Archive for the ‘ Review ’ Category

“Silent Hill 4 redux”, a P.T. review

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“Silent Hill” is the masterpiece they just can’t leave alone. After a decade of watching Konami lending its masterwork title to be used and abused by merit-less and unskillful western developers, one naturally becomes distrusting. Promote a new Silent Hill with an actor from a popular TV show that has no inkling of resonance with the game series; a filmmaker who, qualities aside, is not known for either the particular surreal tone or the finer nuances in narrative and aesthetic sophistication that elevated Silent Hill; and a game director whose previous collaborations with other works that not his own have ended in disaster, and whose very stylistic trademarks (design maximalism, adoption of an anime aesthetic with particular emphasis on its crude brand of humor) stand in earnest opposition to the essence of Silent Hill… promote a new Silent Hill thus, and one confirms the now constant suspicion that every new Silent Hill will come as another nail to stick into the proverbial coffin.

Which is why P.T., the interactive teaser where Konami chose to encapsulate this idiotic marketing ploy is so puzzling, because it is the finest videogame experience to be associated with the Silent Hill name ever since The Room. It is perhaps fitting that 10 years after the release of the last ‘true’ Silent Hill, Konami chose it specifically as the basis for this singular demo. Not that it is likely this was a decision meant only to honor its legacy in celebratory fashion; the growing popularity of first person horror games that lived of scraps of that singular fabric that made Silent Hill the best of its kind – Amnesia, Outlast and even that Slender thing and its clones – makes the return to first person perspective seem thought from a marketing angle (and the since released trailer, showing people’s ‘reaction’s’ to the piece indicates as much). But no matter, for in execution, P.T. honors Silent Hill 4’s design, its tension and mood, whilst reusing much of its iconography with the intelligence I associate with its original authors.

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The Team Silent level of quality craftsmanship, present in the superb use of the FOX engine, and the demo’s distinct Japanese dream-logic structure, are both crucial elements of SH that are here recuperated and that had hitherto been missing from the series. The audio-visuals are some of the finest seen in this novel generation, and the end result feels as unsettling, scary and ominous as the best Japanese horror. That said, the team behind the demo – mostly comprised of Metal Gear developers from the FOX team and other Konami staff – may be technically superior, but seem to lack the high-brow artistic vision that the finest notes in the Silent Hill milieu have achieved. On a conceptual level, the demo is too much Alternate Reality game and too little psychological meditation, and while it reuses several of The Room’s finest scare tactics, it never delivers anything truly unexpected or avant-garde; in fact, one of its most obvious detriments lies in its lack-lustre musical score and the graphics’ grounded FOX-engine aesthetic, both too somber and predictable, especially in the surreal excerpts, lacking the brilliant, erudite imagery of Team Silent (the best we get is a direct quotation of Lynch’s “Eraserhead” – too little, too obvious).

Being designed by Japanese was enough to make P.T. an object worthy of admiration, surely the finest of its genre in many years, but the lack of true authorial direction is too evident in this palate opener. Understandable given its nature, but a true Silent Hill game will need more. Which is where the names of Kojima and Del Toro come in – will they provide artistic vision for this team? Will they truly helm the project, or is this precisely what it seems: a marketing push? If so, who will steer this new boat? Is it a Japanese or a Western developer? Too many questions and uncertainties to be sure, and a teaser remains just that: a teaser. There is no indication that P.T. was created or designed so as to have any relation with the new Silent Hill beyond its marketing, and so one can only wait that the positive reception to the demo will be taken into consideration when producing the new title. Even thus, P.T. has the merits of making my PS4 finally seem worthy for giving me this small glimmer of gold, and for making a cautious optimist out of me. Before playing it, I had nothing but despise for Konami’s treatment of future iterations… now I have a tenuous, melancholic hope. Whether this distant hope leads me further down into despair or rapture, only time will tell.

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“In my restless dreams,
I see that town. Silent Hill. You promised me you’d take me
there again someday. But you never did.”

Here’s hoping that promise may finally be fulfilled.

Videogame Utopia: Passage Denied, a “Papers Please” review

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“Papers Please” is the sort of independent videogame that we need. Being “independent” means nothing if the creative leeway this status affords does not translate into a design that is personal, expressive and uncompromised by commercial goals. Incidentally, most hits in this dubious category are either designed with market considerations in mind, or derived from videogames that were, therefore replicating these values (“Super Meat Boy” or “Fez” being classic examples of this). “Papers Please” fortunately sits on the other corner of the indie spectrum. Following Bogost’s procedural rhetoric and seemingly inspired by Frasca’s “September 12”, Brathwaite’s “Train” and Molleindustria’s socio-political essays, Lucas Pope’s game is driven by a need to design games’ whose very systemic properties are meaningful enough that they can be explored semantically by the player. A game with a message or a political pamphlet made mechanical construction perhaps, where one can enjoy playing a game that boasts all its functional traits – goals, rules, rewards, penalties – but whose simulational qualities are inscribed with rhetoric on real issues.

In this case, the artifact addresses the day to day work of a checkpoint officer in a totalitarian state. In a dreary, grey and oppressive country, where the only remnant of color is propaganda red, you’re tasked with deciding whether or not people can pass customs, perusing their papers to see if they are in accord with the tyrannical laws of the state. You sit in your metal cubicle, standing in front of an endless line of desperate people attempting to enter, only to then dive into a monstrous amalgam of rules, documents and detection tools that tell you who to pass and who not to pass. It takes real effort to become adept at carefully verifying the validity of passports and safe conducts, searching for all sorts of inconsistencies in their documentation, checking if all procedures are correct, and in extreme cases, go as far as perform cavity searches of suspects to check if any contraband or weapons are being transported.

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An endless parade of bleak visages and broken spirits pass you by, most of which you’ll find with a fake passport, illegal immigrant status or what the state calls a terrorist. At that point you have the power to let these poor devils pass or reject their entry altogether, maybe even have them arrested. In some cases, breaking the law is the moral thing to do – desperate wives separated from their husbands, unemployed men seeking work, freedom fighters seeking to end war and dictatorship – you’ll encounter many instances where you wish to let these people go. However, whenever you fail to comply with the rules – not spotting an illegal, missing a step in the directives or rejecting a legal entry – somehow the state magically becomes aware of this fact and charges you, either with a fine or worse (this is, from a simulational point of view, rather incoherent, and a lax design decision so as to make the rhetoric stick out). To build pressure, you need the money from your work pay to make ends meet and provide your family with food, heat and medicine (in a bit of design reminiscent of online propaganda game SPENT). If you don’t work diligently, fast and according to the law, you and your family will suffer, eventually ending the game in tragedy.

The simulation drives home the dilemma of a man living in a totalitarian state: live poorly and let your family suffer whilst keeping your ethics untouched, or cave in and play the game (the real and metaphorical one) as it pressures you to, by becoming a cog in the state machine of repression and violence. Different balances between these two approaches lead to different outcomes, and though the ends are many, few (if any) have a bright epilogue. It is a very coherent work in its political message, and the experience can often be so bleak and morally abhorrent as the author set out to accomplish. But, like all the artifacts in this procedural line, it is also a title that suffers from a blunt agenda, as on-the-nose in its discourse as can be found in other media, the subject shouted at you with no nuance.

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Also questionable is the choice for Soviet iconography aesthetic dominating the visual and aural style of the game, making it too easy to dismiss it as a critique of totalitarian states such as North-Korea or China. Cold war anti-communist propaganda is old and retreaded ground, not particularly challenging to devise or interpret. What value is there in being brashly outspoken against left-wing dictatorships? It’d be far more interesting to note that democracies (such as the United States) also present the same fascist tendencies in their customs office processes, but sadly, because there is no symbolic ambiguity or subtlety in its rendering of what constitutes a totalitarian state, wider-reaching sub-texts are never contemplated. The game just never troubles itself going that extra-mile of innuendo and expressiveness that might make it an interesting essay on dictatorships (a brilliant and recent example of how explore the subject would be Robert Edwards’ “Land of the Blind” film). As per tradition, videogames tend to have this paternalist tone that drives authors to feel the need to spell everything out very clearly for their audience as if they were very dumb (another case in point of this flaw would be “Gone Home”), leaving very little for us to dissect or conjure.

Truth be told, such is not a big issue… in fact, considering how most games are so bereft of any expressive punch whatsoever, its lack of textual density is easy to dismiss. Its greatest detriment is actually that the game can become quite entertaining to play. An artifact about such horrors should never become enjoyable; it should always strive to be as appalling and repulsive to players as possible. But that’s not what happens when you make a game with challenges and goals and structured conflict and well-balanced mechanics… it becomes engrossing, and soon transforms you into that dreaded customs officer that is trying to be super-efficient and amoral and cold and cynical in his work, only you have ‘fun’ while doing so. And so, though the mechanical underpinning of the game is analogous to the emotionless customs drones that audit entries, playing the system becomes as enjoyable as a round of “SimCity” or “Civilization”. As such, from an ethical perspective, this becomes a very questionable design. More naturalist representations of your foul deeds (something very difficult to achieve on a small budget) could go a long way in making you feel more empathy with the human element of the story, but we believe the fault here is systemic and ideological, not just a matter of execution.

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Simulation titles that follow Bogost’s line of understanding of what constitutes a videogame tend to have this problem: they believe in a utopia where systems and rules and mechanics can be full of meaning, forgetting that as humans, we are not Cartesian machines, for we also think with our senses and emotions and understand the world by touching, seeing and hearing it. Because of this, disregarding the sensual dimensions of videogames in favor of their computational complexity always results in this dystopia of rote intellectual artifacts incapable of eliciting powerful emotional resonance and true introspection. “Papers Please” deserves applause for bearing one of the most honest authorial voices of the independent scene of the past year, and for at least having an agenda that goes beyond mere enjoyment in a medium obsessed by it… but its provocative theme demanded a sophistication it does not know and an ambition to go beyond this adolescent notion of videogames as amusing procedural manifestos.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron – “Humbling before the Divine”

Some works just plain stick out, protruding from mediocrity and shining light upon darkness; “El Shaddai” is thus, a videogame that yearns for a sense of indescribable beauty which lies beyond comprehension. Its longing can, above all, be explained by an unexpected choice of theme for a videogame – the adaptation of the book of Enoch, one of the apocryphal texts recovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls that narrates the fall. Were this a vulgar adaptation, and the base material would be treated as simple marketing fodder, a mercantilist way of influencing consumer’s perception of value and increasing sales by borrowing the ‘ethos’ of a work that sounds culturally relevant and deep (a blatant example of this being “Dante’s Inferno”). But the director, Takeyasu Sawaki, seems to have had an honest intent on recapturing the source material’s feel, namely religious texts’ primal reverence for the supernatural and holy embodied in deeply symbolic poetry. Given his affinity to the visual arts (being art designer by trade), Sawaki translated the sentiment as he knew best, by adorning every graphical form with a modern taste for the beautiful yet cryptic and ambiguous, so as to instill total awe in the face of the alluring ungraspable. So, with the help of Soutarou Hori (art director), they seem to have trawled deep into art in search of references, arriving at an eclectic mix that embodies a bit of everything, from classical sculpture’s marble purity to the fantastic milieu of Japanese anime (admittedly in reference to Miyazaki and his studio) and even toying with abstract Kandinsky-like compositions. As far as videogames go, even a minor but glaring citation to “Metal Gear Solid 2” gets a place in the long line of influences. The relationship that it ends up establishing with players is astounding: travelling through ethereal landscapes that bear almost nill resemblance to naturalist conceptions, you are made to admire a lavish sprawl of breathtaking digital art that evokes a spirit of quiet solemnity that is characteristic of sacred art. The technical quality is as stunning as its aesthetic virtuosity, making of use of the most unexpected graphical effects while avoiding standardized industry techniques; every form seems made anew, as if a painter had sought new brushes that could capture that which was yet to be. For it is quite a revolution – in taste and technique – that hides beneath the game’s plastic surface, one which finds no match save in a few of the more vanguardist experiments of the past – Mizuguchi’s “Rez” often coming to mind.

Where “El Shaddai” falls from grace is when it actually asks players to play it. For ascension to be pure, Sawaki would have had to find some sort of interaction that could capture and further expand the godly expression which the art so powerfully achieved. But unlike in Mizuguchi’s masterpiece, where gameplay strived for pure synesthesic enthrallment, Sawaki seems to have never conceived how interaction could feed into a relationship with the transcending allegorical language. So, whether for lack of creative spark or simple commercial cynicism, he seems to have cowered from such grand design and stuck with the first worldly template he could recover, irrespective of its effect. Thus, the most basic Mario platforming and a rhythmic refrain on Hideki Kamiya combat (Sawaki had worked on both “Devil May Cry” and “Ôkami”) were the pillars for the game that ended up hastily glued on top of the sumptuous painting. The result is not only uninspired from a pure luddite point of view – lacking “Bayonetta’s” absolute brashness and “Mario’s” cheerful joy – as it goes as far as baring players from properly indulging the scenic delights. While this sin plants doubt on what more could be achieved by such vision, it is still a palatable experience that fails to offend the more judgemental critic. Rejoice then we must, at the voyage that does reach its destination and not fret over that which lies out of reach – “El Shaddai” is surely one of the most breathtaking visual spectacles videogames have ever witnessed, a thing of beauty as ever was one, unrivaled in both execution and scope of genius. It is a window into a world that has no bearing on this mundane desert which we call medium, a glimpse of the divine landscape of gods that shines from afar, one which now, as if by miracle, seems nigh.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “The Writer and the Numbers”

Imagine a writer that was lacking in imagination, incapable of anything but regurgitating genre plots so filled with tropes and clichéd characters, he could barely write a word without making use of the formulas he read back in college in “how to write” books. Though not technically incapable – his English was competent – this writer was also devoid of gracious form in his prose, his stylistic flair incoherent and drab, either overwrought when need be of simplicity and elegance, or too shallow and paltry when riveting poetry was required. But how he yearned for success! Now, would this hypothetical writer actually be a videogame designer, he could practice a sleight of hand and actually become the most applauded and revered of authors. All he had to do was razzle and dazzle his readers with his effort and capacity to deliver quantity instead of quality. And so, though his prose did not evoke rapture, he started to write a beastly mammoth of a book, so vast one could barely take it in hands and not feel the weight of such hard work, as the bulk of those millions of words made itself physically known, as if you actually could hold what they were intent on describing: a never-ending world of adventure and fantasy, so large and detailed and multifaceted, none could compare. It would take thousands of hours to read every tale inscribed in his epic, “1001 Nights” now but a drabble by comparison, hundreds of hours to only scour the surface of his world and read his descriptions of its landscapes, making “Lord of the Rings” seem a trivial pamphlet, and thousands more for the never-ending wars and battles, each as long as the once mighty “War and Peace”. It would be the greatest masterpiece the world had ever seen… well, at least, literally speaking. Such hypothetical epic is, of course, “The Elder Scrolls” at its more symbollic, and such ungifted artist I write of is none other than Todd Howard, the mastermind now at the helm of the series.

In “Skyrim”, everything is massive and many, but such ostensive manner lead us nowhere. For at its heart, this is aught more than a traditional high-fantasy romp in dark-fantasy garbs very much the same line as “Oblivion”, with very little to distinguish the two. Admittedly, some authors are capable of playing with expertise inside the fictional confines of these stale genres – Square Enix once did that job beautifully -, but Bethesda has few virtues to speak of, and what little it has ends up lost in the murky ocean of discardable trash which populates their games. We sit far from “Fallout 3’s” acute cynicism and socio-political satire; herein you can expect more evil empires, more dubious would-be revolutionaries, more elves and orcs and ogres and pixies and goblins and dragons and whatnot, more bearded headstrong heroes with no charisma, more flashy magic spells, more repetitive combat, more blood and guts and looting, more quests, hell, even more elaborate plots about the end of the world and civilization! Only “more” interests for this new tome. The sole twist in this new outing lies in the obvious influence of “Game of Thrones” in both narrative and world qualities of the Skyrim land, and this alone is telling of the authorial honesty of Todd Howard’s goons: follow whatever is trendy in the mass media.

But how beautiful “Skyrim’s” idyllic landscapes are! – says the public and the so-called critics. But is it really so? Well, it is true that, if there is something which was enjoyable about “Morrowind”, “Oblivion” and, to a lesser extent, “Fallout 3”, it lied in these games spatial exploration. “Skyrim” is no exception to the rule. You’ll find a plethora of naturalist environments with vague romantic flair: many a pine tree, fern, flower, mountain and misty grove, coloring the landscape with grays and whites and greens that lend themselves to the slow trot of the passerby, accompanied once again by Soule’s breathtaking soundtrack, soothing the weary eye and cleansing the soul of more mundane, quest-like preoccupations. But the composition of its many visual elements is shoddy at best. Taken in separate, one cannot deny the competent technical capacity involved in its digital designs; but textures and models vanish in their uncoordinated ad-nauseam repetition, forming unflattering blobs of samey patterns. You get to see objects and lands many, many, many times, seldomly framed with the clinical eye of a gifted digital landscape artist, with most views sticking out in a jumble of procedurally generated redundancy. But where it hurts most is in the use of light and color: elements are usually integrated into each scene by dimming contrast, so as to afford minimal cohesion. The effect robs many views of their natural beauty, either making sets too bright and bloomy or dark and bleak. Further artifices are employed to mask the lacklustre digital draughtsmanship: “Skyrim” is, on a purely technical level, a state of the art piece, home to all the graphical engineering tricks that feature in marketing check-lists, but be not in doubt that these are to no avail when employed by those whose aesthetic vision is limited to comic-book and hollywood blockbuster references.

We are quick to concede that not all scenes and objects display such absence of ideal – some Romanesque buildings are a wonder to admire in their sheer monolithic opulence, and the elemental details are particularly pleasing to the eye. The icey cave stalactites with their cold sheen, the bright fiery torches with their sparkles flying through the air, the falls and rivers and bedstreams glistening white with hazy mist, the snowy mountain peaks with their fierce gales and, last but not least, the gorgeous night sky with its ever present array of colorful (yes, colorful!) aurorae borealis – these were all conjured with a genius that is altogether absent from their surroundings (the same being true for previous “Elder Scroll” titles). All in all, the world manages to feel living enough, and given the game’s reliance on long trips (as long as one avoids abusing fast-travel), you get to indulge in its scenery for so much time that it becomes an intricate part of its appeal, perfect for geocachers and strollers. But though it can caress your inner nature-lover, it boasts a lesser, mundane type of beauty: its picturesque qualities show as brave and bold aesthetics as can be found in a random pretty tourism postcard, and even considering the mellowing comfort it can afford, it is surpassed by similarly scaled games as “Red Dead Redemption” and the recent “Xenoblade Chronicles”, both of which manage to show far greater character and authorial impression in their many lavish settings.
But lively though its lands may occasionally feel, its inhabitants share not the same quality. There is no denying the effort that went into “Oblivion’s” schedule driven AI programming, with its array of motivations and social-functions, but where such technique might have borne vital flame to these dead polygonal dolls, their visual characterization and animation blow such kindle to cold icy ash, for once again they look like crude action figures and move like stiff robots. It is true that there have been minor improvements face the fourth chapter – women are now blessed with porn-actress bodies and Xena warrior face, and men are now strong-blooded Norse Vikings instead of mushy round-faced old men – but even if they are not quite as ugly, disproportionate or uncanny, they are still thoroughly grotesque and generic. The problem extends to their aural side, as once again voice actors have their lines repeated ad-infinitum in hundreds of different NPC’s, forced-fed the same flat script, made to blurt out never-ending bibles of drab fantasy lore in quarter-hour-long soliloquies, bodies rock-steady in their vacant emotional expression, absent of any poetry or charm whatsoever in their declamation.

At the end of the day, “Skyrim’s” woes are the same as its forbears. Like the writer, it sells its numbers as measures of quality, desperately trying to hide its inability to design something beautiful, subtle, articulate and emotionally expressive. It is surely not by chance that Bethesda has never created anything that could amaze without resorting to scale! For you can find no heart or soul in their works, only the fakeness of men wanting to sell quantities of pyrite as if it were a nugget of artistic gold. But art is not measured in a scale, and such creative philosophy can only subsist by relying on the objectivist, market-driven ideals of a medium’s audience that salivates at the presence of quantifiable quality measurements. “Skyrim” is a statement, “Experience the different character and play styles, the dozens and dozens of quests, the nine metropolises and their many satellite towns, hacking your way through hundreds of dungeons, in uncountable hours of exploration and combat, hoarding the many thousands of books and items and weapons, across forty kilometers of wide open space, built out of billions and billions of polygons! And all this with massive dragons on top!” One either subscribes this, and appreciates the sheer size of its lunatic ambition, engaging in its enormous amount of entertainment, thus giving in to the mindless trek of its addiction, hours and hours of menial tasks made enjoyable, building up experience and gold as if you were a meth junky… or one may as well keep a sane mind and heartily laugh at the game’s knick knackery execution, rough edges, derivative theme and incomprehensible lack of taste. We admit that with all its faults, “Skyrim” at least manages to march away from stats and dice-rolls and text-driven apparatus (unlike “New Vegas” or “Xenoblade Chronicles”), seeking a roleplaying game more naturalistic in form, with exploration of an open fantasy world at the forefront of its preoccupations. If only Bethesda could focus on creating a rich, detailed region with a heartfelt storyline instead of a spoiled mess of a continent with a hydra of bland fantasy tales, they might succeed. But like the writer, they are incapable of doing so, for just as he cannot really write literature, only spew out words into paper, so is Bethesda only capable of spewing out thousands of hours of gameplay… there simply isn’t a videogame to be found in them.

NieR – “Pygmalion”

Surprises are increasingly rare. The medium’s vocabulary has become crystallized to such a degree that even the most virtuous of videogame examples seems incapable of presenting us with unexpected forms; a quick glance seems today more than enough to characterize works to their most intimate detail. “NieR”, though far from being a stalwart of the medium, deceives the uncouth look and carries the full weight of these times by presenting derogative superficial qualities which hide its inner beauty. It is surely a pastiche at heart, which is also probably why so few in the specialized press gave it second thought (it was shunned upon release, later leading to the disbanding of the studio).

If it were a painting, it would have in its center a scene straight from Kamiya’s brawlers (“Devil May Cry”, “Bayonetta”), even if deprived of their genial transgressive character; framing the action would be the structural architecture of an orthodox “Legend of Zelda”, only absent of Miyamoto’s elegant Nintendo-brand game design; the theme would be an outright theft of Fumito Ueda, both in its dramaturgy and dream-like aesthetic (misty landscapes, unsaturated color palette, massive ruins and bridges), and it would be elaborated through a J-RPG narrative, for this is Square Enix we’re talking about. Were our analysis to finish at such a point, we would discard “Nier” as an inferior product, undeserving of posterior reflection.

But the game proves beyond such reproval, for Yoko Taro (“Drakengard”) is knowledgeable of each and every one of his appropriations, knowing far too well how to use them to elevate both gameplay and fiction. Not only that, he revels in his capacity to evoke and parody the memory of classic videogame history. As an example, one quest sees you enter a small town amidst a misty forest; there, characters can delve inside villagers’ dreams, finding a realm where only words exist, every thought and action and dialogue now turned into white roman characters on a utterly black screen, heralding classic interactive fictions such as “Colossal Cave Adventure”. You’ll find a plethora of such far-fetched references wrapped in a subtle (for videogame standards) play of meta-humor – “Resident Evil”, “Diablo” and even bullet-hell “Ikaruga” make an appearance – and these will surely indulge the historically minded player looking for a test of knowledge, playing the “I know you know where I got this from”. Part of “NieR’s” appeal comes precisely from its uncompromising post-modern take on its references, as it builds a patchwork world wrought of unexpected aesthetic and mechanic convulsions which induce a sense of awe and bizarre that is exquisitely uncanny. Perhaps the most sui generis of these convulsions lies in the soundtrack (by Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi and Takafumi Nishimura): a melancholic ensemble of choral and guitar-stringed Celtic refrains which reflect the bitter and mournful spirit of the story.

It is the storytelling accent that assuredly elevates “Nier” beyond all reproach. Though characters are poorly designed in visual terms – adhering, self-consciously we might add, to strict role-play archetypes – the off-the-wall script and witty actor delivery successfully ground its emotional punch. In this respect, we are forced to mention Liam O’Brien’s Alan Rickman caricature as a spiteful flying book, which is charmingly delightful and whose comedy is, by itself, well worth experiencing the game for. At its core, you find the tale of a father whose daughter is on her deathbed, struggling to find a cure for her mysterious disease. It develops with sinuous contours, starting with a cheery Campbellian adventure set-up in search of mystical items, but then developing into bittersweet bounding scenes between father and daughter, only to then peak in its final revelations with profoundly dark and grievous sequences which question all of players’ actions. It’s clear enough that Taro set out to reprise Ueda’s “Shadow of the Colossus” tragedy and, perhaps for the first time since it, a game comes real close to evoking the same feelings of mourning, emptiness and sadness, even if by use of far more mundane and trivial mechanisms. It is that heart – such a rare quality in a videogame – as well as its vicious and subversive punch that help elevate it above mere inflexion on past titles.

Elegy, parody and tragedy all at once, “NieR” is as the Pygmalion, a poor and unrefined work dressed in the most lavish and fashionable apparatus. But while its exterior may often seem wooden, artificial and downright fake, it hides a soul yearning for authenticity. And so, what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in the honesty and thoughtfulness it applied in its study of genres and tropes, in the end showing far greater taste and vision than the supposedly creative mongrels that surround it.

Xenoblade Chronicles – “A Poor Man’s Epic”

Videogames paved with cultural references are a long-standing tradition in Japan, with a constant mix of popular and high-brow, western and eastern citations being a mainstay not just in our medium but also in manga, anime, music and film. “Xenogears” mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi (executive director, concept and writer), upholds this logic wholeheartedly, making it a defining theme across his career. In fact, perhaps even more than with others, we can easily judge his merits solely guided by which authors and artworks serve as inspiration for his stories and design. Based on this, we can instantly understand “Xenoblade’s” greatest fault – its appropriation of good and bad in equal measure, with apparent blindness over which is which.

A long standing disciple of George Lucas’ space operettas and his Campbellian mono-mythology, Takahashi always strived to embody that unique sense of magic and faustian spectacularity in the interactive means. “Xenoblade” is, first and foremost, a baroque fantasy novel, devilishly ornamented with meticulous arabesques that spin the plot round and around, with quick and mad turns that make your head spin and tingle in anticipation of their insights and feel tremendous pleasure at the unfolding of their complex revelations. Dismally, unlike in his defining masterpiece “Xenogears”, Takahashi chose the easy way out for his newest release, catering to a larger audience by avoiding his trademark labyrinthine, overwrought philosophical ramblings which added much-needed depth to the lush, but inherently superficial exterior of his tales. You can still find subtle nuances to some of his most cherished obsessions, from classic science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick), to Norse Mythology to Jung, but you find these so subdued and diluted it pains to see them written in with such levity.
It’s not just that the narrative is too much “Star Wars” and too little “2001” but that the aesthetic framing embitters its unfolding, with Japanimation antics robbing dramatic charge out of nearly every cut-scene. The fact is that “Xenoblade” ventures equally as often into “Evangelion” as it does to “Gundam” and “Super Sentai” territory, never managing the right equilibrium between its serious fictional background and the action-frenzy, humoristic silliness which is inherent to anime. Even more terrible is that this ill-fashion is deepened by its interactive fluff, which speaks the same base language. Vehemently criticize it we must for its ludomaniac tendency to cater to videogame sugar-junkies and their needs of excessive longevity, number of quests and achievements and customization and mechanics, inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”. The game manages to somewhat balance that off by embracing Matsuno’s “Final Fantasy XII” semi-naturalist tactical combat and copying the socio-temporal dynamics of unjustly forgotten and still sole 3D “Zelda” masterpiece, Koizumi’s “Majora’s Mask”. The largely artificial gamification-driven architecture so becomes a tiny tad more human and genuine thanks to that astute addition, meaning you’re not just grinding your way up the statistics ladder, but being rewarded with snippets of insight on major characters and inhabitants, their world’s lore, personal stories, daily lives and relationships.

But the ‘coup de grace’ that just manages to save it from redundancy and utter lack of taste lies in the most welcome of citations to Ueda’s second masterpiece, “Shadow of the Colossus”. Herein, that sense of scale and vast unhindered exploration is taken to whole new levels, exponentiated in a clear exercise of exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in). The whole of the game-world is, quite literally, on top of two giants, with each scenery representing a small anamotic part of them, from the knees to the arms to the torso to the heads to the internal organs. “Xenoblade’s” geo-architectural venture baffles the mind for its scope, but it is the minutiae of its characterization that brings about admiration for the virtuosity involved. Technologically, it is a feat that deserves praise, with a rich aesthetic treatment (led by Norihiro Takami) gently pushing you to explore that insanely large world. Each setting has its own unique sense of visual and aural style, forming a body of  eclectic work covering several different themes, from warm naturalist pieces with nigh absurd texturization detail, to gentle dream-like landscapes with soft, hazy light (again Ueda), to more traditional, industrial science fiction and bright sweet fantasy pieces. These are all accompanied by a profuse mix of musical tracks very in line with what’s expected from J-RPG canon – symphonic opuses, j-pop melodies, Black Mages style hard-rock, etc. The diverse variety in composers (ACE+, Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota and Yasunori Mitsuda) elevates it just slightly above standard fare, with some astute echoes of Sakamoto’s YMO work and Hisaishi’s melancholy making it shine in a few tracks.
Like its references, “Xenoblade” walks the fine line from genial to menial with uncouth bravado, leading to a confluence of pleasure and disgust that perfectly exemplifies the current state of its genre and even the medium itself. Bittersweet though it may be, we easily concede it to be one of the most fascinating epic adventures we have encountered in the recent past, it just pains us to also see it as one of the worst when it comes to delivery. In the end, we must look elsewhere to justify our verdict, and here dismay is the word of choice: “Final Fantasy XIII” is pathetic to say the least, “Fallout“, “Mass Effect” and their peers are all US, all muscle, no heart. “Lost Odyssey” is superior, but remains too classicist, too close to 90’s “Final Fantasy” to be understood as new. Truth of the matter is that traditional trope-constrained RPG’s have been on the decline, and whilst progressive ventures – “Folklore“, “Demon’s Souls“, “Yakuza 3” – have made the genre grow, propelling it towards the future, it would be dishonest not to admit we missed a nice, cozy little genre piece to keep us warm and comfy and dreamy and naive and childish at night. May “Xenoblade” be just that – a new and technically marvelous but fundamentally safe J-RPG. The popular and consensual reference for a generation where once none stood.

3/5

P.S: A small error was found by a user, concerning the name of J-RPG band, “Black Mages”. I apologize for the mix-up.

From Dust – “…of the Dawn and Dusk of Man”

Eric Chahi’s comeback was unexpected, the return of the prodigal author straight from the golden age of videogames into the cesspool of contemporary times. Seeing as his previous venture, “Heart of Darkness”, was “Another World” complemented by a Spielberg imaginary, one would expect any new work of his to be further evolution of his adventure masterpiece. Such expectations were soon abated, as “From Dust” was quickly established to be a strategy game. Produced by Ubisoft no less, the grand evil birth-parent of the greatest brood of mediocre sequel-driven franchises (its legacy somehow unrelated to EA’s by some collective medium blind-spot). And to top all that, though highly publicized, Chahi’s participation (like Mechner before him in the “Prince of Persia” series) was not in a lead designer role, instead relegated to “original concept and creative direction” functions (whatever that means). The good news is that, while “From Dust” is clearly a product of its time (today) and place (Ubisoft), Chahi’s influence is there. And that is, to be frank, a hell of a compliment.

The design is deceptively simple: players control a spiritual wind which can take spheres of elements such as sand, water and lava and move them elsewhere to build beaches, lakes and mountains, doing massive geographic make-over (a subtle reference to “Doshin the Giant” as keenly observed by dieubussy). With this environmental palette in hand, you’re asked to help a “Populous” meets “Lemmings” race of indigenous natives survive, build settlements, gain knowledge and reach gates in search of the ‘ancient ones’. The twist is that the rather cumbersome strategy processes which typically undermine the genre are extraordinarily streamlined, molding the game into a simple landscape painting experience, using each level as new canvas for experimentation. If not for its otherwise tainted use, the word sandbox would be the most adequate adjective to describe the game, for more than antagonistic goal-conquering, you are invited to playfully mold the world and watch how everything interacts, in the process coming to understand the governing rules of all – gravity, fluid viscosity, density.

Chahi’s stroke of genius is that, though coherent, each environment seems to have a mind of its own, with devious architectural features that surprise you constantly in the elemental interactions they enable, forcing you to constantly elaborate on your strategies to constrain Nature’s destructive force. The result of your actions is never as you initially imagine and no matter how good you are at the game, your power over the world is always bound in time, as every dynamic rule interacts in such a way that it brings about unexpected consequences sooner or later. The message is clear, Man’s rule over Nature is never complete and forever temporary, forged in unstable equilibrium; the greater Man’s power, the greater the destruction it ensues as reaction. The final level is, in this regard, an excellent verse in this essay, affording god-like powers to your palette only for you to realize that its use inevitably leads to cataclysmic disaster. And while this point is further explored in narrative terms, it is only fully fleshed during the interactive portions of the experience, its simple metaphors shining ever brightly as you continuously struggle to exert your dominion over Nature… and fail miserably.

What is most surprising in Eric Chahi’s return is the sense of awe and mystery he is able to inspire in us, despite the menial genre he chose to express himself in, and the mechanicist form his design took. For no matter how construed by these traits, he kept his mind on subtle emotions that translate into pure aesthetic terms – the eternal dread face Nature’s forces, the beauty of its landscapes, our empathy towards our more simple tribal selves, the folly of Man’s aspirations – evoking them holistically through the artifact, leaving no expressive part unrelated to his vision. The soundtrack alludes to this perfectly, with an emotional score that treats all these movements equally – fierce tribal didgeridoo bass lines in times of danger, mellow ambient tunes in periods of calm. Naturalist depictions in soft impressionist tones further push this contrast – the fiery volcanoes versus the blue summer sky, the bright beachy sand versus mountain’s black ashen rock. Even the tribesmen, perhaps the most poorly treated element in the genre, are given simple but tremendously expressive characterizations, their masks a thing of child-like naiveté, their language both alien and familiar, so telling of the strange, fantastic, but oh so earthly landscapes they must journey through.

“From Dust” has an engineering side to its conception, heavy on rules, math and physics and subscribing to somewhat naïve game design ideals, such as the notion of simple rules enabling emergent (meaningful) gameplay. However, unlike most examples of this marketing-friendly current, such notions are actually translated inside the realm of a work that is purposeful, aesthetically rich and which dares go beyond mere entertainment. And while disappointment over the lack of a spiritual successor to “Another World” is hard to get over, the fact this little game aspires to be so thematically rich as to dare touch the relationships between Man and Nature, Science and Technology, Equilibrium and Destruction, is proof that “From Dust” is the welcome return to form of one of the most talented game designers in the medium. Let us pray that he never has to repeat this long absence.

4/5