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: Guacamelee! 2

I enjoyed the first Guacameleefor its light-hearted Mexican-themed reskin on classic Metroidvania adventures, those types of games with exploration, ability upgrades, and plenty of backtracking. The first game arrived at a time when it felt like good Metroidvanias were in short supply. Fans of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are always on the lookout for the latest take on this style of gameplay, and in spite of the corniness of its humor, Guacamelee felt like a fun modern take on those games replete with references to Mexican culture. To be clear, there’s nothing in either Guacamelee or its sequel that could be accused of deepening cultural understanding, but in an ongoing time of racism and xenophobia, there was something charismatic about the fact that the Mexicans were the ones making the jokes rather than being the butt of them. I appreciated that, and found that in general, the first Guacamelee was mapped and paced in a satisfying way. It’s the type of game that parents and kids alike could enjoy for its emphasis on rock-‘em-sock-‘em combat and adventure.

          Guacamelee 2 is a bit of a double-dip in the same bowl of salsa. Graphically there have been zero upgrades from the predecessor, and many visual and audio assets have been copy-and-pasted. That goes for the story too, which hits its beats with a lackadaisical attitude and lack of focus that makes the whole game feel more like DLC than a full-fledged sequel. Sometimes routine can be a good thing, as when you’re unlocking fun new power-ups and moves for the game’s chicken transformation. The high-flying aerials and precision platforming generally work in the game’s favor, but after the infinitely better Hollow Knight, a game even referenced in the background of this one, it’s hard to see Guacamelee 2 as anything other than a cheap cash-in.

          That’s not to say that this game isn’t fun, but it might be vastly more enjoyable for someone who never played the first game (or a Metroidvania in general). The game’s humor is less potent this time, as much of it comes from the characters making mistakes or being tired of having to repeat the same bits over and over. There are new characters introduced, but they barely have anything to say or do besides providing a skill tree or being around for a boss fight. The villains are intriguing, but they’re merely functionaries, filling the role of the guy you’ve gotta beat at the end of each level. Things push toward a conclusion at such a rapid and inevitable pace it feels like even the game designers wanted to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible.

          One of the odder things about the game is how straight-forward it is in a genre known for back-tracking and exploration. If you follow the game’s instructions from beginning to end you can complete the story with zero motivation to explore. This undermines the Metroidvania feel, where you’re suppose to be rewarded for your exploration and creative thinking, using the tools at your disposal to find things that power up your character along the way, like the cleverly hidden energy tanks in Super Metroid. There are upgrade rooms in Guacamelee 2, but they all tend to be an obvious offshoot of the main path, and seeing as they’re the only alternate path available, one per main track, it feels less like exploration and more like a pit stop.

          I didn’t hate the game by any means, but I wished it had done more to capture some of the original game’s freshness rather than sitting on its laurels and expecting praise. A fresh graphical update, a more complicated story, more interesting relationships between the characters- any of these would have been enough to spice things up. Even a closer focus on level design and pacing could have been helpful, as many of the levels felt endless in spite of their relative brevity. Every area and room looks basically the same and the shape of the levels is arbitrary, fitting power-up usage more than slowly expanding to give you the shape of this unique world like in Hollow Knight. A Metroidvania doesn’t have to hang together perfectly like a real-world location with logical ins and outs, but it should give you that amazing feeling of discovery where you can’t believe you ended up where you did. There should be that satisfaction from opening up a door you found at minute fifteen after two additional hours of gameplay. The fantastic Resident Evil 2 remaster has this sensation in spades, and since there seem to be more examples of this style of gameplay than ever, it’s hard to be on the dev team’s side here. I got this game through Game Pass, and I can only imagine how annoyed I’d be if I paid full price only for the game to be like, “Yeah, you know the drill. Yadda yadda yadda.”

          The parts that work are the combat and platforming, which while often undermined by repetition are basically good, clean fun. As you get further in the game, you’re often asked to quickly press multiple buttons in such rapid fashion that it feels a little bit awkward. The game is easy and very forgiving, but it seems to want to argue with you about how challenging it really is by arbitrarily throwing in a few rooms where the difficulty stems from the fact that you only have two thumbs. Is it particularly fun or rewarding to have to precisely hit the specific inputs in a platforming section? Not really, especially when compared to the combat system that allows you a bit more free-wheeling fun. Maybe the game could have done better to follow the example of Breath of the Wild, allowing for multiple paths to completing puzzles. Sometimes allowing for more creativity lets the player find their own fun, and overall the lack of creativity in Guacamelee 2 is its downfall.