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.

Missed Opportunities: “Immortals Fenyx Rising”

The games covered in “Missed Opportunities” are already good. What follows is why and how this one should’ve been better.

Every game developer–especially the triple-A ones–should take a cue from Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ian Malcolm. Ubisoft, in particular, already knows it can make these big, ambitious open-world games, so instead of being preoccupied with that, they should stop think whether they should. At its heart, Immortals Fenyx Rising is absolutely serviceable, and for some, maybe that’s enough, to be just one more thirty-hour distraction. But if you’re going to retread combat like the original God of War‘s, the feel of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, or the mythology of Hades, it might be a good idea to add something to the mix. Here’s how Immortals Fenyx Rising could’ve really taken flight.

First, there’s the narrative framework and tone of Immortals Fenyx Rising. Presented a story being told by Prometheus to Zeus, there are a few promising moments in which one of the two gods grows a bit bored with the tale and embellishes it, which has the consequence of changing what Fenyx is up against. Imagine at the very least some sort of AI, like the Director from Left 4 Dead 2, that could adapt Fenyx’s quest to keep players challenged; at the best, consider the joys of a scripted but unreliable narrator that’s out to sabotage the players.

Instead, these narrators are used to interject comic relief, to actively lampshading Fenyx‘s shittiest features–“How does it take someone THAT long to start a story?” muses Zeus at the end of the game’s two-hour “prologue”–so much so that the game’s final act, the inevitable showdown with Typhon, has no choice but to abandon this scaffolding.

Zeus just remains an oblivious asshole, resetting his tone at the start of each new quest chain, even as the monsters continue to evolve.

Some of this has to do with the game’s largely non-linear progression: as opposed to the first four biomes, each of which represents the god imprisoned there, the fifth area, the blizzarding King’s Peak, cannot be accessed until completing the others. As a result of this narrative focus, Zeus is finally given some introspection and character development–too little, too late–that aims to justify what will follow, prophecies and plots be damned. He’s not allowed to grow up until that point, however. Players might choose to aid Hephaistos before ever encountering the other gods, so if Zeus “grows” during this mini-arc, recognizing the harm he’s done by treating the man so poorly, then his subsequent dialogue for Aphrodite, Hephaistos’s unwilling wife, and Ares, who is cuckolding Hephaistos, would have to reflect that. Instead, Zeus just remains an oblivious asshole, resetting his tone at the start of each new quest chain, even as the monsters continue to evolve.

To be clear, the issue here is with the game’s choice of narrative, not the non-linear approach. But there’s a reason why Zelda: Breath of the Wild had such a limited plot, or why Genshin Impact‘s gone with a linear, chapter-based expansion that keeps things from being actually open world. These devices focus the storytelling instead of letting it spiral out of control. And there’s certainly room for experimental storytelling–just look at Robert Coover, who once wrote a story on playing cards that could be shuffled and read in any order–but that’s not what Fenyx is doing, and that’s why it’s missed opportunity.

The second major missed opportunity is with the way Fenyx Immortal Rising handles its open-world approach, which can only be described as “disposable mythology.” As with the narrative, some of this comes down to the nonlinear lack of focus, but it’s more directly attributable to lazy development. God of War, Hades, and even Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey pick and choose the myths that most directly enhance the story they’re trying to tell. In the original God of War, this came down to which gods would be fun to fight, or who might give interesting powers to Kratos. In Hades, it’s about enhancing this underworld family. In Fenyx? It’s largely about justifying shitty, time-wasting optional content.

Take, for instance, one of the game’s cooler features, where corrupted wraiths of former heroes–Odysseus, Achilles, Atalanta, Herakles–will try to hunt you down at Typhon’s behest. The actual character designs are inspired and each has their own method of combat inspired by their tales, and yet they’re nothing more than an obstacle. Once you reach the mid-game and you start hunting them down in their lairs, there’s surprisingly little narration to explain why these four heroes, or how they connect or feed into Fenyx’s own growth. Even Athena’s main quest “Go Do Hero Stuff,” which has you emulating these greats, does little to emphasize the difference between Odysseus’s intelligence or Herakles’s brute strength.

The use of these heroes hasn’t been adequately thought out.

To make things even more confusing, Atalanta is the foe who uses arrows against you, and yet there’s an entire series of side activities called Odysseus Challenges in which you must manually maneuver arrows through a series of rings (similar to the Batman: Arkham batarang puzzles). Why simply refer to Herakles’s labors, but not have those as challenges across the island? Why aren’t those stamina-testing navigation challenges–miniature races across the island–named after agile Achilles? The use of these heroes hasn’t been adequately thought out.

As for the island’s other optional tasks, they are completely disassociated. The worst of them, Lyres, simply require you to reach a small version of that instrument and listen to the order in which the four strings are plucked so that you can recreate that ditty on a big one located elsewhere in the region. (Memorization tasks like these are pointless; does anybody not just write them down?) At the very least, you’d think that after restoring all the individual parts to a Big Lyre, those individual parts would come together in unison to play a recognizable classic tune, or at least one related to the game’s own soundtrack, but no: you just get Charon Coins, one of the game’s various upgrade currencies (this one for godly powers).

Fenyx feels like the work of a college student who is desperately overwriting and throwing in every detail from their research in an attempt to cover up the lack of a solid thesis.

Other tasks are just as dull, like the Frescoes, which are the same four-block sliding puzzle over and over again, but with different pictures. Your reward for solving each is a brief soundbite about the scene depicted, which seems a bit odd given that Fenyx is already described as a storyteller who would be more than familiar with them–there’d be no actual need to rearrange these blocks. It just feels like a way of shoehorning in a temp’s extraneous research that didn’t make it into the main game, which is also why you get puzzle vaults so loosely named for characters that don’t appear in-game. For instance, Akantha, known for being “prickly,” gives her name to a vault in which you must create a path of falling blocks over a spiked floor. Less clear, however, is what Arachne has to do with a vault involving lasers and blocks–not a web or maze to be found. Fenyx feels like the work of a college student who is desperately overwriting and throwing in every detail from their research in an attempt to cover up the lack of a solid thesis.

What’s most offensive is that Fenyx keeps hinting that it’s going somewhere. Beating the wraiths should culminate with some sort of showdown or revelation, but instead it’s just you getting a shiny new suit of armor and a statue in your honor. A series of puzzles are connected with recordings from Diadalos that hint at why he created the Golden Isle in the first place–a father, desperate to win back his son. Beyond the fact that Fenyx is using Ikaros’s wings to fly around the isle, or that her own quest to save her turned-to-stone brother and crewmates mirrors Diadalos’s, this is never anything more than an optional, easily missed (because it’s unmarked) activity. Your reward after finding and completing all twelve puzzles is a mere punchline: Zeus’s revelation, as you step into Diadalos’s hidden workshop, that he turned the inventor into a deer, given how much he wanted to be “fawned” over. (Which, y’know, is missing the point entirely.)

The final issue with Fenyx is just its general lack of balance. Gear is most certainly not created equal, nor are upgrades. Because the game doesn’t know the order in which you’ll be traveling around the map, nor which abilities you’ll be purchasing and gear you’ll be upgrading with your hard-earned coins and crystals back at the Superfriends-y Hall of the Gods, it can’t adequately scale to give you an appropriate challenge. Not once did I need to alternate between light sword and heavy axe attacks and my bow was only ever useful for puzzles (given the scaling, it always made more sense to upgrade only one to the maximum); hell, my main build involved just reflecting damage back at opponents, to the point at which even bosses would be defeating themselves more efficiently by hitting me than if I were to master the time-slowing perfect dodges or stun-inducing perfect parries. The reductive potions worked similarly: instead of having a variety of buffs, the game just stacks them all on one of two potions. Therefore, your standard Defense potion can also be upgraded to reflect damage; your Attack potion can boost your stuns and ability to leech back HP through damage dealt. If you’re ever having problems (and it’s hard to see how that would be the case), you can simply pop one or both of your buffs.

Not once did I need to alternate between light sword and heavy axe attacks and my bow was only ever useful for puzzles….

This balance applies to the storytelling as well. Fenyx’s brother Ligyron is held up as the perfect model of a hero. This is especially true if you’re choosing to play Fenyx as a female character, as it’s powerful to see her rise up out of his shadow and to reclaim her own independence as more than a “shield-bearer” or “storyteller”–both secondary roles centered around supporting others. And yet, if you leave Ares’s questline for last (as I did), you’ll spend the majority of the game believing that Ligyron is a stone statue. He has no weight or impact on three of the four central quests, which makes both the Ares and final Zeus segments feel lopsided.

And because the storytelling happens, to some degree, through the design of the Golden Isle itself, this also means that the central quest chains are problematic. Hephaistos, for instance, gets short shrift: not only are his Forgelands the dullest region, with the landscape essentially deforested and ruined to provide the bland industrial factories with raw resources, but the game doesn’t have much to say about his deformities. Instead, players just blithely and blandly collect his three sorrows, thereby inspiring him again through his suffering. By contrast, Athena’s questline carries the most relevance, dedicated as it is to wisdom, and the way in which Fenyx gets a better sense of her own place in the heroic pantheon.

There are just creative mismatches all over the place: Ares’s plot isn’t any more combat-oriented than Aphrodite’s, for instance, it just takes place in Ajax’s Fortress. (It’s unclear, as usual beyond the namedropping, why the fortress is named for Ajax, or where this legend’s gone off to.) And if you choose to do Aphrodite’s quest first, as the game gently encourages you to, then you’ve seen the best application of mythology that the game has to offer, with players completing tasks that are actually significant to the goddess of love and the loss she suffered when Adonis was killed by a boar. The other gods wish they had relics as significant as the pearl that recreates Aphrodite’s foam-born birth, or the Apple of Discord. (Naturally, there’s also an optional quest that has players offering an apple to a sea shrine to Aphrodite, as if nobody would notice the repetition.)

It’s actually quite impressive that Immortals Fenyx Rising is still as enjoyable as it is, given the lack of focus and the irksome, repetitious side quests. I think this is why Ubisoft has embraced the open world so fully: the larger your canvas, the harder it becomes to notice the individual blemishes. The sad commercial reality is that if a game like this sells well, Ubisoft has no need to polish it any further; they’re not trying to make art, they’re trying to make money. Perhaps one day, Fenyx will grow up in the same way that Kratos eventually did, but until then, Ubisoft trusts that we’ll all spend so much time zoomed in that we won’t notice how flawed the big picture is.

Discourse: The Idealism of Game Reviews from the Outside

Over at Defector, Albert Burneko writes harshly against those reviewers who agreed to CD Projekt Red’s embargo in exchange for early access to Cyberpunk 2077, wondering how we might ever trust those “clown” critics who had “abandoned any claim to adversarial journalism, as well as any utility they may have had to their readers.”

This is nonsense, particularly when you consider his brilliant “solution,” which is that “any of them in possession of spines could have simply purchased the game on the day of its release . . . and published their review the following Monday without restrictions.” Cyberpunk 2077 came out on a Thursday, and it’s super generous to assume that this game, rumored to be over a hundred hours long (but in actuality only about thirty for the main quest alone) could’ve been completed by spine-y journalists in three days–to say nothing of actually writing and editing the piece. This is the reason why critics angle to get games early, especially those who are freelance and therefore juggling other assignments and full-time jobs: because it keeps them from having to rush through, a mindset that also doesn’t serve the public.

Buy a lengthy game on Thursday, have a polished review up by Monday? In what world is that possible, at least in a way that benefits the writer or the reader?

Bear in mind that this early access did not prohibit critics from bad-mouthing the game, which was only available on PC at the time, and provided some valuable feedback, particularly from the epileptic community, about literally glaring issues with the visuals. The only thing it restricted was what sort of screenshots and videos could be shared, and while I’ll admit that’s not great, it’s not entirely dishonest on its own given fact that journalists are going to be playing on all sorts of gaming rigs, and images taken from lower-end computers also wouldn’t be telling the full story about Cyberpunk 2077‘s performance. Gamers knew, especially with a game being released on both last-gen and next-gen systems, that their game wouldn’t necessarily look as pretty as the official videos being released by CD Projekt Red and which most journalists were crediting to the studio. What they didn’t know, and where the problem set in, was just how bad performance actually was on base consoles from the previous generation.

But consider: how in the seven hells would Burneko’s “brilliant” idea have helped? Think about how many gamers rushed to buy a PS4 version of the game, though not a single critic had reviewed that version at launch. These purchasers didn’t wait until the hypothetical “Monday” by which point a critic could have filed a review of that version (and that’s assuming an outlet even chose to look at every version; not all of them have the resources or time to fully vet that). The only thing complete silence from journalists would have done would’ve been to ensure that the only voice in the room was CD Projekt Red’s. The embargo, silly and compromised as it might seem to an outsider, did still achieve the effect of getting some critical thoughts out there.

Burneko’s “brilliant” idea doesn’t check out. Journalists refusing to sign the NDA would’ve resulted in no pre-release reviews, and that didn’t stop players from buying PS4 versions. In the absence of the critical reviews that did come out, CDPR would’ve had the room even more to itself.

The secondary issue with Burneko’s ill-advised op-ed, and it’s one that many gamers share, is the notion that there’s no way someone could’ve enjoyed a game that you personally didn’t care for. This, too, is nonsense. We all like different things, and by all accounts, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t actually a bad game; if it ran properly on your computer, you likely enjoyed it, much like you might enjoy a movie a bit more on a wider screen than on a watermarked version playing on your computer with a tinny sound system. I believe there are certainly some clownish critics out there–more often outlets themselves, since this tends to be an editorial direction–that will only publish puff pieces, or which will give a 10/10 to a game for which the review itself acknowledges “has flaws” or refuse to score lower than a 7/10 for games that are functional (but not very good).

But to label any critic who plays a game early under embargo? You might as well pillory all journalists while we’re at it, since most agree not to publish off-the-record quotes in exchange for continued access or who hold coverage of breaking news in the tech industry in exchange for having had the opportunity to cover it at all in the first place. There are valid reasons for companies who spend years and millions of dollars to develop something to want to control its rollout; the potential fraud in the case of Cyberpunk 2077 is an exception, not a rule. And honestly, I don’t blame them; the last thing I’d want, as a developer, is to have a slew of angry trolls ripping my pre-alpha build apart. It’s one thing to leak news about horrible labor practices and crunch that do lasting harm to workers; it’s another to leak news about the current state of a game that is in active development. It doesn’t hurt gamers for a studio to roll out previews at their discretion, or to ask that those receiving early copies try to avoid certain non-fraudulent spoilers, so as to preserve the narrative experience for players.

So to Burneko, who thinks that we’re clowns, I can say only this:

Review: “Shakes on a Plane”

The airline concept helps Shakes on a Plane get off the ground but can’t keep it aloft.

At the start of the cooperative Shakes on a Plane, a quartet of aliens hoping to win the Galactic Cuisine Prize look to inspiration from Earth chefs. This plot gives Huu Games a lot of latitude (and longitude) for their tutorials, which operate much like iconographic airline safety manuals, complete with video demonstrations. (They’re deliberately confusing: aliens don’t understand us.) That doesn’t fully explain why nobody on these flights looks askance at the increasingly oddball deliveries (roasting skewers of meat-and-veggies over an open flame) or the terrible design of planes that put their juice bar blenders on the opposite side of their pantries, but when you’re thousands of feet in the air, it’s not hard to suspend belief.

In similarly absurd fashion, players choose from one of three brainwashed subjects–a burly prisoner, an undead vampire queen, a rejected robot maid–and Zog, a little green man with a paste-on mustache. Each one has a special move, though they’re poorly explained and largely superfluous–the game is beatable, on single-player, without ever once using these powers. Shakes on a Plane is filled with such more-is-more elements, and with a tighter, more precise design, that might work. Instead, the game’s various hazards often end up feeling haphazard.

Unsurprisingly, Shakes on a Plane is best when it leans into its airline design, much as Moving Out used its packing theme to distinguish itself from a crowded field of chaotic co-ops. Levels are sometimes interrupted by turbulence that, if you don’t buckle up, will disable your character for a period of time. In addition to cleaning up after each order, you may also have to preventatively distribute barf bags, lest you waste valuable time mopping up an entire row’s contagious vomiting. The best levels are those in which you must also paradrop passengers–after, of course, matching their seat number up to their misorganized luggage. These activities feel more novel than the standard deliveries of beverages and the reheating of burgers and fries.

Ultimately, Shakes on a Plane is bound by its own concept–encased in similar tin shells, it’s hard for these levels to do enough shaking up. These twenty-odd aircraft have uniformly dull designs for their passengers, seats, and tiling, and even the handful of UFOs you visit in the game’s final stretch are all generically saucer-shaped. Sure, they occasionally tilt through the air, messing with your camera angle and sending loose carts careening down the aisles, but these environments get very boring very quickly, no matter how many conveyor belts, teleporter pads, or, yes, actual snakes, you throw in. It’d be like a season of The Amazing Race in which contestants fly thousands of miles around the globe but never leave the confines of each country’s airport. Fun as the game can sometimes be, in spite of its own imprecise controls, this flight of fancy just never fully takes off.