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Returnal Eight Months Later

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When Returnal first came out in April this year -- and what a year -- I knew I was going to absolutely adore it. Everything about the look and sound, cribbing from such distinct sci-fi horror sources as Edge of Tomorrow, Prometheus, and Annihilation, just worked for me, in a way that made me rather annoyed that I didn't have a Playstation 5 to actually play it on.

And yet, the initial reaction seemed somewhat -- muted. To be clear, I'm not talking about a lack of coverage, oh no, one of the first true PS5 exclusives coming out in the middle of a bone-dry release drought meant everyone was talking about it, but the things most outlets and players had to say were... mixed. Like me, they were digging the style, but the actual gameplay was much more divisive. If I had a dime for every piece or blog or tweet I read around the time that said something to the effect of, "Returnal looks great and is a lot of fun to play, but it's punishingly difficult and the roguelike elements are dull," I'd probably be pretty close to having the $70 to pay for it.

I'm sure there's a larger conversation that could be had about this -- PS5 games continue to stir controversy simply by existing at the $70 price point. A AAA full-price roguelike is already a lot for some people to swallow, but one of the first AAA console exclusives at SEVENTY DOLLARS? O o f. And so, the initial reactions of a lot of people seemed to have the game caught in a Catch-22: either it was too content-light and repetitive to justify its $70 price tag, OR it was so excruciatingly difficult that no one in their right mind would ever finish it unless they enjoyed grinding a lot, OR, worst case, both.

So, not wanting to do the terminally online thing of "throwing myself in to defend the vague conception of a game I think I might enjoy against people who, you know, have actually played it" I simply kept quiet and marked the game off as, "you know what, I'm pretty sure I'm going to love this if I ever actually play it" in my head.

8 months later, PS5 in hand, I'm happy to report -- yeah, I love Returnal. But I'm not going to talk about what everyone already knows, that is, that it looks amazing and plays great -- yes, it does. Instead, I'm going to talk about the more controversial elements of the game and explore how they ended up mostly working for me.

Some Caveats

That being said, I'm going to clear something up right away, and that's that the Returnal of December 2021 is a very different beast from the Returnal of April 2021. Specifically, that it now has an actual "Suspend Run" feature that doesn't ask you to rely on the fickle PS5 rest mode to keep progress during runs. So yeah, up-front, I had a better experience than a lot of people because of this, and the lack of this feature at launch is downright inexcusable. It'd be one thing if this was a Hades or Dead Cells where runs last about 30 minutes to an hour, but no, Returnal runs go on for AGES, they're more Binding of Isaac length than anything, with lots of backtracking and such. Once you know what you're doing, you can finish a run in about an hour or an hour and a half, but on your first time? It's not an exaggeration to say it could go, 4, 5, 6 hours. That's a lot to ask for in one sitting. So already I'm having a better time than a lot of folks did at launch.

The other caveat is more simple: everything about the gameplay and feel is right up my alley, in a way where this was always going to be a stacked deck for my enjoyment. I love fast-paced, hectic games that are difficult (see, Super Hexagon, Devil Daggers, Ikaruga, Doom on higher difficulties, etc.) and make my reptile brain take over, so I didn't have nearly the same "wait what?" reaction to the bullet-hell inspirations.

With this all in mind, let's dive in earnest, with perhaps the most incendiary point up-front:

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What Makes a Game Difficult?

I beat the game in about 14 hours with only 9 deaths, and on my very second run I got to the fifth biome. I spent a lot of time learning enemy patterns in the fifth biome, because there are these flying robot guys who are absolute fuckers to fight alongside some of the first enemies who have projectiles you can't dash through, but the first run I beat the fifth biome on was also the run where I beat the game (there are six environments overall). And so, when I recall my time with Returnal, the word "breezy" comes to mind, which is not at all the common experience.

Why this disparity? Well part of it may be just, the luck of a run. I don't recall any particularly busted items on that trailblazing second run, but I did keep my health up pretty regularly with the "2% of damage dealt is converted to health per each adrenaline level" ability. But of course, even that requires you to keep a consistent adrenaline level, which means not getting hit while killing at least 3 enemies, and it's absolutely useless in boss fights if you get hit once, so that didn't feel particularly unfair.

But overall, I have to say this game is a lot easier than I expected from all the chatter. Each biome has a "Reconstructor" that gives you, essentially, an extra life in each level for the low cost of 6 Ether. This isn't to mention the extra life artifacts and parasites you can find. On one run I had, essentially, four lives, and this wasn't even playing Optimally either, this was picking up any old weapon to grind new Traits in the last area of the game. Once you finish an area, it's very easy to just run to the warp to the next zone on subsequent runs, and they don't require you to fight bosses again. And those bosses? I beat each one on my first try. They're a lot of fun, they're incredible to look at, and the bullet hell/phases make it feel like a struggle, but they're pretty simple patterns.

So yes, Returnal is difficult, but there's not too much "Bullshit" in the game that makes it feel slanted against the player. I think players are responding to something else that I'll get into in a moment.The only examples of truly egregious/rotten moments I can think of from my time with it were: one time watching a friend play, they jumped into a side room they shouldn't have been able to access yet -- essentially, a room with the floor as lava before they got the upgrade that let them walk through it without being hurt -- and the game's hit reactions kept throwing him further back from the exit, creating an essential death trap that ruined an otherwise fantastic run. That was bullshit. Or the time I dropped into an enemy arena, and two huge enemies spawned right next to me and hit me before Selene's "I have dropped a large distance" landing animation finished playing. I survived, but that was a feelbad moment. Plus, some attacks have heavy knockdowns that can put you in rough spots as you're standing up. What people might be responding to, though, is...

Returnal is a Swingy-Ass Game

And by that I mean most of the core gameplay, like you'd expect from Housemarque's arcade shooter background, is incredibly momentum based, and this can be exhilarating and heartbreaking in equal measure. That adrenaline system I mentioned earlier? It's essentially a combo meter -- get lots of kills without getting hit, and you start getting significant bonuses. Such significant bonuses, in fact, that it begins to feel like they're not a reward or bonus, but a necessary part of the game, and not having them is a punishment rather than the status quo. The rewards are, "Increased Weapon Proficiency," as in, the stat that dictates how good the weapons you find are. Okay, that's essential. "Increased Melee Damage," eh. "Seeing enemies through walls" YEP that helps. "Increased Reload Window" -- so Returnal operates with an active reload mechanic for guns, but unlike a Gears of War where you have plenty of time to focus on the reload, you tend to do this while you're dashing through a swarm of bullets or running from a charging enemy. So it's pretty stressful, but the rewards for getting it right give you extra and more damaging bullets, so -- that also begins to feel Essential. And finally, for getting to level 5 adrenaline, you get +50% of all currency found in the environment or dropped by enemies, plus a one-time shield that absorbs a hit for free. That is HUGE. And getting those bonuses is the difference between being able to afford an item in the shop or several, because the prices are rather steep -- we're talking 350 for a lot of items, 150 or 200 if it's cheaper. So when you don't get adrenaline? Or it's a particularly difficult run? You don't just feel out of a flow state, you feel starved out of parts of the economy.

The result is a game with hard swings at any point which make it engaging, but also potentially stressful. Fights can go from hopeless to cakewalk or back in the span of just a few seconds. But what I really enjoy about this setup?

The environments in the game are all varied and look rather distinct from one another. Biome 5 and 6 especially.
The environments in the game are all varied and look rather distinct from one another. Biome 5 and 6 especially.

Returnal Depends on the Player's Mastery of the Mechanics to Progress

Roguelikes have evolved in an interesting way this past decade or so. When the Rogue renaissance first started picking up in earnest with Binding of Isaac and FTL, these games leaned heavily into the player's own skill and adaptability being the main driver of progression. For example, when you start a new run in Isaac or FTL, the only difference is your knowledge of the game's items, and hopefully, your skill in the gameplay. Isaac especially is all about "what does that pill do? Oh, it sucks, great," and then knowing not to pick it up on a future run. FTL has different ships that unlock over time, and Isaac allows you to unlock new characters, but these are each just variations on the core gameplay, and no one ship or character is going to just make the game easier. Risk of Rain 2 is similar, the only progression being new characters and items.

Contrast this with the contemporary etiquette for roguelikes with examples like Dead Cells, Hades, and Rogue Legacy, which allow you to carry permanent upgrades from run to run -- health, damage, etc. This has the positive effect of making players feel like they have something to work toward -- even the most botched run gives them X amount of experience or gold or whatever toward unlocking the next permanent upgrade that'll make their future runs just a little bit easier. It makes sense, and given the universal acclaim for these games, it obviously works and resonates with players. But here's the thing, and this may be the hottest take in this essay:

I really, really don't like this.

I've beaten Dead Cells and Hades, and while I acknowledge that both of them, Hades especially, are objectively amazing games -- Hades' art, story, gameplay are all (chef's kiss) -- this progression system kind of encourages some of the most boring play patterns possible. It encourages grinding to make future runs easier. It reminds me of early days Dark Souls advice to grind with the Drake Sword to buff your stats -- yes, that technically works, and yes, it makes the game easier, but is that actually any fun? No! The answer is absolutely not. (It might not surprise you at this point that Sekiro is one of my favorite From games, simply for that precision of focus and discouragement from boring play.)

So when I'm beating Hades for the tenth time to get the actual ending, if not the truest true ending, I don't actually feel accomplished, I feel like I put in the minimum number of hours to make the experience easier for me. Genuinely, I have no clue how much better at the game I got, I just know my health bar is bigger and I have more lives. And it's not like Hades doesn't have that high skill ceiling -- speedruns of that game are amazing and the builds can get really wild and fun -- but it's just the main storyline never really asks you to engage with that as much as I'd like.

Enter Returnal, which transfers nothing between runs but potential new items to find and new routes and Metroid-esque abilities. That's it. The abilities unlock additional loot in each area, so you do get a benefit, but are still asked to engage with the game mechanics to the fullest. By the end of Returnal, you will be better at the core mechanics, to the point that when I retried the first area, I sped through the first three levels in about an hour and not feeling in danger once. It's a very rewarding curve.

Of course, this also has the flipside: if you do not get to a certain level of proficiency with the mechanics you will not have an easy time progressing. And this is what I think everyone responded to so vehemently when it came out -- they were expecting the Hades style of progression, and instead found something much more akin to Binding of Isaac.

The one thing I'll potentially call a misstep is the fact that Returnal has such an upfront story component -- something that makes players want to see your game through -- but then gating it behind such a gameplay-centric progression system. Hades might not be my favorite as a game, but it makes total sense why they made it so easy to engage with --- they knew players would want to see it through! And I think Returnal is a little cruel for not even giving people the option, or an "Easy Mode Toggle," or anything like that.

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Returnal is a Good Roguelike

Something else that surprised me was how well the roguelike mechanics worked for me. Especially in the early game, a lot of the items, weapons, and bonuses feel kind of samey, but once you unlock stuff in the later games some very specialized builds can come about. Melee builds, adrenaline builds, lifegain builds, shield-heavy builds, these are all doable and change your playstyle a fair bit. Plus, the ways you can synergize between parasites and abilities is really neat -- for example, some parasites give you substantial bonuses but increase your Alt-Fire cooldown. This is usually a bad thing, but some abilities give you +10% armor when your alt-fire is on cooldown. So these two go very well together, and I think all of Returnal's abilities are very intelligently set up like this. I think the closest comparison to an RPG I could make is Borderlands -- the upgrades appear very dry and statistical, but they can result in some fun, broken builds. But if you're expecting any crazy upgrades like Risk of Rain, you'll be disappointed.

Another surprise is there's more weapon variety than I was led to believe at first. The pistol and assault rifle feel pretty similar, but there's some big changes to both that can happen that change the feel quite a bit. (High Caliber fires slow and heavy rounds, where Rising Pitch makes the assault rifle feel more like a rapid fire LMG.) Aside from those, late game guns get more interesting. My favorite is the Electropylon Driver, which shoots out pylons that create webs of electricity around them -- this lets you shoot enemies offensively and put down traps near yourself defensively, but it's also a genuinely viable and powerful weapon.

The Story...

...is fine. The world and feel and tone are incredibly promising, and there are some creepy atmospheric sequences, but the actual resolution and payoff is underwhelming. I don't want to spend all this time learning about a cool, creepy alien planet only to learn it was all a fever dream. Seriously, I thought writers were past this!

I Don't Know How to Wrap This Up

So yeah! This is a little more scattershot than the stuff I usually write up on here, but I just finished the game and truly loved my time with it, so I wanted to get this all out there while my opinions were still fresh. I totally get why some people bounced off of it so hard, but I think a fair bit of that had to do with the nonexistent save system. If you're interested, I say check it out! But maybe on a sale, because $70 is a lot.

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Resident Evil Village: 7 Was Not a Fluke

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Can we take a moment and admire the total renaissance Resident Evil is experiencing right now?

From about 2012 (Resident Evil 6) to 2016, the series felt, for all intents and purposes, dead. The action slant that had begun with the brilliant Resident Evil 4—its innovative over the shoulder camera (something something Killswitch did it first something) combined with its taut pacing creating a tense experience that could not be put down—had devolved into straight-up action in 5, and into schlock in 6. 6 has its defenders, usually in the “well Resident Evil was always dumb!” “it’s so bad it’s funny!” and “the combat wasn’t that bad!” camps. But mooooooost people, especially older Resident Evil fans, saw it for what it was—the end of the series as we knew it.

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Until Resident Evil 7. I can’t tell you how invigorating it felt when that came out—all the promotional material leading to its release pointed to it being an also-ran Amnesia or PT wannabe, so imagine what a pleasant surprise it was when it turned out to be a classic god-damn Resident Evil game. More so than 4. It wasn’t without its problems, (that last third, oof,) but the first-person perspective of 7 translated surprisingly well to the slower paced, clunky combat of RE1-3, and the emphasis on exploration. Now, the looting involved much cleverer hiding spots, with valuables beneath beds and in dark corners you’d never look at twice in old Resident Evil. Finally, the explicit Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead inspirations brought the series back to its long-abandoned B-movie roots.

It wasn’t perfect. But Resident Evil was alive again, dammit.

Then the Resident Evil 2 remake came along and reinvigorated what classic third-person Resident Evil could be again, as well, with the brilliant re-imagination of Mr. X tying into—and I don’t say this lightly—perfect gameplay loop. Of course, Resident Evil 3 remake was a bit of a dud, but not for lack of competence. It was well-made, just pulling from worse source material than 2. So in 3 years, we had 3 back-to-back competent Resident Evil games, and 2 of them were some of the best the series had ever seen.

So, you can imagine my excitement and creeping dread when it was announced that Resident Evil: Village—the next installment in the first-person branch of the series—would take its primary inspiration from Resident Evil 4.

Look, About Resident Evil 4…

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Now, don’t get me wrong, Resident Evil 4 was my introduction to the series as a whole. I love it to pieces. I’ve played it to completion 4 times on the Wii, 3 times on the Xbox 360 re-release, and 3 times on the most recent PC HD remaster. I’ve even considered getting the Switch version. But despite the special place 4 holds in my heart, I had come to acknowledge that it pretty much helped kill the series. That, what made it truly great, despite its action leanings, was how the feel and design of that combat made even a pitched fight with dozens of enemies feel like a scene from a horror film, and no game after managed to strike the same balance. The lack of movement while aiming, the constrained camera, and the premium placed on deliberate placement of shots (aim for the knee or the head, always,) did the impossible and made action still feel tense. Plus, the pacing was just perfectly set to always overwhelm you. And attempting that lightning in a bottle combination of action and horror again with Village? Good fucking luck.

The early footage and demos didn’t help my anxiety, either. The additional focus on combat, while still building on the intentionally clunky foundation of 7—with its emphasis on blocking I never truly got, other than as an acknowledgement of “yeah, you’ll get hit, a lot,”—seemed like a poor fit to me.

And then it came out a few days ago, and here I am, having finished it in two sittings, and with a foot in my mouth, again. Because Resident Evil: Village rules. I have a lot of problems with it, mind you, but it still firmly falls in the “good” Resident Evil camp.

The Story in Like Two Seconds

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It’s fine. A lot has been made of Chris being a “villain,” which if you have two brain cells or can remember any marketing about a hero being a villain in any game before (coughcough Halo 5 cough), you will know how that turns out.

I do enjoy the characters a lot, especially the goofy bosses of the village. Dr. Moreau might be an all-timer, who just oozes (literally) pathetic energy and pity. A lot has been made of tall-vampire-lady Dimitrescu, and yeah, she chews up the scenery every chance she gets, and it’s wonderful. But on the whole, the story’s just there to get you from tense encounter to tense encounter with as little friction as possible.

SPOILERS:

As far as its place in the greater Resident Evil lore, I think Village suffers from the ever-increasing “Russian doll” effect of “no, really, this is where Umbrella got its origin!” Like, when are we going to learn that Spencer only learned to visit the village where he saw the mold which inspired him to find the Progenitor virus in Africa because he first went to another location which will be revealed in 9? Sigh.

The ambiguity of Blue Umbrella’s intentions, and the place Chris Redfield holds in it, continues to irritate the hell out of me. Is Blue Umbrella a force for good, or not? Is Chris in it because he trusts their mission, or not? What is its relationship with the BSAA, which is implied to be stressed at the end of Village? It’s been two games, and these very basic questions are still not answered. It reminds me of this Bojack Horseman bit, where Diane is talking to a showrunner who has no idea what he’s doing: “Is the main character a ghost or not?” “IT’S AMBIGUOUS!” It’s just cowardice, honestly. The sooner the story stops wallowing in ambiguity, the sooner a more interesting story can be told.

Resident Evil IV-II

Resident Evil: Village, for better and worse, is an incredibly faithful retread of a lot of the same beats from 4. I would list every beat borrowed from 4, but that might constitute spoilers to some, so I’ll just leave it at this: any time the question is, “how did Resident Evil 4 do it?” Village responds by doing it the same way. There’s very little subversion going on in its most explicit homages. In short, you get in a boat, and hmmm what’s going to happen next? I wonder.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Village, true to its title, really improves on the design of the village and how much there is to do there as you revisit it over the course of the game. In RE4, you retreaded the village twice, and each time it was the same, just with more enemies populated for you to fight. In Village, you’re constantly returning to the village, with new abilities to unlock certain paths, new hazards to face, and new treasure you can find. The map system borrowed whole-cloth from Resident Evil 2—still one of the best maps in video game history—helps facilitate this marriage of the dense level design of old RE, with the linear spectacle of later RE. From the village hub, there are four branches, each to a different boss’ region. Some are totally linear (and are my less favorite,) but a couple are whole new multi-leveled spaces to explore and unlock secrets within over time. It really works, and the classic horror trick of revisiting old areas, only to be shocked by a new threat, works wonders.

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Village also improves on 4 in shockingly specific ways. Back in 4, there were random animals scattered around that you could, for very little reason other than verisimilitude, kill. Chickens would sometime drop eggs, cows would kick you if attacked, fish could be attacked and put in your attache case as a free (if not space efficient) health item. Now, aside from the free health, there wasn’t much use for these animals. In Village, however, a light cooking system has been added, where you can take meat, poultry, or fish, and give these ingredients to the merchant for permanent health, speed, or guarding upgrades. It’s not a big deal, but it was fun having a reason to seek out animals in the environment, especially the rare ones hidden off to the side that can help cook the most valuable meals.

Oh, by the way, you didn’t misread that a couple sentences ago—there’s a merchant in Village. He even says, “What are you buying? An old friend of mine used to say that!” Having a physical merchant is such a welcome return after the menus of 5 and the birdcages of 7, and his character is a bit more involved in the story than I would have initially expected. The Duke, as he’s called, serves as the “objective guy” more often than not, telling your protagonist, “Hmmmm, maybe check out this building?” and then Ethan saying, “Rrrr, I don’t trust you, but OKAY,” and this repeats several times and then the game’s over. That, and the character is just one long-winded fat joke.

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Grousing about the narrative delivery aside, the merchant and upgrades function almost identically to 4. Firepower, rate of fire, reload speed, and ammo capacity can all be upgraded, but like 4, you’ll find yourself not upgrading guns for (warranted) fear of better firearms showing up down the line, making your upgrades, essentially, wasted. You can still do the trick of upgrading ammo capacity when you have 0 bullets in a gun to get free ammo, which I appreciate. (Though tellingly, there’s only one magnum ammo upgrade due to this trick.) Weapons, aside from being upgraded at the merchant, can also have custom upgrade components attached to them which you find in the environment; so, even if you never put a single Lei into them in the shop, when you sell them back to the merchant they’ll have a little more resale value, which is a nice touch. Shockingly, you can buy ammo now, which feels a little sacrilegious, since I was over-replete with ammo for my entire playthrough anyway, so being able to buy more feels excessive.

On a similar disappointing note, the inventory system from 4 returns (yay) but necessary inventory management is non-existent (boo). This is a matter of taste, I suppose, since I know lots of players absolutely despise having to think about inventory space or encumbrance in general, but inventory management is a fundamental aspect of Resident Evil. It’s what drives you to make hard decisions even after every enemy is dead and you’re just looting the world. But, where 4 had this great balancing act of making your inventory feel unbearably cramped for about a chapter or 2, and then releasing that tension with a new inventory upgrade available in the shop, I feel like Village lets up the pressure too early for each inventory upgrade. Don't get me wrong, Village still scratched that itch of making me constantly organize my inventory to make it as pretty as possible, so it did something right; still, I was always in a position of buying new inventory space before I honestly needed it, and then seeing after the fact, “oh yeah, I guess I needed that!” Therefore, I didn’t think of my inventory once while picking items up, leading to a mindless hoovering of everything in the environment. It was certainly a streamlined experience, but was it Resident Evil? Ehhhhhhh…

I can't exaggerate how disgustingly large your inventory gets.
I can't exaggerate how disgustingly large your inventory gets.

And that’s honestly how I felt about a lot of Village compared to 4, whose shadow looms over every aspect of this entry, from the setting, to the focus on combat, to the upgrade loop. It’s a better game and more intelligently designed, no doubt, and there are an admirable number of quirks from 4 that have carried over for uber-fans like myself. But one too many concessions have been made for me to comfortably prefer it. The ammo situation, on Normal, is too forgiving. The inventory never makes you think. And while there are great moments throughout it, no moment in Village rises to the level of the best of what 4 had to offer. (Though there are some deliciously stupid boss fights near the end that had me cackling and turning to my friends, “are you seeing this?” To which they replied, that, yes, they were seeing this, and it was indeed incredibly stupid. But in a good way.)

The good news, however, is that we are literally comparing Village to one of the best games of all time, even if it’s inviting that comparison, and it’s coming out… okay? So how is it on its own?

Like I said earlier, great!

The Actual Game

In a vacuum, Village would best be described as a survival horror game that, like 7, walks the line between modern horror (Amnesia, run the hell away at all times, you are a powerless infant,) and older survival horror (you can fight, but have to choose your battles). Except, unlike 7, you never really have to worry about ammo on normal, and you can pretty much kill every enemy you encounter with no ammo concerns.

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It’s a good thing, then, that the enemy encounters, especially early on, are generally well done. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think they’ve decently emulated the combat loop of “shoot enemy in head, stagger them, retreat and turn to shoot again” from 4 in the first person. The guns all feel great, there’s a satisfying head pop effect on critical hits (a must for a quality Resident Evil game), and after a little futzing around, I started to get into the old flow of “stun a guy, knife him, go back to shooting.” With the more precise aiming (especially on mouse and keyboard) afforded by the first person, the design of the game compensates with even more cramped spaces and a general lack of visibility. Fog, darkness, fields of wheat, water, all of these and more will make sure that you don’t have a lot of time to react when an enemy appears, or that you’ll hear them before you see them. It’s a simple, but effective trick.

A couple of grievances with the combat linger, however. For one, a whole game later, I’m still not entirely sure what function block serves in the combat loop. I get it—if the enemy attacks you and you can’t get out of the way, you can block and take less damage. But isn’t that kind of a consolation prize of “hey, here’s the chance to fuck up slightly less?” I never found that fully satisfying, and easy enough to ignore. It wasn’t until a late-game encounter that I discovered you can actually push enemies back when they hit you with an attack, which gives me fuzzy “Leon S. Kennedy roundhouse kick” feelings, and it’s a very welcome crowd control tool, in a game that can honestly use more of them.

Except not? The design of some of the spaces, especially later ones, resort to either throwing a gaggle of enemies at you, or are too forgiving to the point of letting you stand still and headshot three enemies to death before they ever get close to you. So, in theory, I wish there were more crowd control options in this game, but I never really needed them, so…

It’s here that I feel it’s important to say I played the game on Normal, and while I wouldn’t call myself a Resident Evil expert by any means, that was apparently too easy an experience for me to enjoy like a Resident Evil game. I’m planning to replay Village soon on Hardcore, which I’m sure (or hope) addresses a lot of these concerns.

You'll fight every one of these guys. Ha, nah, this is just a visual metaphor. But really, though.
You'll fight every one of these guys. Ha, nah, this is just a visual metaphor. But really, though.

I implied it a little earlier, but this game falls into the same trap that every modern Resident Evil appears to—ending on a really stupidly bombastic note. After, say, the third of four bosses is defeated, the game just starts chucking enemy after enemy at you in an attempt to test your combat prowess, but really just giving you a chance to fling about the disgusting amounts of ammo you’ve hoarded up by that point. There’s nothing as egregious as the boat sequence from 7, but they’re never as engaging as the earlier encounters. Now, there are two moments that are so stupid they come back around to kind of working, but for the most part, I just sort of rolled my eyes and went, “I guess we’re in this part of these games, now.”

A slightly more successful attempt to mix things up is present in some of the game’s unkillable foes. Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters will stalk you through their castle, and those are some effective scenes. I was continually shocked how much the devs were willing to put even Ethan “My Wife Chainsawed my Hand Off” Winters through in terms of body horror in that section, but it works. A similar, if less effective section involves a creepy doll that makes you hallucinate things. You already know what that is. There’s one genuinely unsettling image from that section, but it’s the kind of thing that’s only going to be a pain to replay on subsequent playthroughs. I can see myself now, just sprinting past the creepy monster—“can I get back to the game now?” But it’s fine enough on an initial run.

Legally, I cannot call this a review of Resident Evil: Village without at least one screenshot of Lady Dimitrescu.
Legally, I cannot call this a review of Resident Evil: Village without at least one screenshot of Lady Dimitrescu.

This is also a gorgeous game that runs well. There’s a running joke in my friend group that “snow levels in games are the best levels,” and Village has a snowy mountainside aesthetic I never tired of. Again, things get a little more generic by the end—an industrial setting at the end of a Resident Evil game, wow, so original—but for the most part, it’s a looker. I found the basic enemy design (the Lycan-esque humanoids) to be great, and a lot of the other enemies to be a little lackluster. Here’s a guy in a robe with a sickle. Here’s a naked zombie guy with a sickle. Here’s a buff man with a big axe. Here’s a buff man with a big hammer who has more hair. It’s an improvement on 7’s mold guys, but… not by much.

Despite all these complaints, I really did enjoy my time with Village, and the pacing of it is fantastic. I just didn’t want to put this thing down, to the point of playing for 3 hours starting in the evening when it first unlocked on Steam, to playing the rest of it in one day the day after. The loop of “fight enemies, scavenge an area, use new tools to unlock sections of old areas, return to merchant to upgrade, fight enemies,” just kept me engrossed throughout.

Resident Evil Continues

I remember, after having finished 7, I had a moment of cynicism. I thought to myself, “this is great, but they can only hit the reset button once here.” In other words, bringing the series back to the original—in this case, RE1—can only be done once, and after that, you have to start introducing new things again, and risk making the exact same, or worse mistakes, as you did before. (See here, rebooted Star Trek.) And after finishing 7, I worried that the series wouldn’t maintain its momentum.

So, one new entry later, and here we are. I can say confidently that 7 was not a fluke, and this incarnation of the series is here to stay for some time. I can point to lots of little disappointments that make me, overall, still call 4 my favorite entry in the series, followed closely by Resident Evil 2 Remake, but Village does so much more right than wrong. It gets the pacing right, the tension right, the combat right, and the level design right. In short, it hits the nail on the head in the moment-to-moment experience, which probably contributed to how quickly I played it. And even after finishing it, I want to dive back in.

There were a couple secrets I missed, a few ways I could optimize my upgrade and ammo situation, ways to challenge myself on higher difficulties, and plenty of fun unlocks for new runs. Village has me excited to download it the way I downloaded 4—learn every nook and cranny and play through it blindfolded—and for all my complaints, it’s so nice to feel that again. To feel like this is not only a game I can master, but is worth mastering.

But seriously, you can’t rotate items upside down in the inventory? How the hell can you call this a successor to RE4 without the ability to organize your inventory entirely flipped like an imbecile?

Oh god, this inventory. Okay, I just need everyone to know, I found this on the internet. This is not my inventory. I'm not responsible for this nightmare. I keep a good, clean setup with one block of guns, one block of ammo, then one block of grenades, and a block of health, with the ammo all grouped together in the same orientation organized left to right in the same order as their corresponding weapons. I'm not a MONSTER, okay!?
Oh god, this inventory. Okay, I just need everyone to know, I found this on the internet. This is not my inventory. I'm not responsible for this nightmare. I keep a good, clean setup with one block of guns, one block of ammo, then one block of grenades, and a block of health, with the ammo all grouped together in the same orientation organized left to right in the same order as their corresponding weapons. I'm not a MONSTER, okay!?

If you read all the way down here, thanks! This one was slightly less holistic/artsy fartsy than my other essays because my impressions of this game are still so recent. I'm looking forward to getting back into Village on higher difficulties and seeing how the new Mercenaries mode stacks up, but if you enjoyed what you read, I have more essays over at my blog, Lapses in Taste.

It's a really recent release, but how have y'all found Resident Evil: Village so far? Expectations exceeded? Met? Undershot? Still miss "old" Resident Evil, whatever that qualifies as in 2021?

40 Comments

Hunt: Showdown and Encouraging Design

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“Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” –Soren Johnson

A while ago, I posted a lengthy diatribe against Cyberpunk 2077. I had plenty of issues with it: the story didn’t resonate with me, the gameplay wore out its welcome before I had finished all of its quests, and I left feeling that the experience was empty—not just in the lack of thematic follow-through, but in the lack of meaningful interactions in Night City itself. One point that came out of the resulting discussion in the comments was that Cyberpunk is potentially more enjoyable if you play mostly the critical path, and don’t go out of your way to find all the side-quests in the world. However, the game encourages you, nay, pushes you to engage with this additional content, through the pushy text messages, through the “wait for this person to call” gaps in the main storyline giving you space to explore the world. Yet, once you do, you find some of the weakest content in the game.

So, this raised a fundamental question about game design—is there such a thing as playing a game wrong? And how much of that onus is on the player, or the developer?

To answer that question, let’s talk real quick about XCOM.

The Achilles Heel of Modern XCOM

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Make no mistake: the 2012 XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game. At the time, it felt like a minor miracle for XCOM fans, especially in the wake of The Bureau, a misguided attempt to turn the XCOM universe into a third person squad-based shooter.

And! As someone who tried to get into the original game, but bounced off due to the overwhelming number of options and punishing difficulty, XCOM 2012 was perfect for me. Even just the UI and moment-to-moment combat was so streamlined, while retaining the essential difficulty and drama of the original. It was far less punishing—but it felt like XCOM any time you accidentally activated a pod of 4 Mutons or missed a 93% shot. This is not to mention the incredible meta-layer either, which smartly presents one new mechanic or consideration at a time, until eventually you’re juggling power, satellite capacity, research and upgrades, terror levels, and of course, money. In the best way, there was always a clear next step or thing you needed, and this combination of carrots and sticks made it very easy to just—keep—playing for hours on end. (For me, both the original and the expansion on PC and iPad.)

There was, however, a big issue, one that made itself more evident as a run would veer into the late game. This is far from an original observation, but as the player’s squad members got stronger and stronger, and the only way enemies could meet this upgraded firepower was with comically oversized health bars, XCOM got less interesting as it progressed. A Berserker is a melee only Muton with a big health bar. A Sectopod is a Chryssalid that does more damage and has more health. An Ethereal is a juiced up Sectoid that—again—has more health.

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On top of that, while levelling up individual soldiers created stronger attachments to those soldiers (and therefore more drama when they died,) it did also encourage a lot of players to hold on to their first six soldiers for dear life. They wouldn’t bring new recruits because, hey, you want to bring the best soldiers for the best chances of winning. Then, having only 6 sets of high-powered equipment is cheaper than keeping replacements on hand, which gives you more money for upgrades. BUT. Once you’ve committed to this playstyle, if more than one of your original soldiers dies, it’s almost crippling. On non Iron Man playthroughs, this encourages save-scumming (the practice of saving on every round and retrying it to get the perfect outcome).

Of course, this is a problem for new players, mostly. More experienced players (or Iron Man players) will know to take the financial hit and have a large pool of soldiers and equipment. Yet even the most skilled players (I think of watching a streamer called Tornis play Impossible Iron Man runs) run into issues of passivity. The best thing to do, without question, is to Overwatch five members of your squad and send one forward as a scout. Even better if you only activate one pod of enemies at a time. On the late-game longer alien ship levels, this is a curse, as you inch forward one movement distance (without dashing, mind you) at a time. This is an honestly boring way to play once your crew is levelled up; victory in combat is a tedious inevitability, rather than a precarious uncertainty.

So, XCOM is a great game, but it had this glaring flaw, and its designers noticed. So, when XCOM 2 was released in 2016, a change was implemented to encourage a different playstyle.

And people hated it.

Punishing vs. Encouraging Design

Note: I’m borrowing a fair bit of this section from the Game Maker’s Toolkit.

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In base XCOM 2, almost every mission has some kind of ticking clock. “Extract in 12 turns or everyone is captured!” “Destroy this object in 7 turns or the mission is lost!” “Enemy reinforcements will arrive in 2 turns!” It makes sense thematically, at least, as XCOM is now a resistance force on an Alien-occupied Earth. Personally, I really dug this. Like many players, I will chronically choose the least fun option or playstyle if it is the most efficient or materially rewarding in a game, and this change in XCOM 2 helped protect me from myself. Honestly, I loved the base game so much more than the original. I was taking risks and making insane plays that made for great stories, when before, I would just play as safely as possible. Even failing under this new system was fun, as one of my best snipers, the Papa Bear figure of the squad, stayed back to hold off the aliens as the rest of my squad evacuated. Many in-game hours later, I rescued him from a prison, but he had to readjust to an XCOM that had been forced to move on from him.

I’m apparently in the minority though, as most players hated the new time pressure. For players who enjoyed a safer playstyle, the timers felt like an unnecessary punishment for what they found fun. Jake Solomon in an interview mentioned that this change was implemented because, in his view, the best way to play XCOM is when you’re taking risks, and the timer was a brute force way to achieve this goal. But while it works to change the best way to play, unquestionably, it didn’t feel great for a lot of people. And “feel” is one of the most important aspects of game design.

Game Maker’s Toolkit brings up how the designers could have rewarded fast play, rather than punish slower play. What if you got extra resources for getting out of the mission quickly? What about a system similar to Enemy Within’s Meld caches that shut down after a couple of turns on the map? I haven’t played War of the Chosen yet, but I hear lots of good things about the changes they made.

Given a choice, I think most people would prefer being rewarded in a game instead of being punished. And Hunt: Showdown, Crytek’s cowboy battle royale-like, does this very, very well.

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The Mechanics of One Round in Hunt: Showdown

Since this February, I’ve been playing Hunt: Showdown near nonstop, at least a few times a week with a group of friends, and 100 hours in, I’m pretty sure this is a near-perfect game.

Hunt: Showdown is a 12 player PvPvE battle royale set in an alternate historical Louisiana, 1895, in which zombies and all kinds of other monsters have overrun the bayou. You (and up to 2 squad members) have to kill a monster on the map, and extract from the map with your bounty while other hunters vie to do the same. This is a neat concept, and just from screenshots you can see that the aesthetic of this game is dripping with style, but where Hunt excels most is in how the ruleset encourages players to play in the most exciting way, every round.

I sure hope you didn't drop at Military Base.
I sure hope you didn't drop at Military Base.

From the beginning, you’ll notice that Hunt lacks the usual “circle of death” that defines most battle royale games. Now, why that circle of death is there in say, PUBG, makes perfect sense. On such large maps with so many players, it’s necessary to funnel them all into the same space to force conflict. Much like XCOM 2’s turn timer, this works in a brute force way. People get smooshed together on the map, and players who refuse to stick to the game’s timing for too long will die as the circle damages them. However, there are a few unavoidable kinks in the system.

First, there is an element of randomness to the circle. Depending on where you dropped on the map and where the first or second circle spawns, you may spend a long time just running, searching for a vehicle, or driving. Or on the other hand, you may find yourself at the center of the circle, and just sit there for a few minutes. This is mitigated as there’s less space to cover, but it can severely impact a round. Second, the timer, combined with the loot drops, make success in the game mostly an arms race—whoever can get the best equipment before the final circles, either from looting houses or defeating other squads. Thirdly, if the Sacriel streams I watched were any indication, the circle of death could be circumvented with enough health items, so skilled players could get a long free looting period in the best areas of the map, simply by staying outside the radius longer.

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Hunt accomplishes the same consolidation of players with a different system—the clues and bounties. Since the primary goal of the game is not to be the last player standing, but simply to extract a bounty, players naturally congregate into the same areas without the need for such a strict boundary as “a circle that kills you if you’re not in it.” To find the boss, each squad has to find 3 clues (less if they accidentally stumble on the boss lair earlier), and each clue highlights a smaller area on the map to explore. Now, there’s still some randomness—I’ve definitely had games where my team spawns right next to a boss to begin with—but for reasons I’ll explain later, it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of each match nearly as much. Players also bring in their own loadouts, rather than starting unequipped and having to scrounge for items, so the experience is completely focused on “get the bounties and get out,” rather than the competing priorities of “kill guys, get into the circle, find new gear” of most battle royales.

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Of course, as the area you need to search shrinks, your likelihood of running into another squad increases, and Hunt goes to greater lengths than its battle royale peers to make this presence known. Sound plays a crucial role throughout the entire map, to the extent that parts of Hunt play like a light stealth game. It takes one of my favorite parts of PUBG—tracking other players—and creates more concrete ways to do so. There are ambient zombies and monsters lingering around compounds on the map, all of which will unavoidably make some noise as you draw their aggro and kill them, but you learn quickly there are louder and quieter ways to deal with NPCs. A gun shot is obviously the loudest way to deal with a zombie, but a knife, while the zombie will growl at you, takes them out much more discreetly. A silenced pistol or throwing knife before a zombie even notices you, though? You’re golden. But it’s not just monsters or gunshots that can give your presence away—the map itself is littered with sound hazards. Murders of crows sit on fences and wires, just waiting to fly up into the air cawing if you sprint too close to them, water fowl can be scared in a similar way. Then, within compounds themselves, there are micro cues that don’t reveal your position from 100 meters away, but can be fatal when two squads are occupying the same area—bits of broken glass on the ground, chains hanging from the ceiling that clink as you walk through them, empty cans that rattle as you walk over them. Different materials also create different levels of noise, so if you’re walking through water or on a metallic roof, you’ll make a lot more noise than crouching on dirt.

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Thanks to bounties, not player kills, being the objective, when you hear another squad nearby, it’s a much freer choice between sneaking away from those players or choosing to fight them. If you fight, you’ll find that Hunt is a tense, methodically paced shooter that rewards positioning more than split-second aiming (though it can come down to that, of course). Especially early on, weapons are slow-firing revolvers, repeaters, and bolt action rifles with high damage that reward landing your shots, but give players ample time to retreat and heal themselves if their opponent isn’t aggressive. The range of these older weapons also tends to create mostly mid-range engagements, as at close range, guns are less a guaranteed kill and more an opportunity for the enemy to pull out a knife and stab you (melee weapons are very effective in this game). Guns aside, Hunt is up there with CounterStrike for the utility of its tools and grenades. A swarm of bugs in a jar that chases and poisons the nearest player, Molotov cocktails, choke bombs that can put out fires and prevent the fuse on sticks of dynamite from being lit, trip mines that spring up barbed wire when activated—entire fights can be decided with smart item usage. In team fights, players can be revived multiple times, but an incapacitated player that has been set on fire will eventually be dead for good. With this combination of weapons, tools, and the increased emphasis on sounds during teamfights, every engagement is tense and rewarding.

This changes a bit as later weapons are unlocked, more modern-feeling arms such as semi-automatic shotguns, scoped rifles like the Mosin-Nagant that increase the range of an engagement substantially, or semi-automatic pistols like the Bornheim or Dolch, which take a lot of the tension out of gunfights and make “spraying and praying” a legitimate option. But, aside from that power creep, Hunt does an admirable job of making every weapon a viable option, and having very few, if any, straight-up bad options to bring into a firefight.

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Wisely, the bosses themselves are not difficult to kill, as they have a reasonable amount of health and simple attack patterns. The spider will crawl around on the walls and ceiling and leap to attack. The Butcher, a large monster wearing a pig head and butcher’s smock while waving a flaming hook, will chase and swipe at the players in a straight line, but Choke Bombs can put out the hook so he doesn’t set the player on fire. The Assassin darts around as a swarm of bugs before reforming as a solid foe to melee attack or ranged attack players. And the newest addition, Scrapbeak, is a scavenging crow monster that will throw down barbed wire to limit player movement while trying to melee attack the player.

Once the boss has been defeated, there’s a prolonged “banishing” period of a few minutes where the entire map can see that a boss has been defeated, where it is, and that you’re attempting to harvest its bounty. This naturally creates a “King of the Hill”-esque moment in the round, as the Banishing squad starts placing trip mines and bear traps at entrances to the compound (or maybe you want to ambush approaching squads from an unexpected angle further up?), and attacking squads attempt to siege the building. These fights are intense, as the defending squad has every motivation to stay in the same area, no matter how hard the fighting gets, and the attacking squad is motivated to defeat the defenders before they are done banishing the boss, because whoever picks up the bounty gets Dark Sight.

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Dark Sight, before banishing the boss, is essentially a detective vision that lets you see where clues are in the distance with a blue glow. But once you pick up a boss’ bounty, Dark Sight lets you also see where other players are for 5 seconds. Whoever has it possesses a large advantage in team fights, motivating players to kill a squad before they get their hands on, basically, sanctioned wall hacks. But once a bounty is picked up, the bearer has not only wall hacks, but a permanent mark on the map for every squad to see their general location.

Now, whether or not the squad with the bounty has won a fight, they have to get to one of three extraction points on the map and hold it for 30 uncontested seconds to leave. This gives other squads one last chance to catch them, as they can see where they’re headed by the bounty marker on the map. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of fights at extraction points, there are few things as thrilling as keeping your head down as bullets whiz by and the timer counts down, or downing a member of an enemy squad just as they’re about to escape. Truly devilish minds (my friend group has only pulled it off once) can place mines at the extraction and lay out an ambush ahead of time for an extracting squad.

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Sometimes, there are two bosses, and therefore two bounties on a map. This spreads the fighting out a bit, and can lead to some ho-hum rounds if every other squad decides to fight over a different bounty than the one you picked up, but that’s a rarity at higher levels, as people are much less “immersed” in just surviving, and more prone to get into fights. The one bounty maps can get hectic quickly, as I’ve had fights with four squads at once in one compound—and this is where positioning and maneuvering come to the forefront, as moving smartly can be the difference between squads fighting each other and two squads ganging up on you.

It’s understandable why some players want to play safely though—as harsh as the combat and stealth in Hunt are, it’s even harsher when you account for the fact that the game has permadeath.

Well, sort of.

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Individual characters and loadouts in Hunt are plentiful, yet disposable. If you die, your character, with all their perks and equipment, is gone forever. But, recruiting more hunters is cheap and infinite, as you can, even if you’re flat broke on in-game currency, recruit one free hunter for every round. The real expenses come in the form of later game weapons and items, which cost a lot more, creating more of a CounterStrike-esque economy (as Super Bunnyhop mentions) than an actual rogue-like permadeath. Once an item is unlocked, it can be purchased as many times as you can afford it. That being said, if there’s a fault I can take with the game, it’s the later game weapons and the implication of the menus that your character’s life is far more valuable than it actually is. It doesn’t help that the menus are pretty clunky to buy new equipment—you can’t save and buy your favorite loadouts at the press of a button, the best you can do is favorite anything you actually want to buy and scroll through that list instead. It just means that there’s an extra minute between rounds that’s unnecessary.

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Otherwise, though, I have no complaints with this game. It’s gorgeous, its aesthetic and world serve the gameplay and design, and it’s just a masterclass of objective design in multiplayer games in general. Maybe I’ve rambled too much, but in short: the design fluidly encourages players to come into conflict with each other, ambush each other, have tense standoffs with each other, in a way that no other battle royale does quite as effectively. Plus, it does all of this while keeping the player firmly in the driver’s seat and making them feel like they are being proactive in charge. The clues are a natural reward and motivation, the bosses and bounties are natural motivations, and the best rewards the player can get come from playing in a fun way, rather than punishing the player for not sticking to the pace the game demands. I haven’t even gotten to some of the more interesting monster types throughout the world, or how consistently the rules of items, monsters, and players interact with each other in an almost Breath of the Wild way.

If you like tactical shooters, multiplayer shooters, or are even mildly interested in what I’ve described here, I highly recommend checking out Hunt: Showdown. It’s really damn good.

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And did I mention gorgeous?

23 Comments

Cyberpunk 2077: A Candle in Sunshine [OPEN SPOILERS]

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Yes, this many months later, we’re still talking about Cyberpunk. Or at least, I still have some thoughts on it. I completely understand if anyone doesn’t want to read another hot take on the matter—I’m exhausted too—but I’m hoping that with this sober distance, a slightly more productive conversation around this game can take place. That, and I can’t stop myself from writing something longer about Cyberpunk. This isn’t enthusiastic inspiration from the Muse, mind you – more like one of those nagging errands that just keeps picking at the back of your head, week after week, month after month, until you finally clean your damn shed and find rats living there.

I beat Cyberpunk 2077 a month ago. After months of having to react to the controversy of the day—and there was always a new one for a while there—there’s a chance to construct and articulate my own thoughts, rather than react to the newest thing. So as much as I’d prefer not to, because I’m already so tired of this game, I feel the need to write this up, and hopefully I never have to think about it again.

A Disclaimer

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I'm not going to jump into the trans discussion in this piece—I've already done that plenty in the forums, and I want to discuss the game as a whole. The critiques thrown CDPR's way are valid, and I don't think it's very controversial to say that those of us unfamiliar with why someone could be uncomfortable should listen to the trans people this affects? Rather than reflexively say, "well I didn't see anything wrong with it." Between Cyberpunk, Last of Us Part 2, and Hogwarts Legacy, a cynical part of me wonders if 2020 was the year "gamers" learned that trans people exist—any sort of phobia or misinformation is nothing more than studied ignorance, after all. Sure, they were aware that transgender folks existed, but they never really had to confront those transgender folks actually being in "their" games and speaking openly about wanting better representation. The "discourse" around this issue occurring in gaming communities is less a conversation and more one side speaking while the other holds their hands over their ears yelling "lalalalalalala I can't hear you!" That's not to say there aren't productive conversations to have about transgender representation in games, it's just that... those tend to happen between people who give a shit. And there's a small, yet vocal subset of game fans who clearly don't, which made my time attempting to explain the issue in these forums straight up exhausting. (Ironically, it's often those who say, "I really just want someone to explain what the actual problem is," who are looking for no such thing.)

To that subset: don't worry, I'm not going to talk about it at all for the rest of this piece. If you genuinely want to talk about this, feel free to DM me.

With that out of the way...

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Where Do We Even Start

Someone must have made this comparison already, but Cyberpunk has so much going on, and yet so little, that it can act like a Rorschach test for whoever’s talking about it. Post-release, there are so many tire fires surrounding and within the game that which one you want to talk about is, in itself an important decision that frames the entire discussion. To paraphrase a few I’ve seen: is Cyberpunk the beginning of better consumer protections and refund policies in video games? The end of day one patches? A watershed moment to rethink how we over-hype games in our marketing (like this great piece from Gamer_152 focuses on)? A tipping point in the deep ugliness of some video game fandoms, willing to trigger epilepsies in folks who dare point out issues in the game they’re tilting at windmills for? Is it the death of modern CDPR’s reputation? Or, just focusing on the game outside of its cultural context, is it just an okay game that was over-hyped? Or a masterpiece flawed by its rushed production schedule and botched console release?

I want to talk about that last bit, particularly, because in the second wave of Cyberpunk critiques online, I’ve seen this sentiment pop up more and more often—that this is an incredible game marred by technical issues. Implying, or outright saying, if you have a modern PC this is going to be a great experience.

That is absolutely not the case.

A Seemingly Random but Actually Crucial Tangent on In N Out

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Like a lot of y’all, I live in California. Around here we have a chain of burger places called In N Out. It’s alright! I enjoy the Double Double, I think the fries are kinda thin papery garbage that turn to ash in your mouth, and drinking their milkshake is a near-masochistic experience as you punish your throat with some of the densest ice cream and dairy you’ve ever tried to suck through a straw. Seriously, you need the suction force of say, an airplane’s cabin decompressing to get the last of the milkshake out through a straw. So, not the best burger place here, but an alright option, and I admit that it is synonymous with the West Coast.

However, when I went to college on the East Coast, where no In N Out locations exist, the franchise took on an almost messianic unattainable quality. New York kids who had never been to one wished they had been, and the Cali kids who went to school there claimed that it was the best burger place ever, egging on this disproportionate, platonic ideal of fast food burgers. Heck, when an In N Out wrapper was found in Queens and photographed for Twitter, a full-on amateur Twitter investigation was commenced (the perp was found—they had brought In N Out on their flight from San Diego) It was fascinating to watch a fast food chain become some kind of symbol or totem to these guys, and when it came time for me to weigh in on these conversations, I’d just say that I liked it to not rain on their parade. Inaccessibility, paired with some overenthusiastic evangelists, created unrealistic expectation for In N Out, when Five Guys was sitting right there! (Five Guys is the best fast food burger, don’t @ me)

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A similar phenomenon is brewing around Cyberpunk on the PC. The luxurious trailer footage of Cyberpunk, paired with the kitchen sink of PC graphics features and technologies, (DLSS! SharpeningFX! RTX! THE GAME OF THE FUTURE IS NOW!) has created this impression that the game is some kind of technical marvel or juggernaut, that those with PCs capable of running it are lucky to have. Again: inaccessibility + overenthusiastic evangelists = bloated expectations.

Because I can convince myself it helps me with work, but really because I’m wasteful with my money, I have one of the fastest consumer PCs one can build right now. I have an RTX 3090 paired with a Ryzen 5950x (the extra cores do genuinely help with compile times), with 64 GB of RAM. In other words, I have burned disgusting amounts of money for the privilege of playing Cyberpunk in its utmost glory, and I can tell you what that’s like in one sentence.

It’s a mess.

Sorry guys, Cyberpunk is rough on every platform. In order to run the game smoothly at 60 frames a second, you have to crank DLSS waaaaaay up. DLSS is not a “feature” here, but a necessity. At upscaled 4k, with everything on, and raytracing set to medium, you’re looking at a wildly uneven 60. At DLSS set to “Performance” or “Ultra-Performance” you get a semblance of the framerate you’d want from a PC game, minus frequent CPU spikes from driving around the open world taking you down to 40 FPS, but the image is genuinely really grainy. Cyberpunk uses a lot of resolution-dependent effects, so a lot of the smoke, lights, and distant environments can look fuzzy and blurred when you have DLSS leaning all the way into performance. On the other end of the scale, DLSS Quality and Balanced modes look far sharper, but the game’s performance tanks into 30ish territory again. Even turning down the resolution target from 4k to say, 1440p or 1080p doesn’t get you the performance you’d want. (It gets to like, 70-80, but still uneven.) Because of these headaches, I spent my entire playthrough ping-ponging between “Balanced, Performance, Ultra-Performance” and “RTX Off, RTX Medium, RTX Psycho”, and was never satisfied with any of them, either due to the framerate or the muddiness of the image.

There are a lot of colors here! They just all get turned orange/brown by the daytime lighting.
There are a lot of colors here! They just all get turned orange/brown by the daytime lighting.

Once you look past all of that, and turn off the chromatic aberration, motion blur, and film grain, (or like me, turn everything up to native 4k and highest settings for a 12 FPS slideshow and “science”,) the game as a whole is still… ugly. Some of that could be the art style, one that embraces brown, gray, and orange industrial wastelands when it’s not using every nit of brightness on your monitor for the neon urban areas, but it’s probably more likely a “death by a thousand cuts” kind of deal. There are areas that stand out (the opening hotel heist, the parade, downtown, Afterlife, WOW,) but the primarily color I remember is brown, and a constant over-bloom lighting effect. And say what you will about Crysis, a game that also brought hardware to its knees in its day, but it also looked damn good in exchange. This, though? Feels less worth the tradeoff.

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Even from an artistic, rather than technical standpoint, Cyberpunk disappoints. A common sentiment is that this is partly the fault of the source material—that by attempting to be the ur-Cyberpunk game based on one of its oldest pen and paper incarnations, what used to be transgressive now just appears generic. That may be part of it, but when I read Neuromancer or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’m not just enjoying them because they “did it first” in some bizarre dibs-calling on the entire genre. I’m enjoying them even today because they have something to say, and the world backs up their messages. In Cyberpunk, the most prominent visual landmark at any time is the architecture of Night City itself, but this architecture, while there’s a lot of it, misses the mark. I highly recommend reading this architect’s critique of Cyberpunk’s spaces—but in short, Night City has the aesthetic of raw functionality, but isn’t actually serving any function, turning the architecture into a glamour. Mind you, a “glamour” in the older sense of the word: an illusion, a spell. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. All games are smoke and mirrors. It’s just that with stuff like this (see below) all over the place, likely the result of crunch, this spell breaks all the time. For a game that relies so heavily on the verisimilitude of Night City holding, this is crippling.

Here we can see sidewalk pedestrian guidelines have been painted *underneath* this building. I've borrowed this observation from Ryan Scavniky, who I've linked above.
Here we can see sidewalk pedestrian guidelines have been painted *underneath* this building. I've borrowed this observation from Ryan Scavniky, who I've linked above.

Also, there were still several game breaking bugs while I played it in February, so buyer beware.

The Game Part (In A Nutshell)

Past the technical concerns, which are present on every platform, Cyberpunk is an empty, empty game that is constantly shouting at you, waving at you to look at it, distracting you from that emptiness. If you play through the critical path, ignoring all the sidequests, or even some of the story missions, you can probably beat the game in 10-15 hours? All you really need to do is go through the opening 3-4 missions leading up to Johnny Silverhand’s introduction, then mainline Takemura’s quests, take Arasaka’s offer, and then you’re set. And the game is aware of this thin critical path, to the point it’ll yell “hey, don’t walk past this point unless you want to finish the story!” Now, Witcher 3 did this, but that came after so much more story it felt more like a fair warning than a “hey, don’t dive here, the water in this pool is actually 1 foot deep!”

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Characters will constantly call you with urgent matters in the middle of other urgent missions, or, most hysterically, during important dialogue moments. Now, you can say “yes, I’ll be right over,” knowing damn well that you won’t be over for at least 30 minutes, or you can say the sane human thing of “I’m busy, can I come by later?” Except sometimes that actually lets you do the mission later, and other times it cuts the mission off entirely (this is what cut off any chance for my female V to romance Judy, by the way). These missions constantly stepping on each other’s toes gives the impression that a lot is happening and Night City has so much to do, but really, it’s just poorly paced to create that illusion. Because between those cacophonous moments (at the end of one mission only to get 5 other text messages or calls) is a great emptiness. Not a contemplative, intentionally sparse emptiness like No Man’s Sky or Death Stranding, but a laundry list of boilerplate sidequests and groups of Bad Men to kill, one that is deeply boring, but compulsively playable. “Ah, just one more map icon. Just one more. Then maybe I can upgrade my Cool to one more point out of 20!” Whether or not the missions are fun (they aren’t) isn’t their point – the appearance of the missions and the utility of the missions is their point. The appearance, because you can’t be a modern AAA game without icon vomit on the map, and those sure are a lot of icons that give players a lot to do (on paper, even if it’s just the same activity x100). The utility, because their only purpose is to make the numbers go higher.

HEAVY ATTACK LUNGE.
HEAVY ATTACK LUNGE.

How are those numbers? They’re alright. Mapping out a specialization for my V was some of the most fun I had with Cyberpunk, as I got to make a pretty synergistic “Cold Blood + Mantis Blades” build that gave me a lot of health and extra damage every time I killed a guy or went into slow-mo, which was… a lot. So that was okay, and seeing my dumb build (HEAVY ATTACK LUNGE. HEAVY ATTACK LUNGE. HEAVY ATTACK LUNGE. SWIPE SWIPE SWIPE SWIPE SWIPE) in practice was fun for the first few hours it took off.

The problem is that there was 30 hours left.

In Doctor Faustus, (the novel by Thomas Mann, not the original Christopher Marlowe play,) a fictional Devil explains Hell as people running between unbearable fire and unbearable cold, with nothing in the middle. The damned souls run back and forth forever, swapping from an intolerable state to another, crucially, always seeing the other as a potential refuge. Cyberpunk put me in a pretty similar spot, jumping back and forth between the combat and my character’s skill tree as my primary motivators, but neither being quite compelling enough for me to be satisfied by. The core combat and stealth isn’t interesting enough on its own without the game’s RPG abilities, so I played it primarily to level up my character. But the character levelling only really comes into play in the combat, and the skill trees aren’t that interesting, so... it’s only a matter of time until the core loop comes tumbling down.

DU DOW DOW. (Sorry, can't get the Hell's Kitchen theme from this level out of my head)
DU DOW DOW. (Sorry, can't get the Hell's Kitchen theme from this level out of my head)

On Power Fantasies

When the original Deus Ex came out, some reviewers pointed out that, while having such a wide range of options was exciting, each individual gameplay style, by necessity, couldn’t match that of its immediate peers. The shooting in Deus Ex was awful, and the stealth was much better but still not up to Thief, or Metal Gear Solid. The magic was in how it all came together, the exploration of different options.

Similarly, every option in Cyberpunk 2077 is… underwhelming. If one of the core conceits is to fulfill your fantasy of being a badass deck-punching netrunner, or a ninja warrior, or a hard-boiled merc – Cyberpunk meets none of these. The combat tends to have a bell curve of enjoyment—near the beginning, you don’t have enough tools to play with to do more than “shoot man” or “walk behind man, strangle man,” but near the end, you are so powerful you don’t have to engage with any gameplay loops at all.

Take three completely separate paths. I went for a stabby stabby blade build with zero thoughts given to stealth. It started with me actually having to be pretty careful about my engagements, since I had a pretty glass cannon (read: 0 points in Body) build. That was interesting, even if the melee v melee combat felt awful, and versus gun combatants it was just “mash the attack button over and over.” Near the middle, I got some Mantis Blades, some nice mods on those, and the slow-motion cyber implant, so I felt like I had a lot more control over the fight, which again, was interesting. Then, near the end, I was so overpowered that I didn’t need to worry about any abilities at all, and just mashed attack + sprint with my brain turned off. Again, that was fun at first, but there was 30 hours left. And there’s something kind of strange about the ultimate reward of a combat-driven game being… not having to engage with the combat as deeply?

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Another example. What if you want to be a stealthy infiltrator? A cool character who’s in and out before anyone ever noticed they were there? I’ve certainly had a lot of fun playing like that in other games, but here, there’s not a lot going on in the stealth. The layouts are the classic “well you can go in the vent here or jump up the side of the building there” tropes from Deus Ex, but moment to moment, you are just walking behind guys, strangling them, and hiding their bodies. But wait, it gets less interesting! Because, even if you play a non-lethal character, you unlock a mod for your weapons that can make them all non-lethal, so you can take your incredibly overpowered silenced revolver, and just headshot every guard with 0 consequences. Great.

“But Giraffe!” you say. “The cyberpunk genre is all about hacking and augmentation! What about the cool hacking?” The hacking route in this game is equally dull in its power fantasy, as I watched my friend stream and play the game that way. Your most valuable tools from the beginning are distracting enemies with nearby objects hacked, and blinding their optics. Near the end, however, you unlock Contagion, which lets your hacking damage spread from one target to another to another until the whole room is dead, and from one button press. Once again, in a disturbing trend in this game, the reward for playing it and levelling up is having to play it less.

The Mantis Blades, Gorilla Arms, and Monowire are all neat, but they are all just cooler looking versions of existing weapon archetypes. They are not radically new augmentations that unlock entirely new ways of playing, ala a Deus Ex, but just one more upgrade in the same stale combat loop.

This tree was my jam.
This tree was my jam.

So, in short, throughout the entire game’s run-time, I didn’t enjoy most of the story missions (because they dealt in the same indulgent “follow this character as they talk and check out how well their face animates while you’re still not playing the game” pattern as a lot of recent releases), I didn’t enjoy the copy-paste compounds of enemies, I didn’t enjoy the combat or stealth or hacking, and in the end, the skill and customizations you could give your character were disappointing. So why did I even play this? I kept playing on the thinnest, most fragile promise of the late game skills and abilities: “Maybe, if I play enough. Maybe, if I grind enough, I’ll unlock an ability that makes this game fun.” But no, those systems and those abilities were just distractions for what I was actually doing the whole time: grinding. And it frickin’ worked.

By the time I emerged from my sidequest binge-leveling, my character was level 50 with most of her abilities (Blades, Cold Blood, Stealth) around 17 out of 20 proficiency, and most of the game’s story content was still in front of me. But playing all that side stuff first, and engaging with the story and only the story, only brought its problems into sharper relief.

The Setup

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The emptiness of Cyberpunk’s systems, open world design, and gameplay extend into the story as well. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot going on—there is. It’s just that when you sit down afterward and ask, “what is Cyberpunk about?” a lot of potential answers come up, but none that are fully satisfying or make a through-line in the entire work.

In the beginning, it’s one of the most traditional crime game stories of all time: the price of infamy and power as a young merc makes their way into criminal stardom. Early on, the game seems intent on asking V and her starry-eyed partner Jackie, “what would you do to become a legend in Night City? Would you willingly walk into an early, likely violent death for a shot at fame?” This can be seen with your first conversation with Dexter Deshawn, the moment at the bar with Claire where she tells you how each drink is named after a dead Night City merc. This theme is then further hammered in when your big-time heist goes wrong and Jackie dies in your arms (easily one of the best moments in the game). When you die and come back to life, it’s almost like a second chance, isn’t it? “You’ve seen how high the price for fame in Night City is – knowing that now, do you still want to pay it?” Near death experiences are a powerful moment, in stories and life alike, to reconsider, reset your positions. Will V, with this new clarity, still pursue the top of the merc pyramid, or is there something more worth holding onto in life now? That’s a good setup for a story. However, this is all promptly forgotten and discarded when Johnny Silverhand appears, though he does bring in much more interesting questions and conflicts.

Johnny Silverhand

This guy.
This guy.

On paper, Johnny Silverhand is the best part of this game.

Let’s start with his relationship to V. For those reading a way-too-long Cyberpunk post despite having not learned who Johnny Silverhand is…? (highly unlikely,) Silverhand is a rockstar from 50 years before V’s time. He nuked Arasaka Tower, and was captured for his trouble. Arasaka removed his soul and placed it in their captivity, until V unwittingly plugged the same biochip into her head. When she got shot, the chip started replacing her personality with Johnny’s to save the body. This means that, like a lot of great character conflicts, these two are inherently at odds. V and Johnny cannot live at the same time for long – one has to go.

However, the cards aren’t in V’s favor. The chip is all that’s keeping her alive, so removing it would kill her. If she keeps it in, her personality will be entirely replaced by Silverhand in months. And she’s seeing him, talking to him, in her head. It seems like a normal conversation, and V pushes back hard, but a scientist familiar with the project (Hellman) points out that if Johnny starts to influence her thinking, she won’t be able to tell what is her thought and what is Johnny’s.

Honestly, this whole set up is fantastic. The conversation after you capture Hellman is one of my favorites, as you’re interested to hear what Johnny has to say, but you’re worried the longer you let him talk, the more he espouses his world view, the more that’ll become V’s world view. You don’t trust your dialogue options, you genuinely don’t trust yourself. It’s good stuff.

Understandably, the game’s narrative shifts from the theme of “Night City legends, wOOOOOO!” (though I think Johnny is an interesting foil for that, since he is a legend, at once an aspirational yet warning figure for V) to questions of identity. What makes you you? Is it ethical for companies to have the capability to own a person’s very personhood ala the Soulkiller, or the dolls in Clouds? Every sidequest starts to tie into this, in a way that’s understandable but a little too on the nose for my taste. Every mission seems to end with Johnny saying something like, “WOW, THIS FAMILY IS BEING BRAINWASHED INTO BECOMING DIFFERENT PEOPLE. REMIND YOU OF ANYONE!?”

Again, all on paper, that’s all good. The problem?

Johnny Silverhand suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.

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That’s a really dismissive, harsh claim, so don’t worry, I’m backing it up!

First, on the more logic-y side of things, Johnny Silverhand’s relationship to the world makes little sense, or what’s there makes the world seem incredibly shallow. This guy is 50 years old, remember, and everything in Night City is apparently similar enough 50 years later for him to still comment perfectly fluently on! For instance, when working with the Tyger Claws for some side missions, Johnny’ll give you lip (he does that, a lot,) about how “oh, the Tyger Claws are super dangerous, don’t fuck with ‘em.” To demonstrate how absurd this is, imagine if 50 years from now in a major metropolitan city we still had the exact same gangs and no new ones at all. Or conversely, think 50 years back. “Man, watch out for the Warriors, they’re the roughest toughest kids around!” It makes it feel like literally nothing has happened since Johnny left. In his flashbacks, the city looks exactly the same, with the exception of one (admittedly awesome looking) city vista from a club.

On a similar note, almost all the NPCs around you can’t stop talking about Silverhand. He’ll lament being the last of the “real rebels, maaaaan,” but then everyone and their mother still remembers and fawns over Silverhand. So, the emotional reality of him feeling left behind, like the resistance he gave Arasaka made no difference and he was just paved over and forgotten anyway? Makes no sense. Much like my Tenet piece, I feel inclined to note this isn’t a “plot hole,” this is the baseline emotional state not tracking. And if we can’t intuitively track the character’s feelings… that’s a problem.

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Later NPCs, like Rogue and Kerry Eurodyne revolve their entire character arcs around Johnny Silverhand. You spend a lot of time giving Johnny Silverhand temporary control of your body so he can, at the most pressing, gain some intel, and at the least pressing, go on a date with his ex. Between these late game moments, and the sheer number of times you’re just treated to the Johnny Silverhand show, it starts to feel like he’s the main character of the story, and not you. And that’s… alright, I guess. It’s not ideal in a game where you create your own custom character and therefore have an attachment to how they act and roleplay, only to be shoved to the sideline as Keanu Reeves is given center stage.

I swear, no one ever said “no” at any point in the production of this game. “Should we do a licensing deal with Microsoft even though we’re not going to release in time for this generation likely? Sure!” “Kojima wants a cameo, should we give it to him? Heck yes!” “Grimes? Yeah!” “GLaDOS? Uh-huh!” “What about this random YouTuber who could star in the ‘my cyber dick is on fire’ mission?” “No…” “Oh thank God.” “…way am I turning that golden opportunity down!” And Keanu Reeves is the cyberpunk guy so we’re going to cast him as the most important character in the game. We got Keanu Reeves in the game, and that’s huge, so we’re going to let him promote his motorcycle company and have stocks in the company and show up on stage at E3 and be in every trailer because V isn’t important! Keanu Reeves is! V is the boring guy/gal on the cover with a gun – Silverhand is the guy who this story is really about.

Don't worry V, just keep smoldering to your left. Yep, you look badass. No, don't get a second opinion on that.
Don't worry V, just keep smoldering to your left. Yep, you look badass. No, don't get a second opinion on that.

And that’s a problem, isn’t it? If the player isn’t the main character in an RPG? There’s a real chain of passivity going on here. I’ve complained about passive main characters before, but here it’s a whole new level. V is a passenger in Johhny’s story, who in turn is a passenger to the plans of Rogue and Alt (or Panam or Arasaka if you choose those routes). This whole game is other, cooler people telling you what to do. It can work in a linear action game, but when V is the one making decisions, that gets dicey, right? But to make it seem like you still have agency, Johnny will just present you important decisions in dialogue. Before the last mission, nothing changes (depending on the order of missions you’ve done, you may have known where Mikoshi was for a while) except another character (Vik) shaking V and telling her to make a decision! Except even then, V doesn’t make a decision, she’s taken to the roof where Johnny tells her the options she’s got. And the best one is him and V going in alone, or him taking over your body to go to Arasaka tower with Rogue. They should have just made him the player character, honestly, since it’s his story they’re the most interested in telling.

I can’t with this guy. My brain wants me to write in two entirely separate directions. One, I could point out how wrong it is to sideline the main character’s story in a damn narrative-based role playing game, and point out that if you look at their development, Johnny is actually the one that changes the most and receives the most setups and payoffs (Alt, Rogue, Samurai, the full circle of Adam Smasher) and V gets nada. Two, I want to just move on and point out that, this could still all potentially work if Johnny Silverhand’s character worked at all, but he’s actually a vapid, obnoxious prick, past the Keanu Reeves of it all.

Yeah, let’s talk about that second one.

The Emanuel Swedenborg of Cyberpunk

It’s always a little annoying encountering pet characters in video game writing. You know the ones – Kai Leng in Mass Effect 3, Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2. Characters that the writer clearly loves, and will drop anything else the narrative is doing, or make intentionally turn the player character into a temporary idiot to give their pet character snappier comebacks. What makes these characters grating, rather than story-shattering, however, is that they aren’t the main characters of these games.

Silverhand, unfortunately, is the core of Cyberpunk, narratively, and thematically.

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He is, in many ways, the mouthpiece for many of the game’s themes. He’s the angel on your shoulder, who tells you what to do and when, he’s one of the only characters who openly opposes the corporations in Night City, whereas everyone else exists in their own individual rat race, more or less accepting the dystopian status quo. If you want your character to have a revolutionary streak, Silverhand’s the only place to turn. Because of all this, the words he has to say have a lot of weight. Is there a poet beneath that leathery exterior? Is Silverhand an effective anti-hero?

No, not at all. Silverhand has about as much depth as your stoner classmate in high school. He has a sense of romanticism (more on this soon,) but always in the vaguest sense. He’ll wax lyrical about how a street musician is playing the guitar with roughshod technique, but “feeling.” He’ll be vaguely nostalgic or melancholy about his exes, even when his flashbacks show he had little to no respect for anything other than their sexuality at the moment. He alludes to deeply held reasons he hates Arasaka, when in the end it boils down to “they kidnapped my no-strings ladyfriend and she became an AI.” He will yell at you (and you have no choice but to listen,) over and over, how he’s looking out for the little guy, how he wishes he wasn’t taking over your body because it’s like how the corporations rob people of their peoplehood. But in reality, he stands for nothing.

There’s a side mission where you’re following the data trail of a digital philosopher type called Swedenborg-Riviera. He writes vaguely revolutionary gibberish, much like a certain Rocker Boy. As you progress, Johnny starts to make fun of you. He calls you an idiot for following this trail of clues, and it’s implied that he may be jealous that people listen to this “revolutionary” and not him. When you reach the end of the trail, however, you learn that Swedenborg-Riviera is actually just a hacked fortune telling machine that spews out gibberish on the net for people to follow, as a prank.

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Now, players familiar with 18th century theologians may have seen this one coming: Emanuel Swedenborg was a well-known writer who wrote a book called Heaven and Hell in 1758. He had some valid critiques of the church, but he was also, mmm, how do we put this, a bit of a nutjob cult leader? William Blake, a creator of his own Christian mythology, was reportedly a fan of Swedenborg’s writing right up until he actually attended one of his sermons. Afterward, well, as he writes in the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell:"

“I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.

“Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; though it is only the contents or index of already published books.

“A man carried a monkey about for a show, and because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceived himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shows the folly of churches, and exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious, and himself the single one on earth that ever broke a net.

“Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth. Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods.

“And now hear the reason: he conversed with Angels who are all religious, and conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable through his conceited notions.

“Thus Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.

“Have now another plain fact: any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s, and from those of Dante or Shakespeare an infinite number.

“But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.” (40)

Being an insufferable English lit type, I was expecting this “twist” from a fair bit away. What I wasn’t expecting was for Silverhand to turn around and say, (paraphrasing) “Man, that’s really funny! A perfect prophet for Night City, the philosopher it deserves! Please don’t take it down, V!” And so, you get the choice to leave the hacked machine spewing nonsense to the unsuspecting masses or to take it down. And the revolutionary wants you to leave the nonsense up. Out of, what? Nihilism? Isn’t fake philosophy that misinforms the public (who would otherwise be receptive to hearing concrete steps on how they can affect change) pretty fucking counter-revolutionary?

You suck, dude.
You suck, dude.

And in that moment, I got it. Up to that point I was struggling with Silverhand, struggling with summing up this empty husk of a game that was doing so much I’d have to address, but leaving me with literally no feelings, excitement, or ideas every time I put it down. But when he smugly asserted that this trash was what Night City deserved, I got it. This game depends, in all its variations, all its endings, all its moments, on at least some emotional attachment to Silverhand, but…

Silverhand is the Emanuel Swedenborg of Cyberpunk 2077.

Seriously, re-read that Blake quote, replace “Swedenborg” with “Silverhand,” and tell me this doesn’t track. Johnny Silverhand, the guy who will shout at his bandmates and loved ones about how he’s the only one willing to fight Arasaka.

“A man carried a monkey about for a show, and because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceived himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shows the folly of churches, and exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious, and himself the single one on earth that ever broke a net.”

So it is with the church of Johnny Silverhand. Johnny Silverhand, the guy who talks all the time about revolution, but only in vague aesthetic terms of feeling or solidarity of the rights of the individual, never meaningful concrete change. (See here Lindsay Ellis’ video about Rent, which discusses how “fight the power” Broadway shows appeal to vague feelings of liberty and romanticism, because discussing concrete injustice would make it unpalatable to a bourgeois audience, AKA the people who can afford theater tickets.) He says he cares about freeing this city, but he will happily keep Swedenborg-Riviera around because it validates his negative opinion of the world. A guy who opts for the most shocking or badass action at any point, whatever makes the biggest scene or him the most sympathetic, regardless of internal worldview. One second bragging about the size of his cock, the next being soulful about music and grief, the next a firebrand. His most drastic action, nuking Arasaka—literally accomplished nothing other than created the aesthetic of resistance. The tower was rebuilt. He’d be more useful as an organizer alive. But no, he had to cement his legend forever.

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This feeling continues to deepen the more you go down the “Silverhand and Rogue” ending route. After 80 hours of running around, the game is in full “look how far we’ve come” mode. Earlier, Silverhand sits V down near where his body was dumped, and reminisces about how much they’ve grown together, how much of a better person he is now. Yet it falls flat, because when I look back on the journey we’ve undertaken together, I remember dozens of hours of copy-paste sidequests with occasional jeering from Silverhand. I can count the number of meaningful moments with him on one hand, let alone moments of his character shifting. (Outside the motel after interrogating Hellman, outside the Voodoo Boys club, the Pacifica hotel after he takes you on another bender and reminisces about his war buddy.) And when you let Silverhand take your body over one last time, Rogue can’t stop telling him how mature he’s become. So, with this new maturity, this new respect for life (which I genuinely can’t track other than, concern for V’s life? That’s the only thing I see change with Silverhand.) what do they do?

They literally do what got Johnny killed in the first place and go back to Arasaka Tower to blow it up again.

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WHAT’S THE DEFINITION OF INSANITY AGAIN?

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.

Johnny and Rogue have grown so much… that they’re making the exact same mistakes. Nothing has changed at all. And oh, whoops, Rogue died this time! Go figure! She was living a safer life, Silverhand wanders back into her life to guilt her for surviving, and she falls for it hook line and sinker and puts herself in a situation where she’s killed. Unbelievable.

Who could have seen *this* coming?
Who could have seen *this* coming?

This last mission was where I started to really lose it, in case you can’t tell. Armed with my new reading on Silverhand’s character, his self-congratulatory dialogue with Rogue hits my ears especially harshly: “Fuck plans, back in the day, you’d just do some lines, pick up your iron, and do what needed to be done!” Again, he is actively endorsing the idea that if you want to change things, don’t think about it too hard! Just feel it, man. And again, this thinking gets the love of his life killed. Not that anyone calls him out on that. No, they just get mad at Adam Smasher for doing exactly what you’d expect him to do.

As their AV (flying ship thing) shows up, this badass music kicks in, Rogue is sauntering with a big gun, and they both board the ship. With a view of the city at night, Rogue and Johnny spend a good minute just circle jerking each other as the ship flies toward Arasaka Tower—“WE’RE ABOUT TO GIVE THIS CITY A WAKE-UP CALL!””ONE SECOND YOU’RE IN THE GUTTER AND THE NEXT YOU’VE GOT THE WORLD AT YOUR FEET.” Ugh. You two deserve each other.

The Good, The True, and the Beautiful

Charitably, there’s a line that at least clarifies Silverhand (though it doesn’t come close to redeeming him in my eyes.) At some point with Rogue, Silverhand says, “fuck the true and the good, we only cared about the beautiful!” And this makes sense. He’s of course referring to the Platonic ideals of the good, the true, and the beautiful, (justice, truth, art,) and a guy whose character class is all about changing the world through rock and roll would obviously believe in the beautiful above all else. The art. The aesthetic. He wants to look cool, and say cool shit, and make cool things, and he wants to act out of pure feeling, unrestrained. Now, I’m no Platonist, but I think there are, just philosophically speaking, outside of the game even, significant drawbacks to that approach.

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I’m reminded of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats, which, because I’m not the most attentive student, I remember mostly as a critique of aesthetic. During 19th century, there was a lot of cultural and intellectual attention being paid to the relationship of art to aesthetic, and Keats, in writing about this beautiful Grecian Urn, critiques this high taste when it is separated from bodily feeling (Keats looooooved the body). In short, he sounds like he’s praising it, but really he’s calling it cold and joyless. The most famous lines are at the end,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In short, to put aesthetic and beauty above all else is stifling. Cold. Shallow. And in a way, isn’t that this whole game? The NPCs in the world are as lifeless as the figures drawn on the urn. It’s about a lot of things, if by about you mean throwing in half-assed references and not following up on them in the main narrative. It’s about sex work, it’s about capitalism, it’s about AI, it’s about what it means to be human, it’s about nostalgia, it’s about the importance of individuality in a world meant to crush this individuality down. It’s about these things because there are references and moments where these are all discussed, even as it never comes to a cohesive whole or world view. It’s not the story that’s important, it’s the aesthetic of having importance that’s important. Cyberpunk, much like its posterchild, Johnny Silverhand postures like it has a lot to say, but in reality says nothing that you haven’t heard before, and articulated better.

Cyberpunk’s accomplishments hold, as Blake said, “a candle in sunshine.”

The End

Hey, if you read through the whole thing, thanks a lot! ~6800 words is no joke, time is valuable, and I appreciate it. As always, I also post these to my blog, Lapses in Taste.

A couple of things:

Yes, I have watched all the endings. I like the “bad” ending with Arasaka, easily the most thought provoking and appropriately dark ending. The rest didn’t particularly resonate with me. This game leaves a lot of loose threads, and the ones they choose to resolve, or perhaps how they choose to resolve it left me pretty unhappy.

Parts of this read like one of the more negative things I’ve ever written, which on the one hand I feel bad about, but on the other it’s how I honestly feel about the game? I’m not going to give anyone crap about liking Cyberpunk, though.

With that massive endnote aside, months later, with the hype and backlash settled, how do you find Cyberpunk? Did you push through the issues on release? Like the story? Hate it? Waiting for some of these promised updates to make a noticeable difference?

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Tenet is Nolan's Most Interesting Misfire [OPEN SPOILERS]

Warning: SPOILERS for pretty much every Christopher Nolan movie. Including Tenet.

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Let no one say that Christopher Nolan is devoid of ambition.

A man who loses his memory every few minutes, his story told in reverse. A professional thief who not only breaks into his target's dreams, but creates those dreams for them to inhabit as well. An astronaut who saves the Earth by communicating with his daughter through space and time in a black hole. These are all interesting ideas in theory that could easily fall flat, or even be catastrophic trainwrecks, with the wrong execution. Now, mileage may vary with these fillms -- Interstellar/Dunkirk especially -- but for my money, Nolan has hit the mark perfectly almost every time. (With the glaring exception being The Dark Knight Rises, a film that he may not have even wanted to make.) There's a same-ness in his oeuvre, for sure, but they've all functioned on a purely dramatic level, while playing with mind-bending ideas most $250 million films wouldn't even attempt.

And Tenet, set in a world of international spies travelling backward through time, has all the same surface aspects of a successful Nolan outing. The premise is esoteric, but simple enough for audiences to "get" in a broad stroke: the future is waging war on our present, backwards through time. GOT IT. The cinematography and production design are slick, the music and atmosphere fit this "Twilight World" perfectly, the lead cast members give great performances, and the action scenes are suitably large in scope and ambition.

But despite all that, Tenet might be Nolan's weakest movie since The Dark Knight Rises. More than that, its problems are not the kind of nitpicky plot holes that entire YouTube channels have made a career from criticizing Nolan on, but fundamental dramatic missteps.

Now, that's a really harsh thing to say, so let me back up a bit and explain where this take comes from.

On Dead Wives

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Critics have rightfully pointed out that Christopher Nolan goes back to the same problematic trope rather often -- the dead wife that gives our main (male) lead motivation and pathos. The death of Guy Pearce's wife in Memento set his quest for revenge in motion, which was manipulated by another party for their benefit; the death of Hugh Jackman's wife in The Prestige set his quest for revenge in motion against Christian Bale; the death of Leonardo DiCaprio's wife in Inception set his quest to return home in mo -- okay, you get it. This is obviously not a great look for Nolan in 2020, and more than a little macabre for his wife, Emma Thomas, but these backstories serve a crucial function in the screenplay. They give the main characters a clear motivation the audience can follow, and they're executed pretty effectively. I'd argue Inception is one of the best uses of this trope, because not only does it give Cobb an initial motivation, but his obsession over his dead wife continues to complicate the story and create interesting new obstacles to overcome throughout. (Think of the "oh shit" moment when Mal shows up in the snow base to shoot Cillian Murphy in the back, and Cobb can't take the shot -- or that wonderfully creepy scene when Ariadne sees Cobb's dreams.) Of course, motivations don't need to be dead wives (god no), they just often show up like that in Nolan's work. It can be something as simple as "we need to get the hell off this beach" in Dunkirk.

So with that established, let's ask ourselves: "What is The Protagonist's motivation in Tenet?"

Seriously.

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We know that he is a spy of some sort, likely working for the CIA or an equivalent. From the first real exposition in the story with his handler, we know that he is dedicated to "the mission." That he'll do whatever it takes to follow whatever orders he was given (a "tenet" if you will). Given that he has a barebones name like "The Protagonist", we can tell that his backstory/motivation is intentionally sparse, either for mystery or to let us focus on the plot as quickly as possible. Later on, we can infer that he wants to protect Kat from her abusive husband Sator, and there is supposed to be conflicting motivations between accomplishing "the mission" to stop Sator destroy time itself, and protecting Kat. Now, like I said earlier, a simple motivation can work -- but this is as thin as it gets. Even John Wick, which everyone lauded for its economy of storytelling and motivation (they killed my dog, I must kill them), took the time to establish why this dog was so important. We saw John grieve for his wife's loss (SO MANY DEAD WIVES), saw how the dog was one last gift to him from her, saw this bring some joy back in his life, however small -- and then the gangsters kill the dog, so when John is heartbroken and furious, we feel some of that too.

To that end, there is no "why" in Tenet for our main character but the plot itself -- save the world. Maybe more charitably, we can say the motivation for him is the same as the audience's, uncovering the mystery of what "tenet" means, as his handler tasks him. This kind of impersonal distance can work -- a lot of great thrillers are intentionally sparse on the character details -- but this puts a lot of importance on the plot, how intrigued we are in the mystery. Because The Protagonist has no stake in this for a long time, other than, "it's his job."

And the plot of Tenet is not particularly compelling.

Nolan's Usually Good at Exposition, but...

In one scene, The Protagonist's handler tells him that there's a shadowy underbelly to the world he wants investigated, and all they know is the word "tenet." Cryptically, he says, "Use that word, but be careful where -- it may open some doors you want to, and others you don't" or something to that effect. Cue the very next scene, where the very first person he says "tenet" to in a labcoat reveals almost everything upfront. I'm not kidding. The scene goes:

"Tenet."

"So we've been seeing guns and bullets come backward through time, find out where they're coming from."

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This starts a trend the movie never recovers from, where everyone The Protagonist comes into contact with already know more than him, and simply tell him what's happening as flatly as possible. This is a shadowy world of time travel that no one knows anything about! Except everyone you've ever met actually knows about it, and know more than you about it, to the point that there are dozens, if not hundreds of soldiers who are in on the time travel. This is getting dangerously close to just saying "durr, that's a plot hole", but it's more than that. It robs the main character, and therefore us as the audience, of the joy of discovery, something crucial in an action movie that's trying to play up the mysterious sci-fi angle as much as this one. Imagine The Matrix if there wasn't that 30 minute build-up to the "twist," if Neo asked Trinity at that night club, "What is the Matrix?" and she just said, "You live inside a simulation, your actual body is in a pod being harvested by machines. Bye!" That is almost every bit of exposition in Tenet. Even characters like Neil (Robert Pattinson) who aren't supposed to know anything, are revealed in a "twist" to actually have known everything about time travel since the beginning.

This is so strange, because Nolan is usually great at exposition. To go back to Inception, you have entire scenes that are just Arthur or Cobb explaining to Ariadne how the rules of the world work, but they're still compelling because there's drama there. Notice how in the exposition with Arthur and Ariadne, she's also teasing out the details of Cobb's inability to build dreams any more, learning more about Mal. Having these character dynamics help pure info-dump scenes, but that's pretty darn tough when your main character's entire reason for existing is "gotta do the thing."

The one potential upside of such cut-and-dry info dumps is that the audience (if their eyes don't glaze over) can follow the story clearly, but in Tenet, we don't even get that benefit, as the audio mix garbles the dialogue so thoroughly you just can't understand it without subtitles. Between that, and the overly convoluted plot of the middle of the film, ("We need to put pressure on this art dealer who's the wife of the bad man because she made a bad deal or lost this art piece that's worth millions of dollars for the bad man, so pose as an art guy yourself to put yourself in their circle, except now you're posing as an arms dealer for the bad man to work with and this involves the opera house from the beginning of the film somehow and AAAAAAAAAAA") it's really difficult to follow. Thus, a good chunk of Tenet is characters with no reason to care about each other, mumbling at each other in an inaudible audio mix about a plot I didn't understand but in the broadest strokes.

And that can be fiiiiiine, I don't need to get every little machination of the plot if at the end of the day, the big emotional moments and turns in the climactic action scenes are still understandable. So, are they? As the movie says, "Don't try to understand it, just feel it." Is there enough here to get out of my own way, and just "feel it?"

(Laughs nervously) Um.... no. Not really.

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The Ending of Tenet FINALLY EXPLAINED!!!1

There's this misconception that Nolan movies, because they dabble in mysteriousness and big ideas, are somehow giant puzzles to solve even after you've finished watching them. Just today, while writing this and listening to S.T.A.Y. from Interstellar, I saw in the YouTube recommendations a video titled, "The Ending of Interstellar Finally Explained"... posted nine months ago. Now, you might not agree with some of the turns the end of Interstellar took (communicating through space and time in the middle of a black hole really did break some of the more left-brain viewers), but is the ending really that much of a mystery? Humans from the future gave Matthew McConaughey the equation to solve interstellar travel. He then gave this equation to his daughter, Murph, back on Earth. This saved humanity, and because we're dealing with, essentially, Space Magic at this point, he was teleported back to our solar system. He has a heartfelt goodbye with his daughter, and goes out to find a stranded Anne Hathaway. The End.

Inception had a similar reaction -- "woah, was Cobb really dreaming at the end or not? let's post hour-long videos trying to figure out the right answer, as if that's the important part of the movie!" I want to linger on this, because this ties into my issues with Tenet.

Let's clear this up right here and now -- Nolan movies are not meant to leave you scratching your head after watching them.

The core emotional beats are incredibly evident. Yes, there's a little bit of mystery at the beginning of these movies, but by the end, they have explained enough and established enough of the character motivations/relationships to land gut-punching emotional moments without even a word of dialogue. Think of the rows of Hugh Jackman's own cloned corpses at the end of The Prestige. Or think of Cillian Murphy finally having the reconciliation he's sought his entire life with his father near the end of Inception, holding a paper windmill from the one photo he put by his dying father's bedside. I tear up thinking about it now, that rush of catharsis with a distant family member, that is still a lie because this has all been constructed by Cobb for his own ends. Or, back to Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey has been slowly and surely drifting away from his daughter, the core relationship of the entire film. At the end, there is space mumbo jumbo about the "fourth dimension" and communicating through love, and messages from future humanity, but it all resonates and works anyway in that moment because he's finally reuniting with his daughter when he plucks those strings in the black hole. Murph, who thinks her father abandoned her for space travel, finally hears from him again, and realizes he's still out there and still loves her. All while also being the moment where humanity is saved -- it's cathartic stuff. Some people found it saccharine maybe, but no one missed what was being said there. To put it like Tenet might, you didn't have to understand it to "feel it." As crazy and convoluted as Nolan's machinations got, there was always a core emotional, dramatic thread to the story to keep the audience grounded.

This is what Tenet lacks entirely. I've already brought up my issues with the lack of character motivation, how the main character is the passenger in his own story thanks to the style of exposition, but the real killer here is what I haven't brought up yet, and that's basic comprehension of the big action scenes and climactic turns. For how Tenet has been marketed, this is the reason to see the movie -- watch the master of the big screen create the most elaborate, mind-bending action scenes you've ever seen!

In some ways, it delivers on this promise.

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The craft and spectacle in the action scenes are very impressive. I can't imagine how much time and effort went into logic-ing out the choreography of that first hallway fight with the Protagonist's future self -- and it pays off. I don't understand much of what's happening moment to moment in that fight, but because it's a one on one fight, it's very easy to let it wash over you and just admire the spectacle of this guy being suplexed off the ground, or sliding forwards while writhing like he's being dragged backwards. Similarly, the truck heist in the middle of the film is fantastic, as the stakes are clear and the time travel doesn't get in the way of understanding them -- there's a case to steal from this truck, we are stealing this case, and now mysterious cars from the future are driving backwards on the highway to steal the case from us. Aspects of the time travel are clever as well, like the super clear visual language of going backwards by entering a vault, seeing both your past and future self walking along different sides of some partition glass. The first scene the Protagonist goes through one of these vaults is one of the more visually impressive shots in Nolan's career. Again, these all work because you might not understand the nitty gritty of the mechanics, but you understand what's happening in the overall story.

However, the longer Tenet runs, the more that moment-to-moment understanding slips away, as more and more complications are being thrown at the time travel rules. For instance, as the Protagonist first starts to go back in time to steal the case from Sator on the highway, it is an absolute nightmare to follow. You get the gist -- Sator has the case, Protagonist wants to get it back. But the scene now involves not just 2 parties: someone going forward through time, and someone going back through time. This now involves 3: 2 people going back through time, and 1 person going forward through time, which is really tough to parse in terms of visual storytelling, the bread and butter of action films. These things live or die by how much you understand in an action scene in a split-second, and by those standards, this scene fails. The Protagonist tries to intercept the case, but this somehow gives Sator the case. Even though he already had it. That is all I parsed from the scene, because it's very difficult to tell what's supposed to be a dramatic turn for the worse when you've already seen it happen earlier in the movie.

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This continues with the climactic battle scene, which involves two entire armies fighting each other backward and forward through time at the same time in an abandoned quarry with some ruined buildings, easily the least impressive scene in the film. On the good guys' side, one platoon is going forward through time, and the other is going backward, attempting to defuse a bomb that's going to destroy all of time. But the bad guys also have one squad going forward and one squad going backward, and it becomes an indecipherable cluster, even after a five minute exposition dump explaining what the plan is. In here, it's harder to let it all wash over you, because the mechanics are no longer just details you can ignore, but crucial to understanding what's happening in the story. To the best of my understanding, the bomb gets buried after a tripwire explodes the entrance to the mine it's in, but Robert Pattinson goes from going backwards in time, to going forwards in time, only to go back again (I'm serious, he starts going in one squad or the other, but then uses one of those reversal vaults and AAAAAAAAAAA). It gets bad enough that the climactic showdown, involving the Protagonist trying to defuse the bomb, but being blocked by one of Sator's henchmen and a locked gate, is also tough to follow. This is important. This is your "yipee-ki-yay" Die Hard momentwhere, when all seems lost, the character's ingenuity turns the tables and saves the day. The problem? I don't know how he did so. He just stared at the lock and it got shot by Robert Pattinson or...

You know what. I'm boring even myself with this blow-by-blow. Let me just say I understood none of it other than the most basic "yay, he defused the bomb" or "oh no the bomb gonna explode." Yes, there are literally two fronts of time-warfare occurring at once here, but it boils down to lots of gunfire and explosions happening in reverse around the characters, so... it's a lot of effort for something that ends up imparting the exact same feeling as say, Black Hawk Down.

The bigger issue is that this admittedly clever premise starts to make the movie less interesting from a character or dramatic perspective. The big twists, like the fact that the second half of the movie is dedicated to going backward through the first half, means that there's very little tension because we've already seen it go fine before. Remember that hallway fight I praised? Well, you get to see it again, and the outcome goes the same. A fight scene where you know what happens is inherently less exciting, and that's a good chunk of Tenet. The characters don't get out unscathed either. We learn next to nothing about either Neil or the Protagonist, but, we learn that they become really good buddies in the future, so that's a lot of character development you can just hand-wave away. And this isn't a nit-picky thing, either -- Robert Pattinson was the best part of the movie, and the movie's clever ideas deprive us of seeing more interesting interactions with him. We never see his relationship with the Protagonist develop, never earn any camaraderie, so that when we learn he's marching off to his death in his last scene, it's an "awww", but not nearly as affecting as some similar moments in earlier Nolan movies.

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The Protagonist gets even more scammed by this setup than Pattinson -- because, as it turns out, literally the entire Tenet program was founded by him... in the future. So the mysterious people he has been taking orders from are... himself. In his words, when he's talking to the Indian arms dealer -- "I thought I was taking orders from you. I was actually taking orders from myself, to you." Which, I see what they're going for, in a Matrix-y sense -- he's the One and doesn't even realize it. Heck, you could make an argument that his super slight character motivation and background is intentional for this twist -- his character arc is one of self-realization of agency, from taking orders to being the master of his own destiny. And that's pretty clever! The problem is that while this is satisfying in hindsight, it doesn't make the present moments in the film any more engaging. We just spent 2 and a half hours watching the main character be shuffled around from taskmaster to taskmaster, only to learn the ultimate taskmaster was HIMSELF! But that doesn't change the fact we watched him be an errand boy with no interior or motivation of his own throughout.

(As an example, imagine a twist in Grand Theft Auto, where all these characters give the protagonist meaningless errands to do, but at the end it turns out that the main character told those characters to tell him to do that. It works about as well as that. Which is to say, it doesn't.)

To continue the Matrix example a bit further -- even in that film, that hinges entirely on Neo being an ingenue who has to accept this power that has been bestowed upon him, there is a clear scene of self-realization. When he jumps off the helicopter to save Trinity, we all understand before even a line of dialogue occurs, that he is absolutely the One. Now imagine The Matrix where Neo does nothing, Trinity saves the day, but Morpheus calls at the end and says, "hey Neo, by the way, you're the One!" Tenet is a lot like that.

On that note, one last thing...

On Living Wives (Or The Women in the Nolanverse Who Don't Get Enough Credit)

This is going to be a much smaller side note, but I thought it was worth pointing out -- Tenet is kind of unusually weird about women, even for a Nolan movie. Pretty much the entire emotional core of the story is attempting to revolve around Kat and her abusive husband Sator. In many ways, she has more character depth than the Protagonist. She has a motivation -- to protect her son. She has an obstacle -- her piece of shit husband might kill her if she sticks around, and he'll only let her go if she gives him her son as well. And she has an arc -- she goes from helpless to murdering the guy.

Now. Despite that, there are a lot of problems here. First, I don't think I need to point out how thin a character is who is entirely defined by her abusive relationship. Second, the movie goes for several cheap shots with her character. To establish what a bad dude Sator is, we get not one but two scenes of him verbally or physically abusing her, which doesn't make me hate the guy, it just makes me uncomfortable they put this on-screen. Third, her sole motivation being her child's wellbeing goes to pretty absurd lengths in the dialogue. One character says, "If this happens, the entire world will end!" to which she replies, "And my son will die!" No shit, really? Fourth, her largest contribution to the story -- killing Sator -- is marred by how the screenplay unintentionally paints her as reckless for doing this. Some pretty clear stakes are established near the end saying, "hey, make sure to only kill Sator if you get the signal, otherwise his dead man's switch to the bomb might go off and the world will end" (not to mention your son will die!) So, with that established, she doesn't get the signal, and she ends up killing him prematurely anyway. Sigh.

Elizabeth Debicki does well with the role, but man did she deserve more.

Also the triumphant scene of the film where the Protagonist realizes he's the ultimate badass is him shooting the Indian arms-dealer lady in the back of the head WHAT THE FUCK? That was like, one of three women in the movie you just killed, buddy!

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Alright, Let's Wrap This Up

If you've made it all the way down here, thank you for your patience and time! I really appreciate it, and hopefully you enjoyed it. Sorry for the constant Matrix references, it just kinda cropped up given the similarity in genre.

If you did enjoy it, or any of the other longer-form things I've written here on Giant Bomb, I have a dusty blog about sometimes-games, mostly-movies, called Lapses in Taste. This is the first piece I've written for it in... several months? So it's not the most regularly updated thing, but I'm usually very happy with what I post there. I'm particularly fond of the Bumblebee and Scott Pilgrim essays.

TL;DR This is the first Nolan movie I've seen where the "big idea" actually gets in the way of the story working on an emotional level. Certain action scenes were cool, the aesthetic was great, I loved all the performances, but the characters had nothing going on, the moments that were clearly meant to be "WOW" moments just didn't hit, and I left bored, not caring to even see it a second time to figure it out.

Now that it's out on VOD, how'd y'all find Tenet?

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Crysis Remastered is... Fine. Initial Impressions.

The distant future of 2020 is here! We don't have nanosuits, as Crytek predicted, but we do have Crysis Remastered, 13 years after the original release in 2007. Unfortunately, as a big fan of the original game on PC... this is at best, a flawed representation of Crysis, and at worst, straight-up unfaithful to the original.

Story time! Crysis for the PC was the game that got me into custom building PCs for video games. Up until that point, I had a computer and a Wii for games, but the computer was more an issue of economy than anything else. Even a slow rig could play classic old Star Wars games like Knights of the Old Republic, Republic Commando, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, and so on. But when Crysis came out, everything from the graphical fidelity, to the wide variety of playstyles in open, sandbox levels got me excited enough to save a lot, a lot of allowance money over the next year or so to build a PC that could run it. It took until 2008, but I did it, and surprisingly, the game completely lived up to even my unreasonable teenage hype. It ran at 1280x1024 at Medium at 30 frames per second (not stably, mind you), but it ran, dammit. And since then, every time I upgrade my PC, Crysis is one of the first games I boot up. As of right now, in 2020, my GTX 1070 and i7-6700k with oodles of ram (64 GB 3200 mhz to be exact, overkill, I know) can run everything at highest settings at 1440p at... 40ish frames per second? (It's the anti-aliasing solution and core utilization. Turning the AA down to 2x doesn't look much worse and makes it run much smoother.) Graphical benchmarking aside, the gameplay holds up as well, offering a playground of opportunities to screw with the AI, one of the rare shooters that's more fun the less actively you pursue the critical path.

So, understand, then, when I talk about Crysis: Remastered, I talk as someone who has played the original dozens of times, and pretty recently, so my impressions are (slightly) less likely to be rose-colored glasses in terms of graphics and gameplay. I'm not super technically savvy about graphical technologies, so I can't get into the weeds about the LOD-popping and volumetric lighting changes other fans noticed about the remaster right away. But I can speak to whether this is faithful, holistically, to Crysis 2007.

Speaking as that uber-fan, it is not faithful. In fact, it's incredibly disappointing. Now, are the changes I'm going to talk about big enough to deter someone who has never played the game before? Of course not. Crysis is still relatively intact here, and someone who hasn't played the original will probably have way more fun than I did. But if the goal of a remaster is to preserve a classic, warts and all, Crysis Remastered falls flat on its face.

One more note before I get into my impressions here -- I've only played the first level so far. I can't speak to how specific levels have been treated, though apparently the mission "Ascension" has been removed, much like every other recent port of the original. I would play more, but (in classic Crysis fashion) I'm in the middle of a full PC rebuild, and I want to see what the remaster has to offer on a beefier machine. So whenever I can get my hands on a 30-series NVIDIA GPU, be it weeks or months from now, I'll check out the rest of the game and let y'all know what I think. So this is very much just talking about the core gameplay and graphics, less about level specifics. Cool? Cool.

Let's start with the good. I think the extra time they took with the PC version paid off, and the graphics are gorgeous. It runs reasonably on mid range PCs, the global illumination and texture work is improved, and the water in particular is just gorgeous. There is raytracing in this as well, and the footage I've seen on PC looks good, but turning it on my home machine turns the game into a slideshow, so... I'm just going to have to take other people's word for it. Folks who played the original might not remember, but a lot of the 2007 game had a weird gray/brown tint over everything, because, you know, 2007. Crysis: Remastered, however, has a much wider color palette, greener greens, bluer blues in the ocean, etc. I dig it, big Far Cry (the original, not this open world crap) vibes. I also enjoy some of the changes they've made to the nanosuit powers -- Speed mode now lasts longer than .5 seconds, cloaking gets you further now, but in return enemies seem much more sensitive to your movement, proximity, and noise while you're cloaked (on Delta difficulty, at least, what I started my playthrough on).

This is also a small thing, but Crytek kept the HUD options from the original PC game. You can still change the HUD color from Green, to Blue, to Orange, to White. You can also change the reticle from a few different options. It's small, but it's these tiny details I liked so much back when I first played Crysis, and I'm glad to see them back. Unfortunately, at least as of when the game first launched, changing the HUD colors wasn't affecting the in-game UI, just the pause menu and main menu.

Ugh. And this brings me to my many complaints with Crysis: Remastered. This is a game that gets about 80% of the way there, and then throws the last 20% in the air for seemingly little reason. It's buggy -- in the first level alone, I saw a boat stuck on a rock revving infinitely with its nose tilted up in the air, a Korean soldier crouching and uncrouching infinitely (though if I recall that bug may have been in the original as well, and at that exact same spot in the map -- LEGACY!), guys clumped up stuck in walls, guys voluntarily leaving boats in the middle of water despite enemies instantly dying in water -- it's just not a polished experience. This is not mentioning some of the issues on Xbox Series X and PS4. But, bugs aside, it makes lots of tiny changes that seem insignificant, but add up to an experience that doesn't feel like the original for a returning player.

Take for example, the nanosuit powers. It defaults to Crysis 2 style console-friendly "press a button to Armor mode and constantly deplete power" nanosuit controls, as opposed to the original, which lets you use Armor at all times with no depletion unless you're actually taking damage, kinda like the shields in Halo. Fortunately, you can go to the original setup, which also enables the MMB power wheel like the original (yay)! Unfortunately, even if you do, enabling Armor mode puts this garish Crysis 2-style hexagon UI over 2/3 of the screen, covering most of the gorgeous scenery. So I found myself, even in just 45 minutes, changing my playstyle to avoid Armor mode as much as possible. Also, you can no longer change Nanosuit modes while in a vehicle, which doesn't seem like a big deal, but this breaks a lot of sandbox-y shenanigans (my favorite being getting into a truck, ramming it into an enemy base, but jumping out at the last second in Cloak).

The new Speed duration, which is nice in regular gameplay, also breaks certain scripted events. SPOILERS for a 13 year old game, I guess, but there are aliens, and your first glimpses of them are intentionally brief in the original. As of Remastered, however, with the new, more powerful Speed mode, you can see the aliens head on in the first level (plus some Koreans awkwardly falling over and dying, as this scene clearly wasn't meant to be seen this close up), or you can even run past them entirely and not realize you missed anything.

Another seemingly aesthetic change that really bums me out is the new weapon sound effects. Again, not a big deal, but I've played the game for a while, and the FY71 in particular has a very distinctive clanky weapon report when you shoot it. This, and all weapon sound effects (with the exception of the shotgun, it seems) have been changed. Boo.

At this point, I was really confused as to why these changes were made. And then I remembered something Digital Foundry reported while discussing the Switch version... this whole thing is based off the console port of Crysis in 2011. (Which made these UI changes, nanosuit changes, and sound effect changes.)

Why?

Being in development myself, I know why, or at least an educated guess. Crysis Remastered is targeting every platform known to humankind (PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch) and the console versions will definitely take the optimizations from the 360 and PS3 versions. So why double your work (probably more than double) by building off the PC version on just one version of the game? Makes sense, economically.

It's also totally antithetical to the spirit of the original game.

And that's the entire experience of Crysis: Remastered, for a fan of the original. It's 80% of the way there, but the last 20% is unavoidable. I really hope this game is moddable, as one or two tiny changes here would get rid of most of my problems. This might sound like a lot of nitpicking, but I'm only nitpicking so much because so little is different. In an era of Resident Evil 2, Final Fantasy 7 -- ambitious remakes that do a lot of work to bring classics onto modern hardware, Crysis does too little, and what it does, it messes up. I like the graphical improvements, and I'll still check it out when I finish upgrading my computer, but honestly? After playing Remastered, I booted up the original... and now I kind of want to just play that.

16 Comments

Marvel's Spiderman in 2020

Content Warning: I'm going to be talking about the 2018 Spider-Man game in an explicitly political context. A lot of points here were made back in 2018 by more talented writers than I, but I just finished the game, and it hit very differently in 2020. If political stuff in games isn't your bag, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Oh, also, spoiler warning.

Lukewarm takes in 3... 2... 1...

I just played through Marvel's Spider-Man for the first time. It's a ton of fun, but holy shit, is it clueless about the police, and structural power in general. I know that a -- lot -- of -- people -- have brought this up, but it hits like a ton of bricks given the current nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. I'm not interested in setting the forums on fire and insta-locking this thread, but it's sufficient to say that the police as a whole, and the NYPD in particular has come under intense renewed scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd.

Having seen these protests unfold, it's safe to say I viewed Spider-Man's actions and totally uncritical support of the police in a much harsher light than even the previously linked writers. As noted in the Deadspin article, one of the earliest side activities is breaking up drug deals and beating up everyone involved. Peter has a few quips here, and they're mostly innocuous if a little tone deaf, like (paraphrase), "Beating drugs is what I'm the most passionate about!" or something like that. But every once in a while, he'll say, "If you just got real jobs you wouldn’t have to work so hard at being criminals!" which, ew. Ew ew ew. It's also real weird playing a game in which you help the police repair surveillance equipment built by a private contractor, in the same time as Baltimore getting literal spyplanes (that catch very few criminals, and mostly keep tabs on protesters, BTW). There is some definite copaganda-lite in the portrayal of Jefferson Davis, the Rikers Island riots (notice how most of the thugs you fight or see are intentionally white, when the population of Rikers is overwhelmingly people of color?).

The urgency in portraying these issues more responsibly in our media has been renewed by current events, but again, these issues have all been brought up before. What struck me most, and that didn't seem to get much attention back at the time of release, was its portrayal of protests and pandemic.

Oh yeah, we're going there. Remember how that game has a deadly disease threaten New York, putting the city in lockdown? And not like the usual comic book "oh no, Joker is going to put clown poison in Gotham's water main!" but an actual disease, Devil's Breath, gets out and threatens the lives of thousands and (SPOILER) AUNT MAY DIES OF IT.

OOOOOOOF that was the last thing I expected to see while unwinding with an open world game.

The portrayal of New York's reaction to the pandemic is totally fine, there's nothing that rubbed me the wrong way there. That being said, there is a side activity in this section of the game that has you rescue protesters who have been unlawfully detained by Sable International, a trigger-happy PMC occupying New York at Mayor Osborn's behest. After you beat up the bad men with lasers, the protesters do the usual superhero prostrations, "Thank you Spider-Man," etc., Peter lays out one of his quips. He says, and I kid you not,

"Love the spirit of protest! But maybe hold off until after we're in a state of emergency."

It's a small thing, and it's not close to the weirdest part, politically, of this game, but that was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back for me. Telling people to not protest until things are safer is a seemingly innocuous request. After all, individuals, in general, shouldn't put themselves at undue risk -- but our trying modern times have revealed the fallacies in this thinking. In the context of COVID, Black Lives Matter protesters are out en masse at a time when people of color are the ones disproportionately being exposed to COVID anyway, due to their prevalence in "essential" and service jobs, and the lack of a financial cushion to stay home from work. That protests are increasing COVID cases is an unapologetically anti-protest argument, disproven by the data. If that's a little too "outside the text", even grounded within the game's events alone this quip makes no sense. These civilians are protesting at a time when Sable has the city under, essentially, martial law-lite. Sable Outpost missions show that people who aren't protesting are being detained and robbed of their valuable possessions, as well. So what else can the ordinary, non-web-swinging citizens of Virtual New York do but protest? To tell them to do otherwise is to tell them to do nothing, to continue to put their faith and immediate well-being in the hands of the institutions that failed them in the first place. In Sable, who locks them up. In the NYPD, who, throughout the game's runtime, seems powerless to stop even simple muggings, let alone super-villainous schemes. In Mayor Osborn, who is responsible for bringing those super-villains about through his actions. In Spider-Man, who in this portrayal is not "one of the people" so much as the staunchest defender of established power.

Sure, outside of the suit, Peter Parker has blue collar woes. He isn't paid for his work; he gets evicted from his apartment; he's clearly outside the nexus of privilege. But when he does don the suit of Spider-Man, he spends less story time defending ordinary citizens, and more time tirelessly defending the rich and powerful. He fixes the NYPD's surveillance towers, he spends the entire back half of the story trying to convince Mr. Negative and Doc Oc not to kill Norman Osborn, proclaiming that he will see justice for what he has done. Yet -- and this is a very important "yet" for a game that tries so hard to be a movie -- we never see this "justice" on screen. We never see any trials, any legal or political action taken against Norman Osborn. In our last shot of him, we see him wearing the same incredibly expensive-looking suit and tie in his nice apartment, so... in visual language, and what we actually see on screen, he faces zero repercussions for his actions. There isn't even an implied reckoning, just Spider-Man's word. Which is usually pretty good, but in this game, I'm not so sure.

I feel kind of bad taking a comic-book/video-game story to task so hard, in a story that otherwise has lots of great things going for it, and indeed, the game as a whole was a pleasure to play through. Maybe I'm overthinking it. It's nothing new for a game story to accidentally trip into hot water when trying to say nothing, especially in regard to charged topics like the police. I suppose, in the long run, this game isn't the worst offender, like The Outer Worlds. (Maybe both sides are right, and there's a compromise down the middle? Um, not in this scenario you've presented, Obsidian, no.)

If it's not the worst offender, though, then what Marvel's Spider-Man is, is complacent.

A line about Oscorp harvesting user data here, a mission calling heavily armored goons walking the streets in the name of law and order "fascists" there. Moments like these show that the writers and narrative designers of the game had their finger on the pulse -- they just chose not to do anything with it. And not having hot takes in your game isn't a crime, in 2018 it was pretty unremarkable. I'm also sure several elements of the game, story included, had to go through Disney approval, of "here's an off-screen guy saying he's gay in Endgame so we can edit it out for Chinese markets" fame. This is a game that was willing to say, "yes, militarized policing of communities is fascist," but wasn't willing to point out that we were already there. The folks throwing protesters in vans and arresting them without cause are not laser-wielding, jetpack-adorned Sable troopers -- they're plain clothes officers and Federal troops. Here. Now.

And in the here and now, complacency helps no one but those already benefiting from the status quo.

...

Sidenote, I'll be incredibly curious to see how Spider-Man: Miles Morales follows up on these issues, given that Miles is black and Insomniac are smart enough designers/writers to not drive straight into the same thorny discussions again, especially in our current moment.

If you stuck through and read the whole way through, thank you! Please be civil in the replies. I'm not saying the game sucks (again, I really liked playing it), some of the story and theme decisions just left a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not looking for every videogame, especially every mass-marketed AAA video game, to be some nuanced meditation on its subject matter; that being said, this felt like one of those cases where the creatives involved thought they were saying nothing controversial but were actually putting forward some, both contemporarily and in hindsight, kind of awful takes, and that frustrated me.

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I am really enjoying Fall Guys.

After seeing the quick look for Fall Guys last week, I picked it up -- and I have to say, it's been fantastic so far. In short, it is exactly what it appears to be, so if you haven't liked what you've seen, then it's probably not worth it for you to get. By that same token, however, if you have liked what you've seen, you'll probably enjoy it for at least a weekend.

For those of you who've been under a rock this past week, or simply been bewildered by the flurry of clips over Twitter, Fall Guys is a multiplayer platformer with battle royale and game show influences. Much like Wipeout, or Takeshi's Castle, a crowd of up to 60 players run through a grab bag of obstacle courses and challenges, with the bottom-scoring or finishing players being eliminated round by round. Most of the fun of these aforementioned reality TV shows is watching ostensibly capable, dexterous adults flop around helplessly on slippery courses, or take embarrassing falls into slime/mud/water after being pummeled by a padded wrecking ball. To that end, Fall Guys intentionally controls very loosely, with a priority placed on physics. Between player collision, the obstacles on the course, and your character's tendency to ragdoll after clipping any surface or player too hard, the playerbase is really just a comedic, writhing mass of humanoid limbs. With this kind of setup, it's fair to wonder whether what's funny translates into actually being fun. We'll get back to this.

OH GOD
OH GOD

Fall Fall Guy's WYSIWYG quality makes it pretty easy to dismiss out of hand -- the goofy art style, floppy physics, and fast pace led one of my friends to note, "It looks like a streamer game." Which is to say, it looks like the kind of amusing, yet shallow experiences that are meant more for people to watch on Twitch for a weekend than actually play themselves. And while this has a lot of surface-level traits in common with a Goat Simulator or Surgeon Simulator, (man is there a cottage industry around jokey "simulators,") unlike a lot of "streamer games," Fall Guys, upon playing it for a while, feels like it was designed with care.

Take, for example, the obstacle course layouts. There is a conscious widening and narrowing of the player space -- most Race events start in a wide thoroughfare that players can simply run forward in, but soon enough, the platform starts to taper out, and players are forced to stampede each other as the players on the outer edges cut in. This is meant to leverage one of the game's greater assets, the physical comedy. "Hit Parade" uses this to great effect, as players are forced to go through a narrow, opening and closing gate in the center of the track (and right next to some revolving doors too, it's a real doozy,) almost always resulting in a Black Friday mob jumping, grabbing, and diving over a pile of ragdolling players in the center. "Slime Climb" has Wipeout-esque pushers (not sure what to actually call them) that need to be ran past at certain intervals. That's very doable, except for the throng of eager players right behind you who will inadvertently push you into the obstacle's path at just the wrong moment. Or was that intentional?

In three seconds, everyone on that yellow seesaw is ragdolling to their doom.
In three seconds, everyone on that yellow seesaw is ragdolling to their doom.

This brings me to the next thing I really enjoy about Fall Guys -- the wide range of player expression and agency. There are four simple actions, running, jumping, diving, and grabbing. This simplicity makes the game easy to pick and play, which is great, but the real boon here is how every one of these verbs can interact with other players. As I pointed out before, the simple act of running is impeded by the other players. Jumping is similarly fraught. You can collide with players mid-air and miss a crucial jump, and you can jump on top of another player and bounce off of them (this is either a good or devastating depending on the context). Diving in mid-air gives you more lateral movement at the cost of voluntarily flopping yourself on the ground, a vulnerable position. But it can be a great last-minute save, or a way to take unorthodox paths in certain situations. (Pro tip: good players jump, great players know when to dive.) Diving can also screw others over if you want to tackle them. Speaking of screwing people over, GRABBING. This one is pretty self-explanatory, you hold Right Trigger next to another player, and that person can't run for a bit. It's purely a griefing tool, but I love it. Say you're playing "Block Party", where different block shapes move across a stationary platform to knock players off. Well, you can hold another player long enough they can't get out of its way, and you're one step closer to the crown, baby! That example feels developer-intended, but my favorite grabbing trend in the game always occurs near the end of a round. During races, some people intentionally stay right next to the finish line instead of finishing to tackle and grab slower players before the finish line like demented linebackers (that's the correct term, right? I don't really football). So there aren't a lot of actions the player can take, but all of them have interesting considerations and can express what kind of contestant you want to be in the game.

One of my favorite multiplayer interactions in gaming is in Halo, when another player with a Warthog has a seat available and just stops next to you. It's the most human thing, no voice chat needed -- "Hop in!" Between the expressive animations and player verbs, Fall Guys achieves a similar feat several times during play. You can just intuitively tell what kind of player the guy next to you is by how they move. If you're near an edge and they start hovering towards you, your fight or flight lizard brain kicks in and you know, this guy is bad news.

Precarious.
Precarious.

Increasing this player expressiveness are some of the unique gamemodes outside of Races. "Door Dash" feels like a madcap variation on those classic statistics game show door problems, where only some doors can be opened, but you can only tell by flinging yourself at it. Being one of the first to jump can result in a lead... or a horrible loss as you futilely bounce against the door and watch everyone else stream through the gap 3 doors over. "Seesaws" play out like game theory, where you want to be on the winning side of the seesaw, but enough people have to be on the other side to lift you up to begin with. "Hex-a-Gone" alternates between defensively using as few tiles as possible, or offensively taking out other people's tiles. My personal favorite, though, is "Tip Toe", in which players have to make their way across a treacherous set of mystery tiles -- only a fraction of them can actually be walked upon, the rest vanish and plummet you to your demise, and a start from the beginning. Since there's only one way to find this out, a methodical, yet urgent game of chicken starts to take place, where a huddle of players stay on the last known tile, trying to push each other to each potential path forward as guinea pigs.

This one? Not so great.
This one? Not so great.

Not all the extra modes are winners, though. All the "Tag" modes are fun in a "us versus them" (some interesting dynamics start to play out as who has a golden tail and who doesn't changes) way, but like most of the team modes, it's an absolute toss-up whether or not you'll progress, and you have very little control of the outcome. "Roll Ball" and "Fall Ball" similarly, have some of those interesting player expressions I was talking about earlier, but they're just coin tosses when playing with randos. In the three team modes, especially, a dynamic takes place where two teams just informally agree to gang up on the other team, as only one team is eliminated from those modes. Also interesting, but... veering into the territory of not very much fun. The real lemon, however, is "Perfect Match" -- a memorization game that is not hard to memorize and doesn't have enough opportunities to screw other players over. On paper, I like the idea of a memorization game where social dynamics, like following where everyone else goes, or deliberately pushing other players off when the wrong tiles disappear, occur, but it's just too easy. I don't have a single interesting anecdote from my time with "Perfect Match", unlike almost every other mode.

But overall, that's okay, because loss in Fall Guys is incredibly low stakes. Much like PUBG did for Arma-style tactical shooters, a lot of the frustration here is alleviated when you can get into another game in less than a minute. This quick restart is also what makes other "bullshit" losses -- like when you're the first down the pit at the end of "Door Dash" but everyone else falls on top of you and you get stampeded so hard you don't qualify -- less disappointing. I should also shout out the floppy physics again, here, because the slapstick comedy goes a long way to making failure more amusing than frustrating. I asked earlier whether this game's loose control was funny or actually fun. The low risk, quick restart here makes sure they're one and the same. These low stakes also make Fall Guys a great glorified chatroom with your friends. It takes attention, but not too much, when you lose you can spectate your buddies and cheer them on. It reminds me of Trackmania in several ways.

So yeah. Fall Guys is very unashamedly goofy and easy to pick up, but I think there's a whole lot of good here. It's not the deepest game, but there are enough interesting courses and player verbs that I've had something memorable happen almost every match. The server issues from earlier, on PC at least, seem mostly ironed out (though there are random disconnects occasionally). The Fortnite-esque monetization, store, and battle pass makes me a little queasy at first glance, but for whatever reason, I'm finding it easy to ignore. If you're sitting on the fence, check it out! It's a lot of fun.

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