Archive for November, 2010

State of the Art – “Soma”

Following my “Tyranny of Fun” article, I hereby post a link to an important talk by Jonathan Blow (author of “Braid”) about the hidden truth of contemporary forms of hedonist entertainment. I sincerely advise this to anyone who plays videogames just for fun, or enjoys any form of ‘mindless’ pastimes just for fun. Especially those who play Facebook games and the like NEED to watch this and make a deep reflection on how they waste their time and money… their life. Also, to all scientists, journalists and creators of videogames who insist it’s OK and even beneficial to employ external reward mechanisms to psychologically manipulate audiences into addictively engage in mindless videogames (or films, or TV shows, or books, etc) that add nothing to persons’ lives. Or if you simply still have any doubts on the heinous nature of the word FUN. Watch this.

Enslaved – “Ruined Future”

Forget the arrogant statement of adaptation to the classic “Journey to the West”, for such relationship is merely cosmetic: Alex Garland’s neo-environmentalist tale in “Enslaved” is a post-apocalyptic cliché on the destruction of the world by way of Man and his technology. The tone is ripped straight from TV documentary “Life After People” and the narrative proper is fascist hollywood methodology: all style and fanfare, zero emotional depth (Freeman’s emotioneering guidelines come to mind). However, ironic as it may sound, the thematic choice has more to say about “Enslaved”, the videogame, than its preposterous view of Mankind’s future. For like its character Monkey, Tameem Antoniades (director) believes that it is in the process of acknowledging the ways of the past, that the future can be won. History is therefore the key to enlightenment – such notion is insightful and appropriate for a medium that far too often has neglected its unsung heroes and crowned its greatest of villains.  And at least initially, one gets the distinct feeling that Antoniades understands this truth.

Using “ICO” as the emotional core for its aesthetic, as well as basis for the empathic relationship between protagonists was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.  Learning all the lessons from “Naughty Dog’s” action adventure library resulted in a balanced, if not perfect, exploration system. And choosing “God of War” as structural pillar for combat seems elementary these days. Others could be mentioned, suffice to say that Ninja Theory plays the student part well, and chose an agreeable (if highly debatable) canon to use in its pastiche. However, visions of the past are meaningless if nor properly dissected, and herein lies Antoniades failing as author. Not only did he not add anything unique to his citation jumble, as he only skimmed by the immediate past, overlooking unavoidable references. Even worse, he fails to blend them together so as to forge a new whole brimming with identity. Simply put, as an experience, “Enslaved” is lesser than the sum of its parts. Combat is intense but superficial, exploration is agreeable, but pointless. Pathetic western design ticks take the front stage far too often: in the noisy neon-colored HUD, in the absurd collectionism of shiny orbs (probably the worst appearance of such mechanisms since 2008’s Prince of Persia), in the lack of proper ludic challenge, and in the excessively directed level design – “do this, do that, have fun while you’re acting like a mindless robot“.

Surely, the aesthetic treatment is one of the richest in western titles this year – just a glimpse of the evocative landscapes and Trip’s face is enough to understand the care of the authors in this area. As always, Nitin Sawhney plays the part of composer with excellency, delivering another poignant soundtrack that makes everything seem more mysterious and deep than Garland’s down-to-earth writing imply. Aesthetically, there’s such good craftmanship here, it ends up justifying the very existence of “Enslaved”; it’s just a shame that the Unreal Engine’s colors and  comic-book visual tropes never allow it to bloom fully.

Like its crumbling environments, “Enslaved” is a dead eco of days gone by. Nature runs rampant across the landscape giving it a lush feel, but you never forget that is but a faint glimmer of life. Trapped in misunderstood accounts of the past, the game loses itself in its vague citations, its vain beauty and vacuous discourse. Not that it is a poor breed of entertainment, quite on the contrary, it is a very comfortable, instantly familiar, bright western title in these ill times of dark military fantasies. It simply lacks any appeal besides its  aesthetic, making it another of those fuzzy, amorphous memories of the past which lack strong emotional impressions. Antoniades is simply not that good an author (as “Heavenly Sword” also testifies), even when he limits himself at copying the best ideas that came before him. The medium’s past misunderstood means the way for the future is, yet again, ruined.

score: 3/5

Bayonetta – “Hardcore Pornography”

Let me introduce you to lady Bayonetta. By definition, one would call her a sexy she-devil, a demon from the underworld with such voluptuous curves  she’d make your girlfriend flush with jealousy, force your elderly anatomy professor to go “what the?!” and make you… (clears throat) well, you get the point. Never does she stop to stand still, always killing monsters with her hell-pistols while dancing with the grace of a stripper and Ulala’s hyperkinetic sense of rhythm. And if you’re standing next to her, get ready to witness a whole new level of spite: you’ll be vilified by her tongue… in more ways than we care to describe. Well, that is if you’re not being shot, hacked, tortured, dismembered, minced, or crushed by other limbs of hers. Little point in saying that just watching her move is enough to make you cower in fear and develop an inferiority complex. Oh, forgot to mention her favourite hobby: she loves to sadistically rape angels and other religious figures… … … … stick around long enough, and you might even watch her go all S&M on the guy upstairs.

When Hideki Kamiya (“Resident Evil 2”, “Devil May Cry”, “Ôkami”) conjured such a character, he wasn’t just having fun, he was deconstructing videogames’ logic by embodying it in an artifact that exaggerates its flaws to such a point that they stand out, really stand out. Violence, sexuality and fantasy are the corner-stones of mainstream aesthetic – they define the crude objects which players most take pleasure in. By incarnating these flaws in “Bayonetta”, Kamiya simultaneously delivers a subversive critique to his medium, as well as a heartful homage, for underlying every pun he directs at his craft is a work of showmanship with such a level of grandeur, it transcends the very notions he so criticizes.

For one, there’s some of the most impressive visuals of this generation, thanks to Mari Shimazaki’s virtuoso goth-meets-baroque-meets-pop aesthetic, sculpted with absurd detail in its reliefs and arabesques, while overtly dealing a hard blow to all religious art. Then there’s the aureate combat, where every button combination awards you with ostentatious animations and abominable gore-fests, in a brawler system so intricate and complete, you’ll begin wondering what have Santa Monica and Capcom been spending their millions on for the past 10 years. And certainly, we can never forget the insane amount of citations spread across an immense variety of action sequences: like a certain plumber, one gets to defy gravity and climb walls whilst listening to “Fly me to the Moon”, play a “Space Harrier” shooter segment, and even drive a “Hang-on” motorbike chase. Everything screams unfathomed delight and excess, excess, excess, but also a profound admiration for the best and the worst videogame history can offer.

Like videogames, Bayonetta is superficial, camp and histrionic: she sells her body and her violent ways to charm players and gets little pay in exchange. However, unbeknownst to all, lies depth beyond measure. A thoughtful essay on our medium’s finest qualities and most nefarious of failings hides here, and by disguising it as an action game to end all action games, Hideki Kamiya got away with foul play and crafted the crowning opus of the very genre he so devilishly underpins. The result is a visceral, nihilist, over-indulgent, shamelessly voyeuristic, post-modern rant of the worst kind, parodic in every letter of its prose, repulsive and downright pornographic in its imagery. In other words, please welcome the new enfant terrible of videogames.

score: 5/5

[Since this review comes late as hell, months after having actually played the game, and following several discussions on the very subject, I may have inadvertently borrowed random ideas, opinions or expressions from José Gonçalves, Bruno de Figueiredo and maybe even others. If such is the case, I hereby give merit where merit is due, and apologize them for the fact. Cheers!]

Muramasa: The Demon Blade – “Geisha”

Let no doubts arise, “Muramasa” is skin-deep – beneath its gorgeous pale skin and virtuous exterior, you’ll find nothing tangible to grasp. Mind you, it’s a beautiful, beautiful work as is, one which takes 2D sprites and crafts them into an art form in of itself. These are awe-inspiring paintings: whether it’s the soothing effect of watching the rural Japanese landscape bathed in warm sunset colors as the wind gently lulls the wheatfield, or cowering beneath the ominous moonlight over Japanese shiro castles in that tingling goth gloom, settings and characters are animated by true masters of this digital art. From the sumptuous color palettes, to the strong expressionist deformations that deeply underpin dramatic character, and above all, the rich aesthetic themes, all evoke classic and modern Japanese artworks, spreading their light into a new medium.

And yet, deep as its ostentatious vanity goes, it’s not a wholly unpleasant dame that wears “Muramasa’s” most lavish of kimonos. As long as one doesn’t think too much on what is lacking inside, the superficial delight it affords is fulfilling. Especially because, where “Odin Sphere’s” Norse meets Japanimation concept seemed somewhat artificial and plastic, “Muramasa’s” focus on traditional Japanese mythology makes it a slightly more honest, heartfelt endeavor. No matter how much “Vanillaware” studied Odin’s lands, it would always seem lost in translation, as they could never fully grasp its intricacies, let alone matching them with their own art-style and language, deeply rooted as they are in their culture. Now, the aesthetic side of “Muramasa” seems whole. Anime’s roots in traditional art flourish, the dramatic poise imposed by the 2D assets fits beautifully with the Kabuki theater narrative, and even the modern soundtrack (by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata et al) successfully plays with traditional instruments and sonorities to deliver rhythm and intensity to combat. And it is solely in the very heat of sword-brawling that you’ll be most often reminded of “Muramasa’s” failings as a videogame. Despite its one button elegance and fast pace, the game’s combat feels too drab, numb and saccharine, not to mention awkward for such an enticing theme and artistic background. Thankfully, the game’s short duration doesn’t allow it to become as tiresome as in “Odin Sphere”.

Never mind its offensive shallowness, you have to give credit to Kamitani for wearing his colors proudly, sticking to his authors’ legacy and continuing to create videogames his own way. In the end, that is what keeps him and his team high above their western-submissive peers. For only thus could he create one of the very few unique objects that have landed on a Wii. Like an endowed geisha, “Muramasa” entertains you with its art and music, stimulates you with its knowledge of culture and history, and charms you with its seductiveness and beauty… just don’t expect true love to come into the picture.

score: 3/5