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.

Imagining a Free-to-Play FFXIV: Eorzea Without Commitment

Final Fantasy XIV is not a free-to-play game. Beyond the cost of the base game itself, which is currently $19.99, there’s also a recurring subscription fee of at least $12.99 a month.

Unless, of course, you take advantage of the game’s exceedingly generous free trial, in which case you get access to that entire base game (A Realm Reborn and the first expansion, Heavensward) with just a few inconvenient restrictions, almost all of which have to do with the sort of intrusive capitalism that I come to fantasy MMORPGs to avoid.

In the free trial, you can do all the quests, all the crafting, all the available jobs from those two games, and level all the way to 60. The only thing missing is the timer, that unfriendly reminder that if you don’t finish all the content this month (and want to), you’ll have to reup.

My approach to this sort of transaction is not dissimilar to that of getting a gym membership. The difference is that while paying a monthly fee is a sometimes necessary financial incentive for those opposed to exercising, it is an unhealthy one when it comes to gaming. It transforms an activity that should ideally be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

A monthly fee makes an activity that should be fun into a constant financial transaction, souring it.

As a free-to-play experience, the grind isn’t as noticeable, because it’s at my own pace. I never feel compelled to rush, because I’ve removed that invisible incentive to do so. I can’t imagine ever completing a Relic weapon under the confines of a subscription, brutally checking and rechecking spreadsheets and external sources to find the most efficient ways to accomplish FATEs or dungeons. Adding a subscription’s deadline alchemizes a joyful pastime into deliberate work.

The limitations of the free trial also shift the way in which players must engage with the game, which is to say: by becoming more significantly immersed. There are no shortcuts in this version; you can’t pay people to gather resources for you, or simply purchase the final HQ result. As a result, you’re more invested in what you’re actually doing: you come to understand not the economic forces but the level of detail that goes into how each item is crafted: how it works, where it comes from. The geography of the land takes on that much more detail. It’s no longer just a collection of pretty landmarks, but also a geological and ecological one as well. You get a sense of what it must be like, even to be a creature living amongst these resources, or a fish amongst the clouds, dunes, or aether.

The limitations of the free trial shift the way in which players engage with the game: they make it more immersive.

Restrictions on inventory space (no retainers) and a monetary cap of 300,000 gil also turn crafting into even more of an efficiency puzzle, for those who like those types of things. You learn to gather just enough for what you want to do while you’re there, so you don’t have to make return trips, and then also craft things as quickly as possible so that you can get the items out of your inventory and into (usually) your glamour chest. And because you can’t take that money with you, you actually contribute a lot more to the world’s economy. You splurge on the fancy beast-quest mounts. You buy up frilly shoes in Ul’Dah, not because they’re useful, but because you’re at the cap and can desynthesize them for the Demimateria III you need to craft items for Master Tomes.

I’m perfectly fine spending money on Final Fantasy XIV; in fact, I want to support the game’s active and continued development. But I’d feel healthier about an option that allowed me to eschew the monthly fee and just pay per expansion, treating the portions of patches that aren’t global like add-on DLC, much like the free trial currently blocks off certain quests that I don’t have the necessary content unlocked for. Maybe gate certain cosmetic functions, like housing, behind a premium monthly membership (similar to what Plus does for Dota 2), or continue to keep certain PvE functions like the Party Finder off-limits, though I’d say that the game would be better overall if Free Company (guilds) could still function without everyone being a subscriber, since the end-game raids are largely impossible with random pick-up groups.

Recurring payments encourage binging, and if that’s how you want your content consumed, go for it. If you’re switching between platforms each month, whether that’s All Access, Apple TV, Peacock, Hulu or World of Warcraft and FFXIV, you’re incentivizing–in some players–an unnatural rush. I don’t want yet another form of monthly rent that, to some degree, dictates what I do in that time. I don’t want to feel as if I’m working in a video game to “earn” free playtime or to justify the money I’m spending. The latest patch of FFXIV has added an Explorer Mode that lets players do exactly that: take it easy, running through completed dungeons with photo mode on and enemies off. I suggest maybe the next step would be to add a permanent “Free” Mode that lets users similarly chill.

First Drafts: “Mobius”

Game jams and indie sites are filled with novel concepts that could sometimes use a bit more fleshing out. This off-and-on feature aims to highlight great concepts that we hope we haven’t seen the last of.

I’m beyond delighted to learn that Adam Pype (@adampi) is working on Shovel Knight Dig, but I really hope he at some point returns to Mobius, because this is a really fun concept that deserves to be fleshed out. Still, even as a pared-down experimental platformer, there’s a good progression to the journey.

Things begin simply enough with just a circle, getting you used to navigating this wrap-around space, but soon enough, you’re able to “twist” the circle, creating a mobius strip that you must rotate with one hand while leaping about it with the other. The coin-collecting’s just there to force you to full explore both sides of these strips, and to figure out how to additionally manipulate them by shrinking or growing the bands to alter how the various points connect with one another. It’s actually the game’s weakest design, particularly once timed blue coins appear. These are not the sort of environments you want to have to rush through, especially with these heavy jumps and instant-death spikes, which also makes the two boss “fights” more irksome than anything else.

Not enough has been done with perspective-shifting platforming. There’s Fez, perhaps, and plenty of puzzle games like Monument Valley, but mainstays like Super Mario Odyssey have only toyed with what it might be like to have a 2D Mario navigate three-dimensional murals, and other indies like VVVVV and Dandara have only really messed with a player’s orientation. Mobius goes round and round without spinning in place, ultimately going so far as to introduce two concentric strips at once, which players can leap between like some impossible, dizzying mobile. More of this, please!

No Refunds: “Greedfall”

Seen it before, done it before, irritated again.

Honestly, the constraints of this “No Refunds” column isn’t ideal for discussing a lengthy RPG; the first two hours of most are often bogged down by all the expositive world-building and tutorials, and reading through a skill tree doesn’t properly convey how the game will actually play out once you start getting enough depth to actually choose not only how to tackle enemies in combat but how to work your way through missions.

Then again, in a glutted market, maybe it is ideal. Playing through Greedfall, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d played this exact game before, or if not this game, then a game very similar to it. I found myself thinking about first dates and missed opportunities and how it’s true that you only ever get one chance to make a first impression. Greedfall might not be a bad game once players leave the small, grey quadrant of Serene with its decidedly un-bustling docks and lazy architecture, such that the Coin Guard’s barracks, the local tavern, and a rich family’s home all have interchangeable and unmemorable facades. But it feels safe to say that Greedfall will never be a great game, only a serviceable one.

Take, for instance, the prologue. Each of the three side missions introduces you to a key faction: the nautical Nauts (get it?), who use some sort of sworn magic to calm the seas; the Bridge Alliance, who are essentially a consortium of science-leaning nations; and those from the religious nation of Theleme. As is customary, you’re given the “choice” of how to resolve the favors they ask of you, but this isn’t The Witcher, where figuring out who to side with is difficult. Sure, that rogue alchemist might have first been turned against by his own people in the Bridge Alliance, but he’s actively lying to and experimenting the innocent, desperate people he’s swindling with his false panacea. Those heretics that the Cardinal from Theleme has asked you to hunt down? There’s no doubt that they’re telling the truth about being persecuted because they uncovered the truth about some of the church’s doctrines, and you’d be heartless to turn them in.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Your agency is an illusion, and there’s no penalty for being “good” given that you can just lie to the quest-givers if you still want that reputation bump. You can still work with them, at least in the prologue, even if you betray them. It’s hard to tell what the consequences may eventually be, but harder still, given the low-stakes writing, to care. Greedfall, even in its best scenario, is simly cribbing from history and fairy tales, regurgitating the familiar as a comfort to those who need to idle away their time in a fantasy RPG before idling their time away in the next fantasy RPG before . . . . Well, you get the idea.

Many games compensate for a familiar setting or story by trying to accomplish something with the combat; not so with Greedfall. At best, it’s the tactical pausing of Dragon Age mixed with the annoying bosses of Dark Souls, but without any of the deeper world-building or specific design of either game. That first boss, a massive wolf-like thing with tree-tendrils coming out of it (a trope most recently seen in Remnant: From the Ashes), is imbalanced in all the worst ways. It can kill you in two or three hits, often chaining attacks on you while down; the dodging is imprecise and parrying ineffective; and for all that, if you compulsively loot all the glowing crates you stumble upon and have lockpicking, you’ll probably have dozens of bullets by this point and can simply shoot it without a second thought.

“Look,” says Greedfall, of the choice between climbing an unguarded ladder or fighting through a throng of sailor guards, “We gave you options!” If that’s the metric for unequal decisions here, might I suggest one more? Play something else.

It feels safe to say that Greedfall will never be a great game, only a serviceable one.

Discourse: Leveling Up Empathy

The big stories this week surrounded the toxicity of the community responding to one critics report of epileptic triggers in Cyberpunk 2077 that resulted in a grand mal seizure and the choice to publish a well-intentioned but somewhat tone-deaf piece about how to handle exploitative mechanics in Genshin Impact. What the two have in common at their most outraged responses is this idea that if there’s a problem that I don’t share, the issue is entirely yours. I think the only reason why people are coming together to mock the horrible load-in renderings of Cyberpunk 2077 on last-gen consoles, particularly the base PS4/XB1, is because not enough people have adapted yet, so their problem can’t simply be waved away as a matter of not being rich or savvy enough to upgrade.

The problem, of course, is humanity’s collective lack of empathy, a thing already exacerbated by competition in games, where one person receiving something that helps to “level” the field somehow takes away from another person, even in single games. We’ve heard this all too often, most recently with the idea of offering accessibility options or difficulty modifiers to FromSoftware games like Sekiro, so that everyone can enjoy the design and story, regardless of skill. They argue that the struggle is necessary for the gameplay, missing entirely the point that for those who have accessibility issues, the game they’re playing is actually several times harder than intended.

But that feeble defense makes even less sense when applied to Cyberpunk 2077. Who would actually advocate in favor of game design that causes a percentage of the population, however small (and it’s likely bigger than you think), to have a medical response? It’s easy to say that the epilepsy warning is there, and someone who develops a photosensitive response just shouldn’t play the game, at least so long as it isn’t affecting you. But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you. Should we just collectively dismiss your concerns that you’re unable to fully utilize Twitter because of the constant risk of anaphylactic shock? Should we just point to the warning in the Terms of Service that note these side effects?

But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you.

The issue, having been identified by users of Cyberpunk 2077, should be reportable and patched, like any other bug–like, say, a bee–and until then, there should be a clear warning communicated by the manufacturer, just as we do for almost all of the things legally sold in this country. Nobody’s saying that Cyberpunk 2077 needs additional delays–this need not affect you. You just need to stay out of the way of criticizing those who request an option to, say, skip or reduce certain problematic effects.

The issue with Genshin Impact is similar. It’s easy to say that you, personally, were able to enjoy a gatcha game by learning to set limits. Congratulations: you are not an addict. If an addict could walk into a casino and gamble only as much money as they could reasonably afford to lose, or order just a single drink, they wouldn’t be an addict. The trick is to make sure that the advice you’re giving can be followed by everyone or, if it can’t, to make it clear who you are communicating to. There’s value in the Waypoint article for people who want reassurance that they can enjoy Genshin Impact without paying to win, or for tips on how some people have found pleasure in the free-to-play model. But we need to have empathy for those who don’t, and when we see someone preying on others, whether it’s a person or a game, we ought to speak up even if it may not directly affect us.

Now, you might argue that if Genshin Impact didn’t prey upon whales, you wouldn’t be able to get a game of that quality for free, but that’s a selfish response. It’s the same response given by the people who scalp PS5s, justifying it by how it puts food on the table for the sellers, or by me hypothetically dealing crack to thirteen-year-olds. You can simply give people a list of advice about how to avoid criminals or dangerous situations, but better still would be to improve those situations.

Nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem.

But as we’ve seen from America in 2020, nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem, whether it’s your problem or not. And here’s the craziest thing: it costs you nothing to make this concession. That is, it costs you even less than the nothing it costs to recognize another person’s name, identity, marriage, sexuality, etc., because none of these things have any impact on your ability to “play the game” that we call life (or Cyberpunk 2077). And if you can’t muster up the ability to respectfully consider, with empathy, where another person is coming from, at the very least, get out of their way: so play we all.

No Refunds: “Call of the Sea”

After exactly two hours and one minute, I was in need of a break on a particularly frustrating puzzle in Chapter 3, but this Myst-like first-person puzzler (with hints of Polynesia and Lovecraft) has me curious for more.

I want to drown Norah Everhart, the adventurous protagonist of Call of the Sea. Over these next few hours, she just won’t shut up, providing dulling context for each item she stumbles across. For a game that provides very little signposting for where or what its enigmas are, there’s a lot of talking, which separates this from better first-person puzzlers that know when to get out of the way.

The one place where Norah’s chattiness works is in the context of the various puzzles scattered across the island. She industriously copies down all of the relevant clues into her journal, using a (poorly designed) foresight to put them in the most helpful layout, regardless of when they’re found. To wit, if she starts sketching totem orientations, she’ll put the first one you find in the right spot, even if that means leaving weird blank spaces on the page.

This doesn’t mechanically make sense, but it is convenient, especially given how tenuous some connections are. Additionally, since each of the first three chapters gets larger in scope–a jungle trail, a campsite at the base of a temple, a beached ship and the surrounding cliffs–it’s nice to be able to see that a clue is clearly missing. (You’re also free to solve without the journal if you want a “pure” experience, but considering that many old adventure games were designed to get you to call a pay-per-minute help line, it’s nice to have some built-in help.)

My love-hate relationship with Call of the Sea persisted throughout these opening chapters: Norah moves too slowly, even while sprinting (and especially climbing ladders), and objects can be difficult to interact with, especially with a controller. All the aforementioned ‘splaining she does. And yet, drowning her out, there are some nice, albeit familiar, details about an insanity gradually washing over the crew, and the design of these ancient devices, especially a massive organic organ powered by valves chiseled into tidepools, is quite Myst-like, in the best possible sense. The cartoonish palette also does a nice job of evoking a pulpy comic from the ’30s: bright and colorful, but with hints of danger.

I’m not feeling the same compulsion that Norah has to dive back into Call of the Sea, and I’m not satisfied by how inexact some of the puzzles are, like one that involves slightly tweaking the placement of differently sized blobs on a lens. But I do enjoy the overall environment, so I’ll be back, eventually.

  • Developer: Out of the Blue
  • Publisher: Raw Fury
  • Platform: PC* (Currently on Xbox Game Pass)
  • Release Date: December 8, 2020