Review: Borderlands 3 (PS4)

It’s been seven years since Borderlands 2 was released. In that span of time we’ve seen groundbreaking gameplay in Breath of the Wild and The Phantom Pain. We’ve seen revised takes on the loot-shooter genre like Destiny and The Division. We’ve even seen oddball spin-offs like adventure game Tales from the Borderlands and the Australian-infused Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which added oxygen tanks and high-flying butt-stomps. After seven years of technical advancements, experimentation and hype, it would be safe to assume that the next major entry in the Borderlands series would be influenced by these factors. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that Borderlands 3 feels largely the same as its numeric predecessor.

For the first ten levels, Borderlands 3 is so indistinguishable from Borderlands 2 it almost feels like a rip-off. In the age of Overwatch, the shooting in BL3 feels sluggish and awkward. Despite the compelling art design of characters and locations, the new game reuses assets and animations from the previous ones, resulting in a decidedly last-gen look. Opening the menu grinds the frame-rate to a halt. Outdoor locations still feel vast and generic. Vehicle controls are still awkward. Small quality of life improvements, like the layered 3D map screen and the ability to switch quests on the fly, stick out as novel because they’re some of the only changes. Even additions from The Pre-Sequel have been muted or removed to the point where that game’s existence is negligible. Most mind-boggling of all, the game now allows you to climb certain ledges lazily marked in yellow, aping the same color indicator from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, resulting in some of the jankiest platforming challenges in any modern game. But in spite of all these problems, what sticks out most to me about Borderlands 3 is how much fun I had playing it, and how once I had finished it, I found myself wishing for more.

This is the gaming equivalent of an addictive fast-food cheeseburger. You know it’s fundamentally bad, and you’re probably supporting an evil company by enjoying it, but at the end of the day, the joy that it brings you outweighs the potential harm, or at least distracts you enough that you won’t feel bad until much later. The core gameplay loop of shooting and looting, ravenously collecting guns and comparing them to one another, following diamond-shaped markers from one arbitrary objective to the next is so fundamentally enjoyable and engaging, that the numerous reasons to dislike the game don’t carry much weight, even when added all together. They’re worth discussing of course, as some of the decisions that went into Borderlands 3 are surprisingly misguided, but it’s also worth reiterating that even as a single-player experience, you will likely have an enjoyable time from beginning to end (especially if you don’t pay too much attention to the dialogue and maybe throw on a podcast while you blast away the baddies).

Borderlands stories have never been great or particularly coherent, but the characters and vocal performances are generally enjoyable. This time there are some bizarre new inclusions to the voice acting cast, like problematic nerd mogul Chris Hardwick as an overly-enthusiastic bandit and Las Vegas magicians Penn & Teller as Mad Max­-ified versions of themselves. There are a few cosplayers known for erotic modeling in the game as well, which feels fan-servicey in terms of casting even though their roles aren’t particularly provocative. It only stands out as an odd choice given that Randy Pitchford, the President of Gearbox Software, allegedly left a hard drive containing underage pornography at a Medieval Times restaurant in 2014, giving anything he’s associated with a undercurrent of sleaze. Putting this further into sketchiness context, in 2018 the aforementioned Chris Hardwick was accused of mentally and sexually abusing his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra, a well-known actress and cosplayer. Borderlands 3 is hampered by these controversies without actually saying or doing anything to address them, which feels a bit weird given the series’ Deadpool-esque penchant for meta-humor. But there does seem to be an attempt to make things slightly more politically correct this time. There are a staggering number of female characters in Borderlands 3, and that feels unique given that it’s primarily a game about murder, guns, and fart jokes. There aren’t any characters named “midget” in this game like there were in Borderlands 2, but you still have to shoot countless little people. Now they’re called “tinks,” which still sounds demeaning but at least isn’t a well-known slur. Adding to the game’s pseudo-feminism, there are now female bandits for you to murder as well. Talk about progress.

That sort of ambivalent progressivism abounds in Borderlands 3. It’s a game about family, trauma, loss, and murdering literally everything that crosses your path. The game is a cornucopia of carnage, but it also occasionally wants to make you feel things. It’s not shy about killing off characters or tossing in twists, but it rarely sticks the landings on these big moments. The best of the vocal performances ground the game in an emotional reality, though no one is as commanding or iconic as Dameon Clarke’s Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. YouTuber SungWon Cho delivers a nice, growly turn as playable character Fl4k, and trans actor Ciaran Strange’s performance of Lorelei is energetic and lovable, enough though the dialogue doesn’t do either of them any favors. David Wald’s Wainwright is a welcome addition. He’s a gay southern gentleman with depth and charm who never becomes an offensive stereotype. Less successful or explicable is the inclusion of Ice-T as a streetwise immobilized teddy bear who speaks about “bitches” and “chains.” This is the kind of thing that feels bizarrely incongruous with the rest of the virtue signaling, and like most of the game is a real dead-end in terms of comedy.

One pleasant thing that makes Borderlands 3 unique from its predecessors is its scope. Spanning several planets, and allowing you to travel via your own spaceship, Sanctuary III, the game fills a void left by the recent absence of a solid Mass Effect experience. There is never the depth or nuance of that series’ character interactions or philosophical musings, but the sensation of being commander of a vessel on a cross-universe mission is still fun. To be clear, you’ll still be shooting and looting on all of these planets, flipping switches and running errands for malcontents, but getting to stretch your legs and leave Pandora whenever you want is the kind of growth that the series desperately needed. Even though I’ll admit I left few stones unturned in terms of side quests, I was shocked by how long the story felt and how much bang there was for my buck. Every time I thought things would wind down they kept going a bit longer, with a few additional nooks and crannies even in the final moments. This is again a double-edged sword, as it makes the narrative bloated and meandering, but it also makes the game feel meaty and worth the asking price in terms of a time-sink.

Throughout it all you’ll be blasting bugs and badasses, grabbing their weapons, and testing them out for yourself. Why did ancient aliens leave so many modern firearms in their vaults? Who knows, and who cares? That’s the kind of question that Borderlands 3 gleefully ignores. It’s a game where a shotgun can shoot buzz saws, or a rifle can become a turret with tiny legs that runs after an enemy before exploding. Its absurdity is part of its charm, although that is often undercut by the implications that the writers were occasionally aiming for emotional depth. Maybe things would be different if they’d taken more time to revise and edit the story rather than adding a hundredth line of dialogue about how good the player is at killing things. The violence may be frenetic and fun, but the game keeps begging you to stop and think about it every ten hours or so, which raises the question: what exactly, if anything, is this game trying to say? Almost any point it makes is undermined by another aspect of the game, so perhaps the only thing for certain is that if you can overlook all the odd decisions and problematic elements, Borderlands 3 is pure, mindless fun.

Game Review: Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pleasant surprise. Its charming visuals and simple yet engaging playstyle outweigh its shortcomings and provide players of all ages with a game worth exploring. I was initially turned off by the title, which seemed to imply that the game would be a ripoff of Yoshi’s Island, one of my old SNES favorites. Many indie games use knockoff titles and artwork to trick foolish consumers into purchasing inferior products. I’d seen Yoku on various game stores for a while, and assumed it was one of those phoned-in pieces of vaporware. Not so! Yoku’s Island Express might as well be called Sonic Spinball but Good, as it shares more in common with that ancient Genesis game than anything Yoshi related. It’s an adventure/exploration game with pinball mechanics starring a lovable dung beetle. If someone had led with those details rather than the lame title, I might have bought it sooner.

Yoku the dung beetle is the new mail carrier for a small island community. Yoku is tied to a stone ball that serves as both a Sisyphus-ian albatross and means of conveyance. Using the triggers on your controller you can flip Yoku’s ball this way and that, like you would with the flippers on a standard pinball machine. These flippers, catapults and trampolines occur naturally all over the island, and you use them constantly to gain altitude, reach collectibles, and complete missions for the island’s inhabitants. The main plot revolves around Yoku needing to gather together the island’s three chiefs in order to save the island god, a big toady-looking beast who has been recently savaged by something called the “god killer.” The god killer aspect of the story feels decidedly inappropriate for a game that looks like a storybook, and in terms of execution, it is probably the game’s biggest misstep. Without spoiling the ending, a third-act twist feels more like a slap-in-the-face than logical storytelling. It’s another example of the modern obsession with surprising the audience rather than aiming for consistency. In general, I will always argue that a twist’s impact is momentary, whereas a good story’s consistency can make it a classic forever.

That being said, no one would dare play this type of game for the story. You’ll be playing to bounce your bug along the map, collecting fruit and unlocking items that help you scale higher and higher. The characters are well-designed and have pleasant dialogue. Everything is piping with personality. The main quest is fairly easy to complete, but there are a bunch of additional tasks to try if you’re the obsessive type. There’s no real incentive to go above and beyond, but if you truly like the gameplay you might be begging for more. I felt that the game’s main story was the perfect length to spend with the title, as things wound down at the exact point when I was getting a bit tired of the pinball-esque looparounds and precision shots.

Yoku’s Island Express is an easy recommendation for children and adults who want something sweet and sunny to distract themselves from the world’s woes. The music is endearing and nothing ever feels frustrating. I had a bit of an issue getting my slug vacuum, yes you read that right, to function properly, but I think it was a problem with my PlayStation controller interacting with my Windows machine and not a fault of the game itself. (For those suffering from the same issue, try releasing the trigger before tapping it again to suck up a slug. Good life advice in general.) As a Game Pass title, this is a must-have. Without Game Pass, I’d wait for a sale and snatch it up for a fun weekend fling. Just don’t go in expecting Yoshi, or you might be begging for a refund.  

Game Review: Slay the Spire

It’s difficult to gauge the full shape of Slay the Spire, because the game intentionally makes itself such a mess of RNG. Ostensibly the game’s challenge comes from its randomness. The player’s advantage comes from the chance to build a deck of complementary cards that stack together to form a barrage of death to mow down enemies. This is especially evident in the first of three decks the game hands the player, wherein strength and direct combat are the keys to victory. When playing as the Ironclad warrior class, the game’s mix of random chance and strategy hit a sweet spot. It’s only when you move on to the next class that things become a bit hairy and a bit more problematic.

Roguelike games require the developers to craft a replayable loop. Each time the player fails they are forced to begin again, perhaps with a few added advantages such as foreknowledge of the challenges ahead or a few items or abilities they clung onto from the previous run. Slay the Spire, with its dozens of card combinations, allows the player to feel powerful and clever as you stack together card powers that feel overpowered when used in unison. In fact, the game plays best during those rare instances where the RNG works in your favor and you accrue the perfect assortment of cards and relics to make it feel like you’re cheating. In every other instance, you’ll wonder why you aren’t allowed some advantage from previous runs, a single card of your choice, a relic or something else. It becomes quickly clear that the game has been designed with the Wizard of Oz-like stratagem that the player must never see behind the curtain, where the truth of the carnival game lies. In order for Slay the Spire’s loop to be replayable and not easy as pie, the developers needed to make the player’s odds of success so slim they have no choice but to play over and over hoping for that one sweet run.

The basic gameplay is simple enough and should be familiar for fans of Magic, Pokemon: TCG, or Hearthstone. You won’t be buying new card packs here, but you’ll be gaining cards each time you defeat a foe. This works simply and perfectly in the Ironclad run, where the deck consists of basic shields and sword attacks. When you try The Silent, aka the rogue deck, things start to fall apart. You’re supposed to be using sneaky tactics, poison and shivs, but your base card set doesn’t provide you with any of those skills, so you’re forced to grind for them. Of course your chance of picking up any cards that you might need for a successful run are random, even as you select from a few options after each fight or buy cards at the merchant’s shop with your accrued gold. That means you’re already starting at a deficit with your basic deck, unlike in the warrior’s deck where the basic skills you needed to succeed were handed to you. Even a successful-seeming-run can be ended suddenly by a chance encounter with a particular enemy type, and then it’s back to the beginning with your progress undone.

The game tries to seem fair and more roguelike by allowing you to accrue “unlock EXP” which takes forever to do anything, and when it does finally unlock something it merely adds the chance of a few new cards or relics being added to the pool in each run. A magic whale-thing will give you a few seemingly helpful options at the beginning of each loop, but the benefits of each choice are minimal, and when playing as the rogue would be easily outweighed by the addition of a few shiv or poison cards from the offset. The reason for this lack of generosity appears to be because the overall game is incredibly shallow, and if the devs made the odds in the player’s favor you’d be done with Slay the Spire in an hour. To make the game feign depth, the devs decided to screw you over at every turn, giving you more time to ponder why the artwork looks like construction paper.

As a ‘free’ game via Game Pass, this was a fine find, as the initial character’s path through the spire was a fun and engaging one. The parts are definitely there for a fun and addictive game, but the overall experience is more like a slot machine or carnival game, where the fun comes specifically from the player’s ability to ignore how easily they’ve been sold down the river on a boat with a hole in it. If you’re the kind of player living in denial, unable to understand the way the mechanics function, capable of convincing yourself that despite your repeated failures and lack of chances to succeed the developers really do have your best interests at heart, then sure, Slay the Spire will captivate you for hours to come, in the same way a bright light dancing on the wall might captivate a kitten. For anyone with a more thorough understanding of strategy, this game feels broken or half-finished at best.