the hell was the game forcing Jack (and myself) to photograph dead bodies for a psychopathic artist, for instance? Why was I still playing Bioshock when I longed for the open world quests of Fallout 3. Then, Andrew Ryan reveals Jack has not been acting on his free will at all. Lecturing him on his status as a slave, Ryan growls “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” All this time, I via the character, Jack, had been acting the part of a slave, mindlessly obeying every command the game supplied, fetching like a dog. Now, I thought, it’s time to choose.

Nope. The fetch quests resume, and the game concludes with a laughable boss battle and a ridiculous good and evil cinematic concerning the little sisters. Had Bioshock concluded with Ryan’s scene or introduced actual choice, it would have transcended its genre. It would have been the ultimate satire on video games and linearity. Alas, Bioshock misses its own point.

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Within a dismal, dreary forest, a large pond, one amongst many, blocks the path. My character cannot swim; he stands hesitantly at the water’s edge hoping to spot a way across. Bodies, children’s bodies, float in the water. It’s a grotesque scene, but my character is quite the utilitarian. The bodies would serve as excellent floatation devices. Just as the boy makes the leap, he witnesses another child staggering towards the pond. Right before his very eyes, the other child stumbles into the murky water and drowns. For no apparent reason.

Scenarios such as the one above define the game, LIMBO. Set in a cruel, cold world abounding with monsters and death traps, LIMBO is the stuff of nightmares. Most other games present death as an innocuous hiccup, “Oh, you’ve run out of energy. Here’s a cutscene of your character fainting.” This game is different. Get caught in a trap, and you’ll witness a most pleasant scene of your little character getting stabbed, beheaded, dismembered, minced, electrocuted, crushed, drowned… whatever you can imagine. You cannot escape. And then, there’s the spider…

People will frequently allude to LIMBO when the topic of ”Videogames as Art” emerges. Certainly, the aesthetic design with its black and white color palette, muted grays, and misty whites warrants such commendation. There’s an almost dreamy, otherworldly quality to the game. The soundtrack too with its subtle monotone and striking notes at just the right moments creates a most eerie atmosphere. Sound effects certainly contribute. You can hear the boy’s every step as he navigates first the forest and then an industrial world. His desperate pants seem to echo in your ears. But I believe the gameplay itself designates LIMBO as a work of art.

In one particular level, I got caught in a trap where the first pressure plate is a safe zone but the second activates a trap. Not much farther along, I encountered a trio of young boys with poison darts. They pursued me as I backtracked all the way to the aforementioned pressure plates. I watched, gleefully, as my pursuers were crushed in the trap that I had succumbed to only seconds before. It was a sort of vindictive delight.

Then, I paused. Why would I be feeling such things? This emotion wasn’t the catharsis of completing a puzzle. It was more a smug acknowledgement that, yes, I had fallen for that very trap, but now I could wield that knowledge against those who would seek to hurt me. I had wondered about the boys that I had encountered. Who were they? What were they doing here? Why were they attacking me? They made it personal. And so they had to die. Not many games can bring at emotions like these.

This interaction with other beings in the first half of the game leads me to deem it a masterpiece. Unfortunately the second half didn’t impress me. Sure, the puzzles involving spinning rooms and gravity buttons were rather interesting, but something was lacking. They were just complicated puzzles, nothing more. (Time-based to boot, which I hate. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat a level because you jumped a fraction of a second too late.) The enemies reside only in the beginning; the second half subjects the character to inorganic obstacles. Rather disappointing. In addition, some elements of the puzzles didn’t seem that well integrated. For instance, in an early level you must retrieve a bear trap placed on the limb of a tree.

I did enjoy some of the extra elements after completing the game. Hunting for the “Easter eggs,” in this case literal eggs, allowed me to explore this 2D world even deeper. I still have yet to find the last one, which only appears after completing the game with less than five deaths, but I’m getting there. After all, there’s no point in dying.

LIMBO by Playdead

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You feel as if you have stumbled into a dream, or perhaps memory might be the better term. Everything seems misty, hazy, and pale. This world is real and unreal, alive and dead at the same time. This is the threshold between life and afterlife. That is why you have come.

You play a young man, awkward and inexperienced, who seeks to revive a maiden who lies still and cold. You think, she belongs here; he does not. But having traversed an incredible and impossible bridge to reach this realm, you realize there is no turning back now. Then, a voice speaks. To bring this girl back to the realm of the living, you must slay the ancient idols. However, you are warned, the price may be heavy. Nonetheless, you agree. 

Thus, you enter this strange empty world armed only with a sword and a bow. As you seek out the Colossi, you cannot help but meditate on the meaning behind all this. Ruins litter the landscape. Who built them? Why? Where are they now? The questions go unanswered. There is no one to talk to, no side quests. Those would only be a distraction. There is only you and this world. Alone in this mysterious landscape, you fall into contemplation.

You do have one companion though, your horse, Agro. One could never ask for a more loyal companion. Agro only exists in a game world, but you feel that such a creature must have a soul and mind of his own. Agro is not a mere vehicle that you point in one direction and leave on autopilot. No, Agro is willful, stubborn, and alive. It takes practice to make him respond as you want to, but you love him more for it. Thus even as he aids in your battles, his cries of terror strike you deep.

Then you encounter the Colossi. Such magnificent beings, you wonder. Arising from the elements, constructed of stone and moss, they must be incarnations of the world itself. They are greater than you. You struggle to discover and access their weak points. The struggle though nerve-wracking is exhilarating. You, a mere human, a mortal are taking on a god of the earth. Inevitably the Colossus is slain. Even in the throes of death it remains magnificent. Your pride in your accomplishment is tainted by sadness. One by one the Colossi fall. Some don’t even fight back. The sadness turns to guilt and even grief. The loneliness of the landscape only enhances these feelings. But you must go on. 

As you progress, however, you become aware of a change in your character. He appears closer to death. He has bags under his eyes. His skin is pale and his face is gaunt. The girl on the other hand seems closer to life. They have become like the land. Alive and Dead. Real and Unreal. They stand on the threshold between worlds.

Shadow of the Colossus

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