Portal & Portal 2: Critical Miss #24

I’m GLaDOS I Played These

Friends of mine are surprised to learn I never played Portal or Portal 2. The classic games developed and published by Valve were released in 2007 and 2011, respectively. While I had a passing interest in games in 2007, playing Super Mario 64 on my DS and Mario Kart on my Wii, I wasn’t at all up to date on any games releasing. And by 2011, I was in college, playing pretty much no games besides a Pokémon run here and there. The Portal series has just passed me by until now. Even after I learned of the series and its reputation, I never had a computer powerful enough to run it. So when I got my used Xbox 360, I downloaded the games and played through them to fill in the interdimensional hole in my gaming knowledge.

The story of Portal focuses on a woman named Chel who is being forced to run through science tests by GLaDOS, a robot controlling the functions of Aperture Science. It’s a simple story—a story of human vs machine, athleticism vs intelligence, silence vs wit. Even though the player controls Chel, GLaDOS steals the entire show. Impeccably acted by Ellen McLain, she provides the dry, straight-faced, and incredibly sharp humor that the game is praised for, but still manages to be threatening as a unfeeling machine. Early in the game, Chel will be giving a Portal Gun, a machine that creates openings on certain walls that can be used to instantly pass through the space between them.

The portals are an incredible mechanic—technically impressive, amazingly fun, and delightfully disorienting. I never really got used to the camera swinging around as gravity took effect on the character leaving a portal, but those moments are so short that you will quickly adjust. Since momentum is kept while entering and leaving portals, a lot of puzzles rely on that to spring yourself across larger gaps or to higher platforms not reachable through normal means. Other puzzles require holding down buttons with weighted cubes, creating a path for an electrical sphere to meet with a conductor to activate a button, and taking out turrets by knocking them over, either by grabbing them from behind or dropping things on them. 

Some puzzles will test your aiming speed and reflexes by giving you just a few seconds after exiting a portal to shoot another one on to be transported to. These were my least favorite in the game. I had gotten so settled into a comfy state of examining the level design and finding ways to access what I needed through portal placement, that the emphasis on speed and reflexes in the later part of the game didn’t feel like I was being tested on what had been taught to me.

The level design in general is rather rigid due to the fact that portals can only be created on certain surfaces. This is not a bad thing, however, since it helps keep puzzles and the rules of the game consistent and focused. In the last part of the game, you escape the steril test chambers and explore the rusted, grimy maintenance halls of the facility. The puzzles are still as straightforward as before, but the change in scenery goes a long way to freshen up the feel of the games. 

Honestly, Portal is pretty much perfect. The only complaint I have is with minor hit detections issues. I played the Xbox 360 Stay Alive version so I’m not sure if this was an issue with the original PC release, but the rounded edges of the portals seem to catch on the character and cubes while going through portals. This would lead to missed jumps as my momentum was halted or dropped items missing their target as a corner clipped the edge of a portal and physics sent it spinning off course. It’s not a major complaint at all and hardly dampened my opinion of the game, but it was something I kept noticing.

The only other thing I sometimes hear criticized about the game is its short length. The game is about 2-3 hours long, I completed my first playthrough in just an evening, but I think the length is to the game’s benefit. There is no wasted space in Portal, every inch of the game world has a purpose and it comes in, shows off the ideas it has, and ends before it becomes stale or boring. It is such a tightly, perfectly designed game that I couldn’t image it being any longer. That was, however, until I played Portal 2, which is a perfect example of the phrase “bigger isn’t always better.”

Portal 2 is pretty much the same game as the original, but with just more stuff added. Bigger environments, more puzzles, more characters and story—it’s a classic follow up philosophy where the sequel has to be bigger and bolder (the Alien/Aliens effect). While the portal gameplay is still as fun as ever, there were so many more elements added to the puzzles. Instead of just portals with the occasional electric ball or cube to worry about, Portal 2’s puzzles will have you redirecting lasers, creating light bridges, and using three different kinds of gels, each with a unique property, to solve puzzles. All these new mechanics are explained and utilized well enough and pretty fun to use, but their inclusion seemed to necessitate larger rooms and environments for the puzzles to take place in, hurting the tightness and ultrafocus of the original game’s design. Gameplay is not the only thing that has been expanded upon either. The story is chattier than ever in Portal 2.

GLaDOS now has to share the spotlight with robot core named Wheatley, played by Stephen Merchant, and the prerecorded messages of Cave Johnson, played by J. K. Simmons. I found Wheatley pretty annoying, but he is not unfunny, and Simmons as Cave Johnson is just a delight because he seems to be tapping into his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Rami Spider-Man films. There are some very funny bits with Johnson ranting about mantis man and exploding lemons, but the humor of the game expands from the specific dry wit of the first game and becomes sillier and more general. I would say that Portal 2 is funnier than the first, but I’m a sucker for the straight-facedness of the first game’s comedy.

The point of max frustration toward Portal 2 for me came at the end. You have a great bit of (literal) raising action as you climb your way out of the ruined, old facility and you are flushed with victory, ready for the faceoff with Wheatley and the climax of the story. But then the pacing grinds to halt as Wheatley makes you perform more tests to keep his high going. It’s a funny bit at first, but it could have worked with just requiring the player to complete a few more tests. Instead you have to go through about a dozen more. I was ready for the game to end, but it insisted on sticking around for another hour or so after its logical end point. And this is ultimately what Portal has over its sequel. Portal knew exactly when to end before it got stale or ran out of ideas, and Portal 2 went on past the point where it had anything new to share.
Portal and Portal 2 are still some of the most beloved and respected puzzle games to this day and that’s because they are both great, but I find the original far superior to its sequel. The best way I can explain my opinions of the games is to imagine them as a boxer. Portal is the boxer at the prime of their career: in fighting trim with absolute zero fat on them. Portal 2 is the same boxer forty years later, after retirement: a little fatter than they were, but still strong and in better shape than most people. Either way, either game can still beat the crap out of the majority of AAA games releasing nowadays.

Pokémon Platinum – Critical Miss #23

Turtwig’s All the Way Down

When I decided to play this game and review it for Critical Miss, I had no idea Pokémon’s 25th anniversary was this year, nor did I know that the Pokémon Company was going to announce celebrations for it earlier in the month and Twitter would be swarming over the idea of remaking the fourth generation—those were all happy little accidents. The reason I wanted to play Pokémon Platinum was because I never fully played through any of the fourth generation games. Platinum was released in 2008 (2009 in America) and is the refinement title of Diamond and Pearl released just two years prior. This was just after high school and the beginning of college for me, the period where I probably played the least amount of video games (although I did have a DS and picked up a copy of HeartGold when it was released the next year). I have said before in my Nuzlocke post that Pokémon is probably my favorite game series based simply on how much of it I’ve played and how much I love the core gameplay. So I decided to fill this particular Snorlax size gap in my Pokémon experience and finally finish generation four.

To start with the gameplay: it’s still Pokémon so it’s still solid. The primary loop of catching Pokémon, adding them to your team, and battling with them to help them grow stronger is as fun and satisfying as ever. My team ended up being: Torterra, Crobat, Garchomp, Medichamp, Magnezone, and Houndoom—and I was very happy with this team besides lack of a water Pokémon leading to some frustration in the end game, but more on that later. The sprites in the battles are the best 2D art in the series, very detailed and crystal clear. While the core gameplay loop is as strong as ever, the moment to moment gameplay suffers due to the Slowpoke pace of the game. Everything in Platinum is slow: movement speed, battle animations, text, and even HP draining and the EXP bar filling. I’m used to slow-paced RPGs, but Platinum did start to tire me towards the end. The game feels heavy as a Rhydon, but stays engaging by being one of the toughest Pokémon games I’ve played.

Now, the game is still not extremely hard—I wouldn’t call it the Dark Souls of Pokémon games—but in terms of a Pokémon game, Platinum gave me the meatiest, non-Nozlocke challenge I’ve had with the series in a while. This comes down to two main things and, much like a Doduo’s two heads coming from the same body, they both have to do with the gym leaders. It’s always been true that trainers will have Pokémon a few levels higher than those in the surrounding routes and the gym leaders’ Pokémon will be a level or two higher than the trainers, but this is the largest level gap I can remember in the series. Apparently, the Pokémon of the gym leaders were raised a couple levels from Diamond & Pearl which would account for this. The second reason is because the gym leaders teams are more well balanced than previous, offering better type coverage with their Pokémon and their movesets. I was stuck on Crasher Wake for a while because his ace Pokémon, Floatzel, knew Ice Fang, which one-shot my Torterra, and Crunch, which one-shot the Rotom I was currently using. I had to stop and grind my team a couple levels before finally defeating him. But I didn’t really mind because I was just enjoying a Pokémon game that took a little more thought and effort.

The difficulty really helped me stay engaged with the game even through its Glaceon pacing and, sadly, uninterested story. I never play a Pokémon game for the story—I’m always more invested in the gameplay first and the story can be a fun addition—but I still like to follow it and be engaged. Unfortunately, the plot just becomes a villain team plot standard to Pokémon games, focusing this time on Team Galatic and their leader, Cyrus. They want to remake the world to Cyrus’s desires, but his goals are just too grand, his plan too underdeveloped, and his character and motives too one dimensional for any sort of interesting writing or storytelling. But that’s just the plot, another part of storytelling is setting and, as a region, I think Shinnoh is one of the best designed in the series. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the design of the routes in the Pokémon games: how ledges are used to funnel players into tall grass and into trainer battles, how out of the way areas usually hide useful items, how little nooks and crannies are hidden behind things that need an HM to pass to encourage players to return and explore more. Platinum uses the hardware of the DS to introduce a new aspect to the routes: overlapping layers. With Shinnoh having a mountain range dividing it into two sides, there is a lot of verticality on display. Bridges will pass over canyons and fields of snow, the cycling road covers the entirety of Route 206 underneath it, and the Great Marsh has little hills connected by wood planks to bicycle over to stay out of the muck below. There are caves cutting through the mountains and the peak of Mt. Coronet to reach in the late game.

The verticality is great and adds a new texture not seen before in the series, but I also love the off-the-beaten-path areas on routes. Most routes have areas you cannot reach during the first visit and usually hide powerful TMs or useful items. I always enjoy a reason to revisit an old area to explore for more goodies and must have spent a good few hours combing over each route again before challenging the Elite Four. My only issue with this deeper exploration is tied into the sheer amount of HMs needed to access every area.

HMs, or Hidden Moves, have been the most unpopular part of any Pokémon game since the series introduction because they are needed to explore the world (as in cutting down trees, moving boulders, and surf across water) and, once taught to a Pokémon, the move cannot be unlearned without finding a special NPC. Usually, HMs never really bother me. I like the utility outside of battle and moves like Surf and Fly were good enough to be useful additions to a moveset, but Defog is a thing in Generation Four and it’s absolutely worthless. Its use outside of battle is clearing fog so you can see where you are walking and inside of battle it just lowers your opponents evasion stat, which hardly ever comes into play. 

Shinnoh is the absolute pits when it comes to HMs, not just Defog is a completely useless move, but because there are eight different HMs needed to beat the game. This means if you want to have an HM mule (a Pokémon dedicated to just knowing HMs), you need at least two of them taking up space in your party. This was a real Ferrothorn in my side after climbing to the summit of Mt. Coronet and had to face off with Cyrus in the Distortion World. I had most HMs spread out across my team, but since I was not using a water-type Pokémon, I had to drag along a Biberal who I loaded up with Surf and other HMs. So when I faced Cryus, I was missing my Magneton and his Gyrados was a real wall to be busted through.

The only other issue I have with the fourth generation is a lack of identity with the Pokédex. Since so much of Shinnoh’s new Pokémon are new evolution stages of past generation Pokémon, the roster feels sort of lacking. Platinum increased the regional dex size from Diamond & Pearl, but the region still feels stale for choices of Pokémon to add to your team. This may be a problem unique to me. I always try to use Pokémon I haven’t had on a team before in a new playthrough of any game. Add that to my weird dislike of single type Pokémon and Shinnoh felt very restricted in Pokemon I could choose for my team. Overall, the Pokédex didn’t bother me that much because the challenge in gameplay and unique world more than made up for it; and while I even hesitated to mention it, I thought it important to address because, while a games sense of identity is not really important to me personally, I know it is important to some folks out there.

In all honesty, this was a selfish review. I wanted to play through Platinum simply because it was one of the generations I never finished. I also like to say whether or not I recommend a game after I play it and I definitely would recommend playing Pokémon Platinum. But who could I recommend it to? Pokémon fans most likely have already played it and it is not the first game in the series I would suggest a new player to start with. I would probably place the game in the mid-tier of Pokémon games in my opinion. I still loved my time spent in Shinnoh, but I’m a fan of the series so that is to be expected. I think that is the joy of the Pokémon series though—a series that has spanned 25 years has plenty places for new fans to join in, lots of history and games to explore for people to go back to and discover, and just lots of memories and friendships to be made, both in and outside the games.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Critical Miss #21

Enter the Master Sword

This Critical Miss is a bit of cheat because I have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before. As a kid, I had the Gameboy Advance rerelease of the game. From what I can tell, it’s the exact same game as the 1992 Super Nintendo game, but with a little screen crunch and more washed out colors. I wanted to play it again for this post though because I never actually finished it. When I was younger, I never made it past the Ice Temple and the few times I’ve picked it up since, I never made it much further than the beginning of the Dark World. 

The story is the standard Zelda story: evil being is being evil, find three of something to get the Master Sword to defeat them, things go wrong shortly after gaining the blade, explore more dungeons to collect more items to stop the evil once and for all. It is the same story as any other Zelda game but this time the evil being is the wizard Agahnim, who is actually Ganon in disguise, and he is collecting maidens to open up the Golden Land. Once Link has the Master Sword and defeats Agahnim, he is transported to the Dark World, the Golden Land that has been twisted and corrupted by the wizard’s evil desires.

The story is serviceable but I never found it engaging. The backstory of the Triforce and the Golden Land is mostly told by the maidens after saving them from dungeons. The story is simply told in long text dumps that are not particularly well written or interesting. The reason for the simple style of storytelling is most likely due to the limitations of the SNES, but games like Chrono Trigger managed to tell epic and engaging stories with the same limitations. 

Gameplay has always fared better on the SNES and A Link to the Past’s gameplay is still very fun. The core loop is exploration, fighting enemies along the way, and looking for gear, upgrades, and items gives a great sense of adventure. The overworld is fairly large for a SNES game and it is colorful, has varied locations from deserts to lakes to tall mountains, and is absolutely full of secrets to find. Being transported to the Dark World is a cool moment the first time it happens, but visually, it is not as appealing to look at as the Light World. It’s just kind of drab, filled with mostly browns and yellow, sick looking greens and muted purples. Thematically it is fitting, but after the bright and stunning colors of the main overworld, the muted color pallet of the Dark World gets boring after a while.

The exploration aspect of A Link to the Past is the strongest part of the game for me. Secrets like heart pieces, piles of rupees, and items are scattered everywhere across the map. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours exploring the world in between the critical path dungeons, looking under every rock and bush for hidden passages or items. Some of the most satisfying secrets to find are those that require moving between the Light and Dark Worlds because some areas, like ledges, cannot be accessed unless shifting between the two different maps. Link can teleport back into Hyrule by using the magic mirror and doing so will leave a cloud of magic dust that takes you back to the Dark World. Besides the dust created by the magic mirror, Link can only travel from the Hyrule to the Dark World by finding magic portals. It’s an interesting limitation that makes entering the Dark World a puzzle in and of itself and is used consistently to unlock areas of the map and to discover the entrances to dungeons.

Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game and utilize a blend exploration, combat, and puzzle solving to complete. They need to be explored thoroughly to find the big key, the item needed to finish, and the lair of the boss at the end. Some dungeons require items found in the overworld to navigate, like the Swamp Palace needing the Zora flippers to swim through the changing water levels. This is great because it requires players to explore the overworld thoroughly. Typically, you will have what you need already to explore a dungeon, but if not, it’s just a matter of finding the item needed in the world. 

The items found in dungeons are often needed to defeat the boss at the end, but not always. For example, you need the magic hammer in the Dark Palace to break the Helmasaur King’s armor before you can damage him. Requiring the items found in the dungeons to defeat the boss is a design choice Nintendo would make more in later Zelda games, but in A Link to the Past most items seem to be designed with exploration and puzzle solving in mind rather than combat. This is not a bad thing, but it does make some of the items feel less impactful, like the cape, if they are only really required to gather a heart piece. This does lead to some odd choices when items in dungeons are optional. I found it very strange that Link finds the blue mail, which reduces damage taken, in the Ice Palace, only to find the red mail, which reduces more damage, three dungeons later in Ganon’s Tower. 

This is, of course, if you are doing the dungeons in the order the game suggests. They can be completed out of order, but many require items from previous dungeons to compete or even unlock the area of the map they are in. I went through the dungeons in the order found on the game map because doing them out of order seemed  frustrating to me as someone who does not know the game like the back of my hand.

The dungeons are fun for the most part because they rely so heavily on the best aspects of A Link to the Past: exploration and collecting items. That being said, however, they can get tedious to do. I think 3D gaming worked wonders on the Zelda series’ puzzle design. It added a much needed sense of spatial reasoning to explore dungeons. In the 2D games, so many of the puzzles rely on killing all the enemies in the room, pushing a certain block, or finding a button underneath a pot in order to unlock the door or make a key appear. While every dungeon has its own gimmick, the Swamp Palace’s changing water levels or Turtle Rock’s floating platform to ride, they tend to lack individual personalities to me. They have slightly different atmospheres and looks to them, but the dungeons still often look and feel too similar for my taste. 

But the game is still great, solidly designed and with a sense of adventure unparalleled by most other SNES games. It was so realized that it became the foundation for pretty much every Zelda to come after it. It introduced the collection to Master Sword to more collection outline common in other games in the series. It was the induction to staple items like the bottles, hookshot, heart pieces, and even the Master Sword itself, as well as abilities like the spin attack. It is the game that made the Zelda series what we think of today while managing to maintain its own identity since it is still a 2D game where most games that came after are 3D.

I think it’s time to admit to myself that I’m just not a huge Zelda fan. I am still a fan, but a casual one as opposed to a die-hard one. I’ve played many games in the series and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I’ve never really fallen in love with any. There’s never anything deal breaking in them that makes me shut them off, but there’s not much I can think back on that I absolutely adored. That is except the wall merging mechanic in A Link Between Worlds. I found that to be a truly genius additional that opened up puzzle and level design to a possibility not seen before in the series. And that game owes everything to A Link to the Past. It is basically its child with how much DNA it shares with A Link to the Past by being a reimagining of the game. If I had to choose a favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds would be high up, probably even the top spot. So even if I did not find A Link to the Past the most engaging game to play nowadays, I will also thank it for helping create one of my favorite games in the series.

Silent Hill 2 – Critical Miss #20

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Town of Blood and Fog

It’s October which means it’s spooky season. While I love horror movies, I haven’t actually played many horror games. I could make excuses like how they don’t tend to interest me or I find them mechanically light typically, but the truth is horror games freak me the fuck out. It comes down to interactivity. I can sit back, idly watching a movie and judge the characters for making poor decisions, but in a game, I am the one who has to make the poor choices if I want to progress. When it came time to choose a classic scary game for the Halloween Critical Miss this year, there was one game that immediately came to mind.

Silent Hill 2 released in 2001 to immediate commercial and critical success. Even today, it is widely considered to be the high point of the series and one of the scariest games ever made. It’s praised for its atmosphere, psychological horror direction, and symbolism in design. The game centers around James Sunderland coming to the fog shrouded resort town in search of his wife, Mary, who has sent him a letter despite being dead for three years. Walking toward the town, you meet a woman named Angela who warns James not to continue onward because there is something wrong with the town. And she is absolutely right.

The titular town is enveloped in a dense fog making it impossible to see more than ten feet in front of you and is infested with monsters, terrible humanoid shapes with their arms pinned to their torsos like their burnt skin is a straight jacket. When you first make it to Silent Hill, you will spend a good chunk of time wandering aimlessly around, dodging the shapes materializing out of the fog, until you find any indication of where to go. Silent Hill 2 is not afraid to make the player lost. Once you find the thread to follow to destinations, the game is sign-posted well enough, but until then, you are on your own. This is extremely effective in creating fear since you are trapped in this unfamiliar town you can barely see and there are monsters around every corner and hiding under parked cars ready to jump out and maul you.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All monster encounters are extremely tense since the controls are very stiff and weighty. Combat, when you are forced into it, is especially stiff, sticky, and enemies take a lot of damage before dying. It is always advisable to run away from enemies rather than fight them due to resources needed to kill them, both ammo if you have any or healing items needed to keep James alive. I was very grateful to discover you could turn off tank controls earlier on, but the free movement is still based on a very uncooperative camera. Camera angles change suddenly, leading to running back down the hall you just exited and it swings slowly ,almost drunkenly, around when positioning it behind James. The camera is disorientating and makes the player never feel settled in a place. 

James must find his way through Silent Hill to find Mary and to do that he must navigate its streets and buildings while plunging deeper and deeper (literally at times, as in the prison) into the darkest depths of the horror and misery of his past. You’ll visit four main areas throughout the game that sort of act as dungeons from a Zelda game or a RPG. There are the apartment buildings, the hospital, Silent Hill Historical Building and the prison inexplicably below it, and the hotel. You will have to search rooms for items to either solve puzzles or unlock new rooms to search. The puzzles are typically clever logic puzzles, like the coin puzzle, or have hints somewhere nearby to clue you in to the solution, like the clock puzzle or combination lock. As the game progresses though, I feel the puzzle start becoming more obtuse. The main culprit of this is the block of faces just after the prison. I’m not sure if I missed the hint saying what to do, but I could not for the life of me figure out what was expected of me until I looked up the solution. The puzzles are either clever but solvable, or encourage exploration, both which I enjoy, and they are only really let down by the clunky inventory menu. Overall, the gameplay of Silent Hill 2 is fine, it’s passable, but that’s not the star of the game. The real reason to play this game is the town itself, James, and the complete horror one finds when confronted with their darkest secrets.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

As James gets pulled into Silent Hill, so does the player through the game’s atmosphere. Everything is dank and empty with metal doors rusted, windows broken, and the walls covered in grime. The game takes familiar settings like a hotel or hospital and makes them hellish and alienating by plunging them into darkness and coating everything in rust and filth. The visuals still hold up extremely well today, but the sound design is on a whole other level and is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Sounds range for the loud radio static when monsters are nearby to the quiet barely heard whispers of unknown voices, the constantly pounding of James feet to sudden crying of a baby heard in only one room. Everything sounds chucky and uncanny, real enough to be recognized but odd enough to unnerve anyone hearing them.

Uncanny is how I would describe the characters too. Not in an “uncanny valley” sense where their models invoke an unease in the players (although there is some of that since this is the PS2), but more in their actions and conversations. James is pretty unflappable. Sure, he reacts to the horrific things happening in front of him, but he never seems to react to an appropriate level. His first encounter with Maria is a perfect example: he first mistakes her for his wife because she is Mary’s exact double, but is a sexier outfit. She immediately takes a liking to James and comes on to him very hard, despite the fact that they are trapped in a town full of monsters. James acknowledges Maria’s likeness to Mary, but that’s it. He just accepts it and moves on, no real questions after this interaction. I think James’s cold acceptance to the things he sees mostly has to do with the voice acting, which is not great with flat and stilted delivery, but it honestly works better than expected. It helps add to the other-worldly feeling of the town, as if the characters are too numb, terrified, or simply indifferent to care much about what is going on.

Whether the poor voice acting was intentional or not, it adds so much subtle unease to a game that’s filled to overflowing with subtleties. There are quiet sound effects, like footsteps following you in the beginning of the game and heavy breathing in certain rooms, that only happen in particular areas and are easy to miss. All the enemies represent the larger themes of the game. There are all feminine in nature, like the mannequin enemies that are just too sets of women legs and the nurses, except for Pyramid Head, face of Silent Hill since his introduction in this game. Pyramid Head is a tall, powerful male figure often seen attacking and assaulting the feminine enemies. The enemies represent every thing of James’s guilt of past actions to his frustrated libido since Mary’s passing. It’s so unnerving when you realize this because it adds so much more to the town of Silent Hill itself. It makes the town feel the main antagonist of the game, an alive, thinking entity with its own agenda for James.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All this builds to a tense and terrifying game. It breeds that special type of anxiety in you, that tightness in your chest, the sense of never feeling completely safe. The dread builds and builds until the very end where the game closes like a quiet door. It doesn’t offer a big, cathartic climax where the secrets of the town are discovered with a big, horrific set piece like many other horror games offer. Instead, the game’s climax is an emotional one, where the player watches James admit to and accept responsibility for his past sins. It’s a quiet, bleak, and heart wrenching moment because it’s not easy to not get invested in James and his suicidal quest in Silent Hill.

When I played, I got the ending that suggests that James commits suicide to be with his wife. You never see it, but it’s very much implied. After watching the other endings, this one feels the most fitting for me and my understanding of the town of Silent Hill. The town doesn’t not exist to redeem or offer any sort of relief to those it chooses, it exists only to punish and to torment. 

I wouldn’t call the game itself very punishing. It checks a player’s overconfidence through stiff combat and having James be quick to die, but mostly the gameplay is just a little stiff and the puzzles oblique. But it works for this type of game and paired with the thick atmosphere and fantastic story. James and his journey through hell will always have a place in the back of my brain, poking at my thoughts like a thorn. I’ve been turning Silent Hill 2 over in my head again and again since completing it, and that’s always the best sign to me that I really loved a game.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Spec Ops: The Line – Critical Miss #19

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

Lines Drawn in the Sand

I stated in my Vanquish review that I missed the years in the late 2000’s where cover based shooters were the hot new thing. Even today, it’s not a genre I gravitate into, along with the trend of modern day military shooters like the CoD games since Modern Warfare. They tend to be too slow and dry for me. So why is it then that when I purchased a Xbox 360, one of the first games I bought for the system was Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military cover based shooter? Extremely positive word of mouth is one thing, but the real reason I had to play it was because the game is lauded as one of the most interesting uses of narrative in video games. 

Set in Dubai during cataclysmic sandstorms, you play as Captain Walker, a US Delta Force operator and his two man crew of Lugo and Adams. They have come to the ruined city in response to a radio transmission from Colonel Konrad, a man Walker fought under in the past. Their mission is simple: locate survivors from the sandstorms and radio for evac. This gets immediately complicated as Walker’s team finds themselves under attack by two sides of battling for control of the city. Refugees attack the team thinking they are part of Konrad’s 33rd battalion, and the 33rd themselves mistake Walker’s team as CIA agents who have been supplying the refugees with arms to fight the 33rd.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

The setting of Dubai half buried in desert sand is one of my favorite things about the game. It effortlessly juxtaposes the opulent wealth of the glass shard skyscrapers and the clutter, squalor poverty of the holes where the refugees are hiding. The levels will take you throughout the sand filled streets, dark and buried-in ground floors, high up in gaudy condos, and zip-lining across rooftops. While the setting is great, art direction if often lacking, especially in terms of character design. There were times I laughed during a shoot out because I would see multiple of the same character model rushing through a doorway. This lack of strong character design tended to confuse the story for me too. Most of the major players in the plot, the characters with speaking lines and move the story forward, are the boilerplate white dude military type and I had the hardest time remembering who was who.

It’s a good thing that the setting was interesting because I found the gameplay to be only fine at best. The actual shooting mechanics are engaging in a fight, but everything around it—getting in and out of cover, sprinting across battlefields, waiting for enemies to pop out of cover to be shot like cans on wall—felt slow and tedious. This is no doubt influenced by my lack of enjoyment from cover based shooters in general and I will say that I didn’t find Spec Ops to be any more clunky than other games in the genre I’ve played. The game does have a few unique mechanics to it. Walker’s teammates, Lugo and Adams, can help snipe or grenade enemies at the player’s command. Sand can be used throughout the game by blowing out windows to bury enemies, grenades causing clouds of dust that the player can use for cover, and even occasional sand storms will blind both player and enemies, sending both in a mad dash for safety indoors. Sadly, these mechanics are never explored to their fullest potential and it is almost always faster to just kill enemies you have your sights on instead of fiddling with calling out to a NPC to shoot them. They very well be much more crucial tools on the harder difficulties, but on normal like I played, they seem no more back of the box selling points. But I didn’t expect the gameplay  to blow me away when I purchased Spec Ops. What I was there to see was the story.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

I beg anyone who hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line to stop reading this review now. Go play the game if you have the means to or watch an unnarrated playthrough on YouTube. This is a game that needs to experienced without expectations and an open heart. I will not be spoiling everything in the story, but must discuss the turning point from a box standard military shooter to a repeated kick in the gut.

The game works as a deconstruction of other military shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor that were on the rage during that time. It starts with the unflappable heroes, dripping with unwavering duty and machismo, as they saunter into Dubai, cocksure and cracking jokes. When they find themselves being attacked by refugees and the 33rd, Walker decides the best thing to do would be to locate Konrad. In the pursuit, they must pass through a heavily guarded section of the city and Walker decides to clear out the opposing forces using white phosphorus. This is where the shoe drops. Walker and his crew soon find that the 33rd had set up a camp for refugees there too and they had just wiped out 47 civilian lives.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

From there the chaos continues to spiral. Konrad commands Walker to choose between killing a water thief and soldier who murdered civilians, the team helps a CIA agent named Higgs raid and steal the water the 33rd was guarding only to crash the trunks and destroy it, and Walker opens fire on a group of civilians after they hang Lugo. The game actively forces the player to commit more atrocious acts of violence because this is a war and, like Walker says, there’s not always a choice, But Spec Ops does not celebrate these actions. Quickly the veneer of glory in the line of duty and ends justifying the means mentality is ripped away and there is only death caused by the characters, and the player.

Walker himself becomes noticeably more angry and violent after using the white phosphorus scene. His simple shouts of “Got one!” when you shoot an enemy during gameplay turns to “Got the motherfucker!” and “Fuck you!” as he ends countless lives. I will not spoil the ending because I had not had it spoiled for me before playing but it is a great capstone to everything the story and themes have been working towards. It completely recontextualized the 2nd half of the story and Walker’s complete psyche.

One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is that it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was having a little difficulty following it for a bit because it didn’t seem logically tied together, the events of a scene didn’t always understandably lead to decisions Walker makes on what to do next. But I think that’s the point. The whole story is built on assumptions and bad faith on Walker’s part. What made me realize this was the death of CIA agent Gould. It is discovered that he was planning on storming an area of Dubai named The Gate and Walker decides that’s where his team must head to next. When asked what’s important about The Gate, Walker just says “Gould thought it was important enough to die for, so it must be important.” This leads directly to the use of the white phosphorus to clean out the soldiers guarding The Gate. When agent Higgs ropes the Delta Force team into helping him steal water from the 33rd, Walker just goes along with it. He clearly does not trust Higgs, but he agrees to be a part of the plan with much second thought. 

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

There are no good guys in Spec Ops: The Line, but I’m not sure I would say there are any bad guys either. There are just people doing what they think they have to do no matter the cost. Walker has to find meaning to the madness happening in the city, Konrad was trying to protect the refugees even if it meant by force, Higgs felt the need to cover up Konrad’s crime out of fear of the world discovering them. There is no good or evil; there are only people fighting to stay alive, people insisting they are in the right, the messy gray morals of war and people fighting to the death. 

Art is not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable. Look at the pain and grief portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica or the stomach turning scenes of assault in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Some art is designed to shine a light on the darkest parts of the human heart and challenge the viewer themselves with questions they may not want to answer. Spec Ops: The Line is one such piece of art. Throughout the game, it constantly asks: What are you doing? Is this right? Do you feel like a hero yet? But they just hang there. It does not offer any answers because it is not up to the game to decide. The only one who can answer those questions are yourself.

Fallout – Critical Miss #14

Set the World on Fire

The Fallout series is a household name in the video game industry and one I have always been interested in, partly due to my fear of nuclear weaponry. However, the only game in the series I ever played to completion was Fallout 4. It was the first game I bought for my PS4 so, while I don’t think highly of it today, it has a special place in my heart. I put about 5-10 hours into New Vegas, but that ran so poorly on my low-end laptop that it triggered my vertigo and made me extremely nauseous. While Fallout is one of the most popular series in gaming, there is a divide in its fanbase of those who like the classic games in the CRPG genre or the more modern FPS games. I’ve never played any CRPGs for an extended amount of time so I decided to play through the first Fallout, released in 1997. My thinking was I could experience the game that started the Fallout series and try out the CRPG genre at the same time. The problem is that I’m not sure CRPGs are for me.

The first hurdle I had to jump over were the controls. Clicking the mouse to where you want your character to go was no issue, but right clicking to toggle actions between movement and interacting tripped me up. Since you have to wait for your character to run to where you guided them, the movement feels extremely slow, and when you add additional directions to open any doors before entering a room, it never stops feeling clunky. A slower pace for a game isn’t an inherently bad thing, but having to constantly change between interact and movement did irritate me at times. Inventory management is also extremely tedious. With no way to quickly scroll through your items, you are forced to click down the page and it is way too slow with how often you will need to look through your gear.

Combat doesn’t fare much better, sadly. This is partly due to the finickiness of the controls and partly due lack of tactical input offered to the player. While the combat is a tactical turn-based system, it is based on limited Action Points that don’t leave much option besides attacking or moving. You also cannot directly control any party members, who act automatically. The game also lacks any sort of interesting character abilities like XCOM or Divinity Original Sin offer, so most fights wind up being characters standing in a group shooting or punching each other. There is a great variety of enemies and weapons to use in combat, but I never wanted to deal with fighting any more than I had to so I never got to experience the variety on a meaningful level. My dislike for combat may be because I built my character as a charisma/intelligence build so they weren’t made for tough fights, but I’ve never had a problem handling combat with similar builds in other RPGs, so I can’t help feeling unengaged by Fallout’s combat system.

There are two major aspects of the game I truly loved, though, and one of them was the character creator. There are seven stats you can freely change at the start of the game: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. These stats will then determine where points are allocated to your skills (ex. strength will affect melee and unarmed skills, agility affects sneak) and with each level up you can add more points to desired skills. This allows you to focus your character and build them the way you choose. With my playthrough, I focused in high intelligence and charisma so I could talk my way through as many quests as possible, but it’s easy to build other character builds like a big, tough brawler or a sneaky thief. Every other level gained also lets you choose a perk that grants you a passive skill or buff. This style of leveling up is one of my favorites in all of video games. Fallout allows you such fine-tune control of your character that you feel you can truly build any type of character you want.

But the thing I loved most in Fallout is the world. It is a post-apocalypse game where most of humanity was wiped in a total nuclear war and the remaining people are trying to survive, be it through scraping together a living in communities or through violence. You explore the wasteland of a world that never culturally advanced past the American 1950’s and there is something fascinating about seeing all the retrofuturist ruins. Fallout mixes the old, the new, and the dead in a fantastic way and the world building through exploration and character dialogue is expertly done. This was my favorite part of the game: finding a new city and taking the time to explore and talk to everyone. It is very immersive and I found myself getting sucked into the world and hours passed by in real life without notice. It’s such a shame then that the controls and combat in the game prevented me from truly loving the game itself.

These types of games are always hard to review: perfectly good games that I didn’t enjoy very much. I’m objective enough to see through my own experience and look at the game as an unbiased whole, and through that lens Fallout is a great game. It’s no wonder why people in 1997 loved it so much and I have no doubt that it will continue to attract fans in the future. I’m just not one of them. Admittedly, this could be due to my lack of experience with the CRPG genre and that’s what makes Fallout really hard to give a definitive opinion on. Things I didn’t care for in the game might be what fans of the genre love and seek out in games. It’s awesome that video games offer such a wide range of experiences that anyone can find what they like.

I haven’t given up on this style of CRPG. I still really want to check out the Baldur’s Gate series. Maybe with Fallout under my belt, my expectations will be a little more in line with what the game might offer. I haven’t given up on the Fallout series either. I’m still looking into buying a Xbox 360 or PS3 so I can check out Fallout 3 and New Vegas where, hopefully, it won’t make me so sick. Sadly though, my desire to play Fallout 2 has been dampened, even though I hear nothing but amazing things about the game. Who knows though? Maybe someday I will take the time to dive back in the wastelands of the original Fallout series.

Metal Gear Solid – Critical Miss #13

Sneaky-Beaky Like

The stealth genre is not one I follow too closely. I’ll pick a stealth game when it looks interesting, I enjoyed Dishonored enough and I thought the stealth mechanics in Sekiro were implemented really well, but I always have a hard time with the inherent slower pace of most stealth games. This explains why I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before. But I recently picked up a PS2 and Metal Gear Solid was the first game I picked up for the system, I wanted to see what it was that has kept people so enthralled with it since 1998, why people love its creator, Hideo Kojima, so much, and if this was the stealth game that would finally help me love the genre.

Booting it up, the game’s visuals aged better than I expected. Sure, everything is noticeably pixelated on a HD television, but the art style and environmental design is really great. Everything is blue and metallic, heightening the sense that it’s a real military base in Alaska. You can see Snake’s breath when he is outside in the cold and the character models themselves are some of the cleanest and best looking I’ve seen on the system. It’s oddly charming watching the characters just nod their heads up and down instead of moving their mouths in cutscenes. 

I wasn’t a big fan off watching minutes long codec conversations, though. A lot of the discussions Snake has with his team members via the codec are just there to dump exposition, and having to watch it all with just two character portraits that hardly animate isn’t very engaging. However, the voice acting is extremely strong. It was one of the most impressive aspects of the game for me. PS1 games weren’t known for great voice acting (just see Resident Evil or Mega Man 8 for that), so to see Metal Gear Solid take it seriously was great. They had to have the best voice acting possible, though, because Hideo Kojima didn’t just want to make a video game, he wanted to tell a story. 

The story of Metal Gear Solid is basically a political/military thriller, but widened to explore themes of a soldier’s place in the world, trust in one’s government, nuclear weapons, and love. Honestly, the whole thing is very silly and over the top with larger than life characters and constant plot twists. It was the main thing that kept me playing in the second half of the game, but I wouldn’t say the writing itself is good. Character dialogue is almost always verbose, repetitive, and bloated. Characters explain unimportant details, like how the key cards open doors you just walk by, and they are always telling Snake how great he is and that he’s such a legendary soldier. I know, by this point, Snake has starred in two games already, but I would rather have his prowess as a soldier be expressed in gameplay, rather than characters saying it constantly.

I was similarly mixed on the gameplay. The controls have that classic PS1 stiffness, pressing against walls while trying to turn a corner is a constant issue I ran into, but once you get used to them, the stealth gameplay is enjoyable. The player is given many tools to sneak around guards: crawling under tables, looking around corners by pressing against a wall, knocking on walls to draw guards to the sound. The best tool they have to use is the Soliton Radar. This is a mini map in the top right of your screen that will show enemy locations and their sight lines. Using the radar well is key to infiltrating the base successfully. There are certain areas where the radar will be jammed and you will start to notice that a lot in the last half of the game. There are hardly any places on disc 2 that use the Soliton Radar. Not only is it disappointing to build up this skill to have it then taken away for most the end of the game, but it also leads to a lot of instances of being shot by something you couldn’t see off screen. 

There are also a couple bad moments of backtracking in the later half of the game, the worst being changing the shape of the PAL card. . You have to climb to the top of Metal Gear Rex to enter the control room, then you have to climb back down to go to the frozen warehouse, then climb back up to control room, then back down and take two long elevator rides to furnace before finally climbing back up Rex. This section is too long for its own good. It is just so boring and tedious. With most the rooms you travel through being devoid of enemies, there’s not much to keep the player engaged. It feels like padding at its most basic definition.

For me, the worst aspect of Metal Gear Solid are the bosses. The stiff controls make Ocelot and Gray Fox’s fight way too clunky, and the slow first person aiming makes the fights with Sniper Wolf and Rex terribly sluggish. Every boss has such a small window of opportunity to hit them that the fights involve a lot of waiting around. They never felt like they were testing my patience as a player, though, they just felt tedious. The worst fight for me was the Hind D which combines not only the slow aiming controls and small windows to do damage, but also has long periods where the helicopter dips below the building, meaning you just have to wait for it to come back to shoot it. The fight with Psycho Mantis is memorable because of all the meta nonsense happening, but my favorite boss in the game was Vulcan Raven in the warehouse. This is mostly because it’s the only boss fight that utilizes the Soliton Radar in a meaningful way as you watch his movements on the screen and place mines or C4 in front of his path.

Metal Gear Solid has the Resident Evil problem to me. While Resident Evil starts off as a scary survival horror game, it slowly becomes more action oriented as the game progresses until you are fighting giant bio weapons with rocket launchers. Metal Gear Solid follows the same pattern but with stealth gameplay instead of survival horror. The beginning is strong as you are just sneaking past guards from room to room, but towards the middle of the game the stealth gameplay gives way to action set pieces and boss fight after boss fight. I started to notice this after the first Sniper Wolf fight as I was lead down a string of frustrating action moments I didn’t feel the game prepared me for. After the fight with Sniper Wolf, you have the torture sequence where you mash the O button to survive. This leads to the communication tower section where you either run from the guards or shoot them down, stealth is not an option. Then the Hind D fight which I already discussed. The only room that requires any stealth skills past this point is the furnace and I found myself missing the sneaking around of the early game.

I can see why the game blew people away in the 90’s. With its great presentation, incredible voice acting, and emphasis on a real story, it stood out on the PS1. It really is the best cinematic experience you can have on that console. I only wish that the gameplay had stayed consistent throughout the entire game. I haven’t given up on the series, however. I still really want to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater because I’ve heard it’s really incredible. But first I have to get through Metal Gear Solid 2 and its bonkers story.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – Critical Miss #12

Heart & Craft

I’ve been trying to build my Gamecube collection lately, but it’s a tricky endeavor. Nintendo games tend to retain value and add the fact that the Gamecube is one of Nintendo’s lowest consoles, you have a recipe for expensive games. I was grateful when a friend borrowed we their copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It had been on my list for years but the game still goes for at least $50-$70 online, for a game released in 2004. That’s full price nowadays for a game over 15 years olds. But, I must admit, after playing the game, I see why it’s still so expensive and sought-after. 

To get the obvious out of the way, the first thing that needs to be brought up when discussing any Paper Mario game is the art style. Thousand-Year Door, like other Paper Mario games, uses a paper aesthetic for the art. Characters are paper cut outs and turn on their axis when changing directions. Things like hidden stairs and bridges are often revealed by a turning page or unfolding out of a wall. I found myself wishing that the game would go further with the paper aesthetic, but it still adds a lot of charm to the game. 

By far the strongest aspect of the art style is the character designs. A lot of NPCs in the game are classic Mario enemies, but there are a ton of new character designs on display. Be it the wrestling champ Rawk Hawk, the penguin detective Pennington, or the race of Punis, all the character designs are bold and colorful and extremely charming. One character, Ms. Mowz, has become one of my favorite character designs in video games. She a little mouse femme-fatale, burgular who wears a little red mask and silhettos. She’s extremely cute and her design perfectly encapsulates her personality. 

The story of Thousand-Year Door is simple and fun. The overarching plot is Mario searching for the seven crystal stars in hopes it will lead him to Princess Peach, who has been kidnapped by the X-Nauts. In between chapters, Peach Princess interacts with a computer, TEC, who’s fallen in love with her and Browser works to catch up to Mario and claim the crystal stars for himself. The writing throughout is clever and often very funny. My favorite gag in the game is the creature hiding in black chests that curses you, but the curses all turn out to be new abilities for Mario and are very useful.

The main plot of the game usually takes a backseat to whatever adventure Mario is currently on for a crystal star. The game is split into chapters and each one is varied and unique. The first chapter is a standard RPG story as you raid an abandoned castle and fight a dragon. But soon you will be entering a wrestling league, trying to reclaim your body after being turned into a shadow, or solving mysteries on a train like it’s an Agatha Christie novel. Chapters find a good balance of combat, puzzle solving, and witty dialogue, with only a few struggling with that balance like the train section or the pirate’s cove. The game feels like it wasn’t satisfied with telling a standard, epic RPG story, but instead wanted to explore different types of storytelling in an RPG format, and it pulls it off phenomenally.

I had only one minor complaint about the game and that is some sections require too much backtracking. The levels are designed as left to right rooms, like a 2D level in 3D, and when the game asks the player to go back and forth across these areas, like on Keelhaul Key and the trek between Twilight Town and the Creepy Steeple, you soon realize how boring the sections are after you solved all the puzzles during the first go around. The worst sections of this are the train to Poshley Heights, which is literally just a five room hallway, and the search for General White, which has you going through nearly all previously visited areas in search of the old Bob-omb.

A major difference The Thousand-Year Door has from standard RPGs is the leveling system. You don’t gain random stat increases as you level up, you don’t get skill points to spend on perks, you don’t even get new armor for more defense. Instead, each time Mario defeats an enemy, they drop star points, and after collecting 100 star points, Mario levels up. As soon as he levels up, the player has a choice to increase Mario’s health, Flower Points (the game’s magic points), or his Badge Points. Attack increases come by finding new hammers or shoes to improve Mario’s basic attacks or by equipping different badges to Mario.

Throughout the game, you will find many different badges. These badges can be equipped to Mario based on how many Badge Points Mario has available and how many points each badge requires. The badges provide a multitude of benefits ranging from new attacks, stat increases like more health or defense, or passive perks like randomly dodging some attacks or decreasing the cost of special moves. This system is extremely interesting because it encourages creativity from the player and is how the games lets  players make builds or classes in the game. You can build a magic class by equipping all the badges the decrease the FP costs of special attacks, a tank by using the defence badges, a dex type class by using the badges that give you the best chances to avoid damage, or you can just mix and match all the different types of badges to whatever fits your playstyle best. 

Mario isn’t alone on his journey, of course. Throughout the game, Mario will make new finds who will join his party and adventure alongside him. These characters range from familiar Mario enemy types with personalities like Goombella the Goomba and Koops the Koopa Troopa to completely new designs like Vivian, one of the Siren Sisters, and Madame Flurrie the wind spirit. There is even a baby, punk-rock Yoshi that the player gets to name! I named my B. Idol. All the party members are rather one dimensional, but, along with their strong designs, they feel more like cartoon characters and it works well in the game. Mario’s new friends all have unique abilities to help him solve puzzles and find hidden items in the overworld: Madame Flurrie blows away loose pieces of paper, Admiral Bobbery can blow up certain walls, and Koops can spin across gaps in his shell to collect items or hit switches. 

Your party members also aide you in battle and, much like the story, the combat in Thousand-Year Door is simple, but extremely fun.  Mario only has a jump and a hammer attack along with any badge attacks you have equipped, and those attacks can only hit certain enemies. Flying enemies or enemies not in the front row are out of reach of Mario’s hammer but can be easily jumped on. Spikey or flaming enemies will hurt Mario to jump on but are vulnerable to hammer strikes. Your partners attacks work in the same way. Some attacks can only hit ground enemies in the front row, some can jump on any enemy but is dangerous against spiky enemies, and some, like Vivian’s fire, can hit any enemy. 

The combat is pretty easy throughout, but it is one of the most fun battle systems in an RPG. There is a puzzle-like mechanic of knowing which enemies can be struck by which type of attack. While in most RPGs, the player is only required to navigate menus to select an attack and watch it occur, Thousand-Year Door uses an Action Command style meaning the player must do a specific action for an attack to do more damage or be effective at all. These actions could be pressing the A button at the right time, holding the joystick to the left and releasing, the right time, entering a random string of numbers, or rapidly pressing the triggers. This keeps the battles engaging the entire length of the game because they feel like tiny minigames to focus on. Many have stated the the combat in Thousand-Year Door is too easy, and it is very easy with only the final boss being a real challenge, but I found the battle system to be too engaging and simply too much fun for it to bother me.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a truly excellent game and an easy recommendation to anyone. The story and art style is charming and fun for anyone to enjoy it, and the combat is easy enough for an RPG novice to play while still having the Action Commands to engage anyone with more experience in the genre. This game has quickly climbed to the top of my list I wish to be rereleased for the Switch and, based on how fans have been begging Nintendo to return the Paper Mario to the style of Thousand-Year Door and how much critical acclaim this game has rightly gotten, I don’t feel alone in wishing for it.

Top 5 Critical Miss Games of 2019

I played a lot of older games this year, games that are considered classics, to see how well they held up for someone with no nostalgia for them. Honestly, this has been my favorite part of writing Atomic Bob-Omb. I wanted to celebrate nearly a year of Critical Miss by ranking my top 5 favorite games I played for the series in 2019

#5) Spryo 2: Ripto’s Rage

I was glad to play Spyro 1 and 2 this year. They were games I always wanted to play as a kid, and I did play a lot of a demo of the first game, but never owned them. While I found the first game to be clunky and frustrating with too precise of jumps with a very stiff arch, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage as a good time. With its wide range of characters and setting, differing mission for orbs, and more relaxed but still challenging at times platfoming, it was my preferred of the first two Spyro games. I’m amazed how much adding a small flutter to Spyro’s jump added to the feel of the platforming. It was a very relaxing game to play, but stayed fun throughout the full adventure.

#4) Majora’s Mask

Majora’s Mask may have become my favorite 3D Zelda game this year. It’s so fascinating how the developers created a game that feels similar but also completely different than other games in the franchise. They cut down on dungeons but made those dungeons trickier and more interesting to explore. They shifted focus of the story from Link’s journey to Termina and its citizens. What truly sets this game apart are the transformation masks that change Link’s moveset and basically give you 4 characters to play as throughout the game. It’s easy to see why Zelda fans hold this game in such high regard nearly 20 years after its release.

#3) Doom

The original Doom is a hell of a fun time. While the sprites and early 3D art style has aged, it has a huge amount of charm today. The game excels at fast-paced, frantic combat and exploration. The core gameplay loop is running at breakneck speeds through the level, killing the hordes of hell, searching for the exit and possible secrets for extra weapons and power ups. For me, the best part of the games is its variety. There are many guns with differing uses and lots of enemies, with different behaviors to learn and optimal ways to kill. Add that with excellent level design and you have a landmark title that still holds up today. 

#2) Resident Evil (Remake)

I learned this year that I love the gameplay loop of the early Resident Evil games of being dropped in a puzzle box building and slowly unraveling your way out. It helps that the Spencer mansion is expertly crafted and the player will have the layout nearly memorized after their first playthrough. The prerendered backgrounds look beautiful and the gameplay is extremely solid. The gun play is lacking, but it’s overshadowed by the game’s other mechanics: learning when to fight enemies or run, mapping out what paths are safe to run through or where you might need to burn bodies, managing your inventory to ensure safety and progress through the next puzzle. While the game isn’t very scary, it keeps the tension high enough to keep players on edge throughout the entire playthrough. It truly amazes me how well the Resident Evil Remake has aged (with the modern controls, of course).

#1) Papers, Please

Papers, Please was the most enthralling game I played for Critical Miss this year. The main mechanic of inspecting papers is unlike any I’ve experienced and the story was very emotional while being very minimalist. The best part of the game is how it uses the player’s beliefs for moral choices. Most games have moral choices baked into the code, as in doing certain things are considered good or bad by the game and can change how events play out. Papers, Please relies on the player to decide what is right or wrong. As long as you make enough money, the game will continue whether you help everyone in need or ignore their pleas. The emotional impact of the game is so ingrained with the player trying to do what they think is the right thing, that it would never work as any other form of media. Papers, Please is my favorite game of the year for this series for being utterly unique, impact full emotional, and truly fascinating from beginning to end. 

Papers, Please – Critical Miss #11

Working for the Clampdown

Solo developed video games have always interested me. They are a good place to see what can be accomplished with unhampered vision and passion. Lately I’ve been working my way through Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope. The game is fascinating and it made me interested to check out Pope’s earlier game Papers, Please. Met with critical acclaim when it was released in 2013, it has since kept up a reputation of a unique and heartfelt game. 

In Papers, Please, you play as a border inspector for the totalitarian government of the fictional country of Arstotzka. The country takes obvious inspiration from the former Soviet Union and its heavy regulation and restriction of immigration. The gameplay focuses on checking the papers of all people trying to enter the country through your border checkpoint, accepting the immigrants with proper papers and denying all those with missing and forged papers. Your character gets paid for every person processed and pay is docked for every mistake you make. The money is important because you have a family at home that depends on you. Rent is immediately taken out every night and you must also pay for food, heat, and medicine if a family member is sick. That is, if you have enough money. 

 Everything in Paper, Please revolves around time and space management. Your desk space is extremely limited and you will soon have too many papers to check to have them all on you desk at once without overlapping. The time in a day you have to work is also limited and is even cut short sometimes by terrorist attacks. If you don’t process enough people in a work day, you’ll go home short on cash. The game throws a load of little things that take up a tiny amount of time which adds up throughout the day. This aspect of the Papers, Please is so smart and subtle it is a great candidate for a future post.

The most interesting thing in the game is the people trying to get into Arstotzka. Many are desperate to enter the country, begging and bribing you to let them in if their papers are forged. Some get mad at you for denying them entry and some are even bitter about returning to the country. There are dozens of sad stories that will pass through the checkpoint during a playthrough. Memorable ones for me were the couple were the wife is missing papers, the woman who wants you to deny a man because he plans to sell her into sex work, and the father who request you to steal a man’s passport so he can track him down for killing his young daughter. 

Even through the game’s minimal dialogue, the character’s fear and sorrow are heart wrenching and it is effective at making the player want to help them. This is not easy to do though. You have two free mistakes in accepting improper people a day, so you have a little wiggle room if you play perfectly, but if you are too careless then you pay and the end of the day screen will remind you that it is your family that suffers. The player is constantly torn between wanting to help the people coming through the checkpoint and keeping their family healthy. 

The game offers multiple playstyles without ever changing the core mechanics at all. During my first playthrough,I found the easiest way to win was to keep my head down and work under the government’s boot heel. The only problem with that is I felt horrible turning away anyone in need of help. During my second playthrough, I tried to help as many people as possible since I improved at the game, but quickly ran into issues making enough money to keep my family warm and full. Many games offer different skill sets for differing playstyles or classes, but Papers, Please stays the same game mechanically. You’ll still be checking papers and all, but it feels completely different trying to slyly subvert the government or just look out for you and your own.

There is a strange sense of meta-immersion in the game. It often feels like office work while looking over the number of papers needed to be checked and that feeling is only heighten while you are sitting at your desk playing on a computer. A complaint I’ve often heard against Papers, Please is that is can end up feeling too much like a job. This is a valid complaint because checking the papers can be tedious and fear of making a mistake is stressful like work can be. I’ve also heard people say that they would not consider Papers, Please a game due to it feeling too much like work and I don’t agree with that. The game still has very video games rules and logic. Booth upgrades can help you point out discrepancies and stamp passports faster, there are no repercussions of skipping a day of meals if you eat the next day, and the fact that you can quickly restart a day if you fail a task and lose are all examples of things that could only happen in a video game. Real life work doesn’t offer a redo button nor do books or movies offer the freedom of choice in Papers, Please.

It’s a game that only works as a video game and I was enthralled from beginning to end. The concept was interesting and the characters’ desperation fit perfectly with the setting and themes. Papers, Please is fascinating as a game because it uses a new and unconventional gameplay style to tell a believable story of human pain. Mechanically it is fresh and challenge, keeper players just on the edge of failure, but offering enough support throughout the game to keep them engaged.

Of course, there are some issues with the game. The art style I really like. It is rough and bleak, fitting perfectly with the former Soviet Union setting, but it does tend to make it difficult to spot certain discrepancies. Height was always an issue for me to catch due to the measuring bars behind the characters not being clear enough. The font on the documents is extremely pixelated, making it hard to read sometimes, and fingerprints are very messy, requiring me to just check for differences whenever they came up. Most discrepancies are noticeable while just looking over documents and comparing them, but it’s the moments when they are not clear at a glance that lead to frustration. 

Other issues I have with the game are very minor. Failure can come in an instant at times if you forget to do a certain task in a day. Example of this would be losing because I denied a diplomat from entering Arstotzka because their papers were incorrect. But while failure can come quick, you can also restart just as quick on the day you failed. The pointer can also feel imprecise at times. It’s more annoying than frustrating when you mean to click on a date on a passport but end up highlighting the entire passport, but because of the imprecision, I never ended up using the final booth upgrade to double click to search for discrepancies. 

But all these issues are forgotten when I think of the line of sad stories that passed through my checkpoint and how it made me feel genuinely terrible not to help those struggling people out. Papers, Please is so truly engaging and unique that I implore anyone who hasn’t played to please check it out. It is a highly emotional experience and a strong, sad story that doesn’t skimp on gameplay. It is an argument for video games to be considered art. It is a video game that only works because of the unique qualities that make games different from movies or books, and that is honestly the highest praise I can give any game.