Expectations: “Tandem: A Tale of Shadows”

Past

I’m a fan of puzzle games that play with perception, so the initial pitch for Tandem: A Tale of Shadows caught my attention: you, an Alice-in-Wonderland-looking child named Emma, explore an illusionist’s manor, accompanied by an animated teddy bear named Fenton. There’s a lush, colored top-down view of Emma wandering through the lantern-lit halls, but then there’s also a black-and-white 2D platformer in which Fenton uses the silhouetted shadows you’ve created for him to proceed.

Present

Tandem isn’t exactly the first game of its kind. From 2013’s Contrast to this year’s Shady Part of Me, shadow-manipulation risks becoming a gimmick, and what a demo needs to do is really showcase the ways in which it stands apart from others. In that, Tandem fails. The demo is nothing more than a proof-of-concept, allowing Emma to do the rudimentary elements of a this sort of character-swapping puzzler: build a path for one, reach a key with another. One hits a switch so the other can hit a switch. For some inexplicable reason, giant insects show up in one level, and Emma must stay out of their very limited field-of-view.

The sizzle reels and guided demos all show other, brighter elements of the mansion itself, not just the rain-soaked gardens. They feature giant mechanical one-eyed clown skulls chasing you down a hall, weird slime blocks that must be pushed around, and some sort of crazily elaborate furnace/death-trap. But this demo has none of that. There’s no sense of purpose, and while I was disappointed when the demo ended, it wasn’t because I wanted to see what happened next–I wasn’t sure what had even happened thus far–but rather because I hadn’t seen enough to really have much of an impression at all, beyond the fact that the levels were so tritely titled (for instance, “A Lock, A Key” and “Murky Woods”) that I’d lost confidence in the game’s creativity.

Future

I think it’s critical that the full-length version of Tandem really focus on its sense of purpose and place, ideally uniting the two with a clearer narrative. Emma’s adventure could be happening anywhere, and the teddy bear springs to life randomly enough on the streets of the city; there must be a significance to this illusionist’s manor. Likewise, there must be more to this shadow-play than cute mechanics; is Emma overcoming a fear of the darkness? Are there missing children calling out to her from within? There are hints of a mystery within the introductory cutscene, but that narrative needs to carry through to the game; the creepiest elements must ideally speak to the forces that oppose her–those giant bugs must, at some point, be explained. (Think, for instance, of how Limbo or Little Nightmares operate.)

There are too many games each year. When you create your game–or your demo–you should be thinking about the mechanics that your game needs and that should be apparent in everything the player is doing. With this Tandem demo, I worry that I’ve not even gotten the shadowy half of the story, and I’m hoping the full experience shines a light on everything that currently feels undercooked.

Expectations: “Chinatown Detective Agency”

I don’t want to judge a game by its demo, so don’t mistake this as a full preview of Chinatown Detective Agency. Instead, this’ll be an opportunity to talk about the past (what caught my eye), the present (what the demo does), and the future (what I’d like to see).

Past

The cybernoir, pixelated glow of the city streets in Singapore, 2031, calls out to me, especially compared to the traditional glow of London’s skyline, reflected in the Thames. I liked the way each frame goes the extra mile in telling a story, like the presence of the homeless in that London scene, separate from the city, but huddled around their own fiery trashcan lights, the distance between them and even the reflection of the city telling an entire story in a single shot. I also like the game’s single-screen interface, which foregrounds the investigative structure and calls back to both the classic investigations of Carmen Sandiego and those of the modern MMORPG The Secret World.

Present

The demo, which will carry over to the full game, provides players with access to the first three cases, which conveniently introduce you not only to the basic mechanics of moving about the city (and world) but to the types of stories you’ll be solving. (The inclusion of voice-acting, especially in interrogations, is a welcome addition.) There’s a criminal case involving embezzlement, a personal matter that deals with a rich but guilt-stricken man who seeks to divest himself of his inherited wealth, and a political conspiracy that begins with the all-too-plausible tale of a public water trust executive’s plan to distribute utilities by subscription tiers: the rich would of course buy “crystal clear” water, while the poor would be stuck with a “basic” plan that far exceeds the level of currently acceptable toxins.

Similarly to the recent Sherlock Holmes games, you’ll unlock and select locations on a map so that you can hack into locations, investigate crime scenes, and interrogate characters, but where it stands apart is that the answers to many puzzles must be found externally, and codes–like a book cypher–must be manually cracked. The prevalence of Google makes this a bit too easy sometimes, as when you need to figure out what book a quote originated from or to track down the local name for the Yangtze River, but credit to Chinatown Detective Agency for finding trickier visual puzzles to decode, like a series of stamps from countries around the world and their partial cancellation marks. After closing one case–and you can notably fail some of them if you don’t figure out where you need to go fast enough–you’ll unlock the next, earning cash based on your level of success, all of which helps to fund this ex-cop’s investigation of an overarching terrorism plot.

Future

My impression is that after this opening prologue, players will have a more non-linear approach to the remainder of the game, which would fit with the open-ended way in which it allows you to book travel through HORUS to destinations like Istanbul, London, and Shanghai–i.e., you can very much go off-course. Some missions already hint at this, whether that’s the way you can shoot the wrong target (or in the wrong place) in the Shootout mode, or in how you can fail a mission by not getting there in time, but if we’re dealing with external investigations, the game needs to have a similar freedom internally.

That’s why I’m also hopeful that the game’s mini-games are either minimized or made far more complex. Hacking and augmentations are a vital part of the cyberpunk scene, and I like the idea that you’ll have to buy the right tools (or make the right bribes) to proceed in some cases, but if it’s going to be dumbed down to something like “solve this 3×4 Concentration grid,” then that’s insulting. I have no problem with puzzles being solvable entirely within the game, but I want them to be as original as the research I’m being asked to do outside of it, and if there’s a concern about balance or gating players from key story points, then there’s no reason hints can’t be bought (for in-game money, not actual cash) or, if there are mechanically taxing puzzles, why a manual save system can’t be included.

At any rate, I’m hopeful that the final version of Chinatown Detective Agency plays out as much like one of those real-world puzzle/scavenger hunts, and I’m only partially saying that because I’ve spent most of the last fourteen months quarantined and minimally traveling. I want an investigatory version of The Amazing Race where I’m not just booking travel but solving crimes along the way, and getting exposed to the culture and politics of this 2031 future. Here’s hoping!

First Draft: “Don’t Forget Me”

You know how television shows sometimes come up with bottle episodes, relegating all of the action to a single, restrictive location with a limited number of characters so that they can save money for other, more expansive (and expensive) episodes? That’s what Don’t Forget Me feels like. As the amnesiac Fran, players are thrust into the confines of a memory clinic, the rainy neon Blade Runner-esque future visible only through window. Fran’s lack of memories, coupled with her lack of mobility in most scenes, result in a narrow-lens game that, ironically, removes agency from a character who is attempting to prevent a megacorporation from removing the population’s agency (a plot that seems ripped out of Brave New World).

There’s a story to tell here, but The Moon Pirates not only can’t decide how best to tell it from scene to scene but, given the rushed ending, seem to have forgotten to resolve anything. The majority of the game plays out as a visual novel, with players given dialogue choices that, sadly, carry no real ethical weight. Occasionally, the game dabbles in a light text-based adventure, in which Bernard, the clinic’s operator, describes the data he’s sifting through, and asks you to assist him by typing out words that can connect one memory node to another. And then in a few instances, the game allows Fran to literally snoop inside a person’s mind, interacting with objects to get a sense of what they did before choosing how to handle that memory and to potentially punish the client.

The gameplay is entirely at odds with the design, like playing a linear, on-rails version of Her Story.

None of these elements have anything to do with the actual sense of forgetting or even remembering, most notably because Fran remains an amnesiac throughout. The gameplay is entirely at odds with the design, a bit like playing a linear, on-rails version of Her Story where instead of getting lost in a series of confessions where you have to take notes and logically piece together an out-of-sequence narrative, you’re simply looking for the right key word in a paragraph of text (hint: it’s often the last word). Memories rarely connect in such obvious ways, unless you’re talking about rote, mundane things–which shouldn’t be the case in a so-called “jazz-punk” adventure. Where’s the riffing or the improvisation? Where’s the rebelliousness?

As a first draft, however, Don’t Forget Me shows promise. A timeline of events that’s unlocked at the end of the game shows the limited choices and narrative web, which is to say that it can only be built upon. As opposed to relying upon Bernard’s third-person shorthand, a future installment might allow players to fully explore and investigate locations of their own accord, like 2064: Read Only Memories, and use the things they directly observed to help them work through a longer-term memory node. Instead of having your moral choices relegated to patients that you never see again, imagine if your ethics actually impacted what you could (or couldn’t) see while traveling through someone else’s mind, thereby commenting on the fluidity and delusion of memory.

Here’s hoping that The Moon Pirates can revisit and refine this concept, so that the memories get bigger and the traversal and interaction with them gets weirder. There’s so much promise to being a mind detective, whether it’s to tug on the emotional heartstrings as in To the Moon or to play with how you interpret your own actions as in Remember Me. But the memory has to fit the crime, and Don’t Forget Me just isn’t there yet.

One Life: Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

Think what you will of me, but I never play as the bad guy. This isn’t because I want to get the “canon” ending or because I don’t want to miss out on anything that comes from killing quest-giving NPCs but rather because I take no pleasure in being malicious, even to code. I believe I’ve stayed true to form in siding, ultimately, with Perseus, the “villainous” organization of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, because after seeing how poorly “Bell” has been treated by this covert CIA team, I found it easier to side with those trying to take out an entire superpower than with those who would stoop to highly unethical means to prevent it. I think that’s the understated genius of Cold War: the entire game is filled with seemingly obvious black-and-white choices that point you toward always forcibly recruiting enemy intelligence targets as opposed to killing them, only for the final act to pull back that curtain by putting you in the shoes of one of these coerced operatives.

I never play as the bad guy, but after seeing how poorly Bell is treated by his own team, I found it easier to side with those trying to take out a superpower than those who would stoop to such unethical means to prevent it.

The trick employed by Cold War‘s “Break On Through” is that of the unreliable narrator. (Honestly, I’m surprised we don’t see this device more often given how well it’s worked in the limited scope of Bioshock, Man of Medan, Metal Gear, Cyberpilot, and of course Spec Ops.) Throughout the main campaign, characters keep alluding to how memories can’t fully be trusted; in fact, one of the earliest levels is Bell’s attempt to unearth a suppressed memory from his Vietnam days. But as the game progresses, members of your team keep letting it slip that maybe it’s you who is not to be trusted. Things fall apart for Bell completely in the end-game; after being injured on an operation in Cuba, your teammates–one of whom you just saved–turn on you and pump you full of drugs, forcing you to relive a particular memory. Except–and here’s the catch–it’s not entirely your memory.

Normally, when you assume the role of a character, you’re left to fill in the blanks of their development, how they came to be the person they are today. As it turns out, both you and Bell know exactly as much, because Bell’s entire persona is a lie. That mission in Vietnam was an implanted memory, meant to establish trust with his handler, Adler, so that he might reveal the real memory beneath the surface. The only difference between us and Bell is that we knew, by dint of playing a game called Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War that we were getting an illusion. In one fell swoop, we’re left to question what we’ve actually been fed.

“Break On Through” begins simply enough, with Adler providing a narrative to the actions Bell presumably recounted during his Vietnam debrief. He adlibs easily enough should you choose slightly different actions than the ones he’s describing: picking up a different weapon or tackling a bunch of enemies in a rice paddy head-on, instead of with stealth. When you linger too long in an indistinct house, he simply glosses over these small details as things that “weren’t in your debrief.” But then the game comes to a literal fork in the road, and things start falling apart if you choose to disobey Adler’s instructions. The jungle begins to come apart at the seams, with images from the present-day safehouse interrogation bleeding into the trees: a television there, a gurney here. In one rebellious iteration, all of the Vietnamese soldiers are eerily replaced by Adler’s character model. His increasing frustration brings this spot-on TikTok to mind:

Of course, you can’t actually break this sequence in Cold War, which is part of the irony. Your resistance has been as carefully scripted here as it was in the brilliant The Stanley Parable. You’ve got the illusion of freedom because you can choose to go left or right, and Adler (“the developer”) provides frustrated feedback to enhance the idea that you’re doing something wrong, but it’s not as if you can actually break the game. Try to outwit him by jumping off a bridge and he just scoffs as he resets back to the moment right before that: “Sure Bell, you committed suicide. Then what happened?” Try to outlast him by running around an infinite PT-like corridor and eventually, when nothing new happens, you’ll eventually turn around to see what comes next. Refuse to open the enticingly bright red door of the bunker and he conjures up another one, which startlingly thuds down before you. Ignore it, and another falls, and another, and then eventually he just teleports you inside. Resistance is ultimately futile, but it’s a lot of fun getting to that point, so come on and give this level a spin: It’s got a job to do.

No Refunds: “Blue Fire”

This 3D platformer frustrates at every opportunity, and while it looks like it may eventually be at least enjoyable, albeit derivative, these first two-odd hours are a major turnoff.

One of the first things players see as they work their way through the grey hallways of Penumbra’s Abandoned Keep in Blue Fire is a discarded pit of corpses, all of which look like your masked character. It’s a bit of a prelude to what follows, because whether you misread a poorly telegraphed attack knocking you back into one of the game’s many spectral red thorns, slightly dip one’s toe into the green sludge of a poorly maintained sewer system in the Arcane Tunnels, or misjudge the length of a chasm in one of the platform-y Void challenges, you will die, a lot.

If only those deaths were the result of difficulty as opposed to obtuseness. I can’t tell you how many times in just the first two hours I stumbled across challenges that I either didn’t realize I couldn’t yet complete–ostensibly a missing glide, a missing wall jump–or obstacles that I was supposed to traverse, but skipped, thinking that there was no way I could make that jump, even with a perfectly timed dash. After passing by dozens of sealed doorways in the Abandoned Keep, with no signposts or directives on where or what to do, no landmarks to help encourage players toward some sort of immediate goal or aspiration, players have to suddenly realize two aerial switches that they can lock-on and dash toward? Things get worse, not better, as a result of the drab three-dimensional design, which forces players to chain together aerial moves while also fighting with the camera. This is a critique that goes all the way back to Mario 64, but at least that was a relatively colorful game with clearly marked (and franchise-familiar) obstacles, and it’s one that has been addressed by many three-dimensional platformers since, so even an indie title like this has little excuse for stumbling.

Folks, I cheated a bit and played slightly longer than my allotted two hours–not because I enjoyed the mindless combat, but because I was lost in the first semi-open area, Stoneheart City, for so long that I wanted to at least give Blue Fire‘s first “dungeon,” the Forest Shrine, a chance. And I’ll admit, the game improves, as expected, upon getting the claws, which allow you to both wall jump and wall run. But here, again, completing the shrine wasn’t actually difficult so much as it was confusing to navigate, with two largely superfluous levers to control water levels (only one of which seems useful). I kept missing the passage that needed to head down once I found the claw treasure, and then stumbled multiple times trying to maneuver from a switch to the timed door it opened, Blue Fire wasting no time in chaining together different types of wall runs and jumps while also throwing enemies into the mix.

The hook of Blue Fire is meant to be something like “Hollow Knight, but in three-dimensions,” but that’s far too generalized a concept to build off, especially given that the best Dark Souls and platformers revolve around specificity: atmospheric yet signpoint-y level design, tight and responsive controls. Honestly, even if I hadn’t hit my time limit for this impression, I might’ve stopped anyway, dreading having to find my way back to the various shops in Stoneheart City now that I had enough “ore” to actually upgrade my purse and buy a few ability-enhancing souls, hoping that I wouldn’t once again die and drop all that money along the way. Frustration only goes so far without a proper motivator to keep you going.

Missed Opportunities: The Aggressively Average “Ys IX: Monstrum Nox”

In a world of uncertainty, there is something perhaps comforting about the formulaic, which may explain why we get franchise series–even outside of sports games–that continue to produce fresh but all-too familiar entries. Much in the vein of those games that reskin enemy types–and there’s a lot of that in Ys–there’s the sense with these titles that, “Well, it worked once before, so why not again?”

Well, Ys IX: Monstrum Nox certainly works. As you might expect from a series with so much history but not nearly as much experimentation as, say, Final Fantasy, each new entry continues to refine as opposed to reinvent the franchise. The only real shift in Ys has been a result of evolving technology; like Zelda it switched from top-down to side-scroller and then to three dimensions, and moved away from having a single hero, Adol Christin, to a party that you could actively swap between, each with their own play style and flashy special moves. The niche it has decided to fill is a similar one to that of the Tales series, but with more of an emphasis on action, particularly dodging enemies.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox_20210127134855

Moment-to-moment, Ys is a lot of fun. Combat is fast-paced, bosses sometimes have weak points that require a bit of strategy, and dungeons are dotted with hidden treasures. There’s a lot of emphasis on exploration this time, too, thanks to the game’s central gimmick, which is that Adol and his five cursed companions have each gained a traversal power–a grappling claw, a sprightly wall run, a shadow dive–that allow them to increasingly zip around the various districts of the Prison City of Balduq.

But in the bigger picture? Ys is inescapably formulaic, however much the game somewhat lampshades this in an early, comic prison scene in which an incredulous interrogator can’t get past just how many seemingly contrived shipwrecks or legendary adventures Adol has stumbled onto. Each chapter has an almost identical structure, and familiarity quickly sets in, even if the characters and districts differ. Adol is tasked with traveling to a district of the city, which means he has to break down the magical barrier by completing side-quests (all of which are conveniently located in areas he can already access). Once through, he’ll then recruit a new Monstrum ally and, with the aid of their Gift, find a path into the prison. As for the hook meant to string players along? Each chapter ends with a tantalizing glimpse into a life of a prisoner, one who looks an awful lot like Adol.

In the bigger picture, Ys is inescapably formulaic.

Compounding the issue is that Ys IX feels incredibly similar to Persona 5, and it’s an unflattering comparison. The structured routines of Persona 5 are intentional: you’re getting the sense of what it’s like to balance daily life and social commitments with that of your Phantom Thief alter-egos. More importantly, though each “chapter” of Persona 5 ends with a big heist, each of those Palaces is intentionally distinct, fashioned out of the mindset of the person whose heart you’re trying to change. By contrast, Ys IX keeps traveling to the same “metaverse,” a spiritual realm known as the Grimwald Nox in which the Monstrums are bound to face Lemures, the accumulated enmity of Balduq’s citizens. There’s no specificity to this threat: they are abstract evils given fun-to-thwack forms. These areas aren’t even all that different from their real-world counterparts, so much as they are filtered over with the red light of this dimension’s crimson moon.

There’s a deepening mystery at the heart of the game’s prison, one that exposes the tentative peace between the Romuns who conquered Balduq and that of the native Gllians and their Hieroglyph Knights. Each new character that Adol frees adds a unique perspective to the conflict, from the seething anger of Iris, a young would-be-assassin, to the disillusionment of Lucien, who dared to question the false imprisonments his fellow Knights were starting to carry out. Margot’s cautionary tale is particularly instructive, as this old firebrand must confront the violent consequences of the resistance movement she inspired. Sadly, these tales come across as vignettes set in the world of Ys IX. Whereas Persona 5 centered an entire social link system around meaningful interactions with your allies, who would in turn support you in battle, Ys IX doesn’t require to you prioritize who you work with so much as it just makes you wait for the story to advance far enough such that you can purchase them a gift. Ultimately, they’re just one more thing to collect.

Though Ys IX alludes to a lot of Adol’s previous adventures, with his memories being the very reason why he’s singled out in the first place, it’s time for the series to take a cue from Nihon Falcom’s other flagship series, Legend of Heroes, and to stop making such standalone entries. Instead of essentially rebooting Adol from scratch each time and focusing on tiny slices of this Earth-adjacent fantasy world, the game can build on Adol’s relationship and the deeper lore between rival nations and gods. This would allow characters to actually mean something and, more importantly, add range to Adol’s environments, as opposed to all the repetitive ways in which Ys IX travels through old waterways, canyons, and ruins back to the same bleak stone prison.

It may be time to take a cue from Legend of Heroes and stop rebooting Adol from scratch each time.

I enjoyed Ys IX, but I can’t celebrate the low bar it continues to clear. Balduq is a massive city with about a dozen hidden escape routes and a complex history behind each of its districts. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect that the game itself should be as interconnected when it comes to plot as it is with its level design, or that, when Adol travels between entirely distinct regions, the gameplay should more meaningfully adapt to his environments with him. In the end, the monstrous curse that Ys IX faces is an averageness of its own making.

No Refunds: “Tadpole Treble Encore”

Looking for a short, novel burst of gameplay? I’ll say that Tadpole Treble Encore “roes” to the occasion, with enjoyable compositions that prove the developer definitely doesn’t have a (sardine) tin ear.

The one thing missing from many rhythm games is an original soundtrack: even games like Theatrhyhthm Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory are simply recycling tunes from earlier titles. Rare is it that you come across something as wacky and wild as Elite Beat Agents, which is as involved in the gameplay and style as it is in the music itself.

That’s why I’m happy to have stumbled upon Tadpole Treble Encore, a 2021 Switch port of a 2016 title. There’s not all that much here–only thirteen levels, which go by pretty quickly once you get the hang of the controls–but almost every stage has an elegant hook (not just lyrically), whether that’s dodging the titular predators in Piranha Jungle, swimming in reverse (against the current) in Gusty Rapids, navigating the dark areas of the Barracuda Caverns, or enjoying a slow duet in Midnight Bayou. The old-timey wordplay of the Aisle Isle, which puns on the alphabet soup of acronyms (“Tell your BF, GF, BFF, your OBGYN/Your XXL MD or SO, AM or PM/Tell AJ, BJ, CJ, DJ, PJ, and TJ”) comes out of nowhere, but it’s very much appreciated. And then there’s Thunder Creek, which shifts the rhythm portion to a shadowy palette as it kicks in an up-tempo high-noon Western melody, one in which your normal tadpole attack now makes a whip-cracking sound effect. (This is what being “pitch perfect” actually means.)

Almost every stage has an elegant hook, and not just lyrically.

A lot of intelligent thought went into Tadpole Treble‘s design, from the way in which the game’s logo uses a font that resembles the musical notes found on sheet music, to the way in which players swim through levels that are broken apart by the staff lines of the G (or treble) clef, occasionally dropping in a tail-kick of bass (probably the one fishy pun the game eschews). My two hours with the game was more than enough to beat it, but I only got 50% completion, as each level is filled with optional goals that radically change the way in which you need to play the song, whether that’s collecting all of the bubbles, getting a high (or low) score, or meeting the cryptic requirements of each level’s hidden challenge fly. The only traditional element missing is a difficulty modifier for each song, though the inclusion of a Composition Mode that lets you create your own levels is a plus. (Not being able to share with the online community, however, is a major lapse.)

Missed Opportunities: What FF16 Must Learn From FFXV

Final Fantasy XV is a game of extreme imbalance, the result of a tortuous ten-year development cycle. It is is a game filled with sparks of brilliance, but also the disappointing glare of what could have been. It is a game set apart by its brethren by its road-trip theme and fifth party member, your vehicle, the Regalia, and yet it is also a game that is surprisingly undriven, too content to wallow in the beauty of its world, as if forgetting at times that it can also be telling a story.

It is a “city” of two tales. The first one spins its wheels as Noctis ignores his father’s death and the danger that his fiancĂ©e might be in so that he can camp with his friends and go Chocobo Racing or Monster Hunting or Photojournalisting. Clearing out imperial garrisons–the very thing a king might want to do for his people–is given equal weight with fetching ingredients for a chef or reagents for a scientist, and this is largely true even when the stakes are high: Noct, afflicted by crippling headaches that direct him to the Disc of Cauthess, is given ample opportunity to instead keep fishing and foraging without consequence.

Noctis ignores his father’s death and the danger that his fiancĂ©e might be in so he can camp with his friends and go Chocobo Racing or Monster Hunting or Photojouralisting.

The game’s second act burns through all that pent-up momentum, peeling out the plot points so quickly that they hardly land. In an inversion of Final Fantasy XIII, the open world gives way to a linear, literally on-rails (you’re on a train) trip to the capital of the evil empire of Niflheim. The beautiful city of Altissia, with its Venician canals and high-fashion storefronts, its political factions and old-moneyed aristocracy, is a pitstain in the rear-view mirror. It’s less important for Noct to pay respects to his dead fiancĂ©e in her home of Tenebrae, than to an unnamed former king whose grave is found beneath an abandoned dig site.

Imagine if, instead of visiting tombs that grant no actual insight into the past, you could instead actually interact with meaningful landmarks, like the prison island of Angelgard, where Noct could’ve learned what drove his rival to madness? Imagine if the gang had traveled to Galahd, and seen firsthand how Noct’s father failed the people there when he pulled back the magical Wall that had once protected them, as opposed to relegating this relevant tale of mistreated refugees to a C-plot in Kingsglaive. Imagine if Chapter 14’s “The World of Ruin” were actually evocative of FFVI in more than name, and Noctis, all alone, had to wander through a transformed world, seeking out friends to help him take one final shot at the bad guy, as opposed to just reconnecting with them after ten years as if no time had passed whatsoever. Imagine if Prompto’s discoveries about his origins and the development of Magitek-daemon technology weren’t relegated to a DLC, such that there were actually a reason to explore the various research labs out on the corrupted tundra, gradually cobbling together a snowmobile capable of reaching Shiva’s sleeping body? If the design of such a sequence felt like Final Fantasy XV, instead of a bad riff on Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday, all unwieldy guns and technobabble? The content is there, but it is disconnected from the game–literally so, in the case of the book The Dawn of the Future–and therein lies the problem.

Imagine if Chapter 14’s “World of Ruin” were actually evocative of FFVI in more than name, and Noctis, all alone, had to wander through the transformed open world, reconnecting with changed friends to take one final shot at the bad guy.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of four close friends traveling the continent by car, strengthening and testing their bonds as they discover the hard day-to-day truths of the people struggling to make a living outside of their spoiled, gated community. Nothing wrong, even, with bringing larger stakes into it, what with Noctis having to react to his homeland’s destruction and his father’s murder. But the game doesn’t adequately react to those gear shifts: it continues to drift in idle. Noct, at the end of Chapter 1, is essentially Hamlet–while he was off in school with his two best friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his kingdom was usurped. The difference is striking: Hamlet returns home immediately to mourn, but Noct . . . just drives around with his chums.

Granted, there is no kingdom for Noct to return to–Insomnia is essentially destroyed–but there are still things he could be doing, and FFXV just seems uninterested in most of them. Cor, the highest-ranking member of the Crownsguard, tells Noct that to be recognized as king, he must visit all thirteen royal tombs, but this is a MacGuffin, given that the game doesn’t actually require this of you. Lunafreya, Noct’s Ophelia, sends him messages about making pacts with the Six, but there’s no urgency to do so, and in truth, Noct only has to seek the first two out: the rest are thrust upon him out of the blue. Hamlet wasted a lot of time, but not because he didn’t know what to do: it was because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it. Noct’s self-doubt is a powerful part of the story, but it isn’t reflected by the narrative, even after Lunafreya’s death. There is no room for self-doubt here; you’ve obviated that by the very act of powering on your console and booting up FFXV. You are, quite literally, game, and anything that suggests otherwise is nonsense. You can put off the main quest for as long as you like; but the game isn’t capable of expressing this. Your comrades don’t sour on you when you camp out at night; they only give you tough love when they’re scripted to do so.

Despite this dissonance between the plot and the open-world and all of the missed opportunities in which the game’s lore and connection to Noct could’ve been expanded, it gives me hope that Final Fantasy VIIR, also long in development, and Final Fantasy XIV, notably rebooted after a failed first launch, both appear to have learned this lesson. Both of those games use the deep, pre-existing lore of their predecessors to ensure that every inch of their maps and dungeons provide meaningful context not just to the characters but to the overall plot. And that’s what I most want from Final Fantasy 16. I hope it keeps the hidden battles and secret dungeons, but finds a way to better utilize most of them so that they’re related more to key plot points than to bland fetch quests. The narrative must ever be working: there’s no need for Noct to just scale the dazzling volcanic cliffside of the Rock of Ravatogh when he could also be having visions of Ifrit, who once dwelt there. The Crestholm Channels are a plausible re-entry point to Insomnia, or perhaps a hideout for some of his people in exile; better to use them for that as opposed to simply being where you pick up a new car part.

The rambling road trip is over. Here’s hoping Final Fantasy 16 has more of an itinerary.

Review: “Astro’s Playroom”

Astro’s Playroom is a game filled with so many Easter eggs that the few moments where players actually do anything mechanically interesting are themselves actually the Easter eggs. Or maybe it’s an exceedingly literary tech demo, one that gets so lost in its own details–the microscopic detail of the X/O walls in the CPU Plaza that mirror the grips of your new DualSense controller; the vibratory differences in texture between sand, water, and gravel–that it often forgets to be a game.

In actuality, Astro’s Playroom is an advertisement. It looks backward at Playstation history, filling each area with cute little dioramas–Cloud’s sword, the Uncharted climb up a collapsing plane, was that Maximo? Jumping Flash?–that come across as treats rather than meals. None of the inventiveness of those set-pieces or the ingenuity of those games are actually on display. Everything is borrowed, the better to distract you from the mundane Knack-ness of it all, and even there, at least that game grew (literally and figuratively) over the course of a campaign. Here, we just get a collection of first chapters, which, given the janky controls for Astro’s springy or air-gliding forms, is probably for the best.

Everything is borrowed, the better to distract you from the mundane Knack-ness of it all.

Astro’s Playroom is essentially Dreams, but speaking directly to developers as opposed to empowering casual players to become creators. It’s setting the lowest possible benchmark for the creators of Horizon: Forbidden West to have to exceed with their bow-and-arrow mechanics, which are disappointingly reductive here. It’s doing some sort of weird reverse psychology, where it hopes that by disappointing players with its weird, unaimable space blaster they’ll be more keen on the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which will surely do more than the basic haptic pew-pew-pew.

There’s no doubt that Astro’s Playroom is charming, and it absolutely does showcase the DualSense, from the pitter of Astro’s little feet to the patter of raindrops falling on his cute little umbrella. But these are gimmicks without any staying power. There’s a level on the beach that looks like a sandbox, but it’s as much a sandbox as it is a playroom: everything is constrained. At best, it’s like a third-person Where’s Waldo? in which you can look for the Crash Bandicoot Astro, or the one buried in the snow, laugh for a few seconds, and then forget it completely and move on to the next carefully curated exhibit. Where is the density of Astrobot Rescue Mission VR, which modeled all the cool PSVR functionalities, or of Super Mario 64, which firmly established the 3D platformer, while also being a wonderous adventure? I played Sackboy: A Big Adventure on PS4, but there’s little that Astro’s Playroom models that couldn’t have been more compellingly conveyed in that game’s PS5 version.

These are gimmicks without any staying power…laugh for a few seconds and then forget it completely and move on to the next carefully curated exhibit.

It is fitting that Astro’s Playroom ends with a boss fight against a discarded tech demo from the PS1-era, since that’s what this game is. It is a missed opportunity, given the game’s curatorial power, that you do not fight similar versions of this boss in PS2, PS3, and PS4 forms. And it is frustrating that the boss’s final PS5 form plays out identically to the PS1 encounter, as if to say that despite all the advancements in technology, AAA games aren’t actually evolving so much as getting shinier. Pretty, yes. Pretty disappointing.

Review: “Super Meat Boy Forever”

An evolution of the autorunner, this creative, colorful, challenging game expands upon Super Meat Boy as much as that incarnation did upon the original.

If you want to, or at least until you smash all the controllers in your house, Super Meat Boy Forever can indeed be your forever game. Each time you start a new game (or New Game+), you’ll get a different, randomly assembled collection of levels through which you must guide your hero, a red square of meat. With the exception of a few fixed levels and memorable boss fights, no two playthroughs will be the same, making this the truest test of reflexes you’re likely to find in a hardcore platformer. And yes, though Forever takes on the guise of an autorunner, with Meat Boy (or Bandage Girl) constantly running in a fixed direction, it is still very much a platformer. It’s just one in which you must now play at the game’s hectic pace as opposed to your own; 2010’s Super Meat Boy feels downright leisurely by comparison. 

Losing the ability to move freely seems like a fair sacrifice in exchange for all the clever bells and whistles (or buzz-saws and warp-pipes) with which designer Tommy Refenes has filled this game. It’s as much a turbo-charged puzzler now as it is a pixel-perfect platformer, as players must figure out how to use the walls, enemies, and items scattered along their path to futz with their momentum. Each twist builds upon the last; once you’ve gotten used to punching in mid-air to boost your speed, you’ll start punching enemies, which allows you to punch an additional time before landing. By the time you reach The Clinic’s levels, you’ll be ready for the ghosts that, upon being hit, immediately rematerialize elsewhere, such that you can chain together a whole series of elegant, spectral fisticuffs. And while it’s true that Meat Boy normally only runs horizontally, areas like The Lab feature hooks and gravity fields that provide vertical shortcuts, while The Other Side is filled with physics-defying abilities, like blocks that can be summoned in mid-air, or one-time boosts that allow Meat Boy to change direction without pushing off of a wall.

Though Super Meat Boy Forever is extremely difficult, it is filled with generous checkpoints designed to give you a second or hundredth chance to figure out how to circumnavigate these grinders. Think of it as a madcap marathon, but one that’s stitched out of individual sprints, each equivalent in length to a level from the original Super Meat Boy, albeit with crisper, more colorful graphics, and a much wider variety of obstacles to contend with. In fact, think of Super Meat Boy Forever as improving upon Super Meat Boy as much as that incarnation did upon the original Meat Boy. There are so many creative twists–particularly in the boss fights and late-game world that distort space, time, and even computer programming–that the autorunner design almost feels like a deliberate handicap. But the animated opening sequences that nod to Metroid and Kirby, or the bonus (and well-hidden) warp zones that recreate moments from Mega Man and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! hint that Forever isn’t holding back so much as it’s building upon everything that’s come before. To Refenes, the autorunning isn’t a limitation; it’s an opportunity.