Game Review: Blazing Chrome (Windows 10)

Blazing Chrome feels like the lovechild of Contra and Mega Man X. It’s a 2D side-scrolling shooter with six levels. It should be short and sweet, but ala Contra each time you’re hit by an enemy you die immediately. You’ll pop right back up, blinking with momentary invulnerability, hoping the same enemy type or boss pattern doesn’t wreck you again. It’s classic hardcore gaming for people who don’t mind a little frustration. At times the frustration might be too much to bear, but for certain old school gamers that’s half the fun.

          Like with old coin-op arcade games, there are a ton of sucker punches. Enemies pop out of nowhere and gank you easily, forcing you to memorize patterns and carve a replicable path through each level. It’s also a game where each time you die you learn something and can improve your strategy, assuming you don’t get too tilted. Levels start out feeling unfair and cheap, but once you recognize what the game wants you to do, it’s actually manageable. Sometimes the controls feel a bit clumsy, like when you’re trying to gauge how fast or far you can swipe with your melee attack. There are also occasional visual glitches, but they aren’t game-breaking, and in an odd way they make the whole thing seem more authentic. Unlike a lot of nostalgia-fueled games, this one seems to forego an added level of irony. For the most part it really does feel like a classic game, right until the clever CD gag in the credits.

          I wouldn’t put this game in the same category as Cuphead because it lacks the visual beauty and replay-ability. Finishing a section of Burning Chrome comes with the feeling of, “Good! Now I never have to do that again.” You’re proud of yourself for completing a difficult challenge, but there’s no incentive to ever experience that hell a second time. Cuphead is better balanced and a more polished experience overall. While Cuphead pushed the genre forward, Chrome is stuck in the past. It’s a callback to the omnipresent hyper-masculine shooters in the early 90’s, no more, no less. It’s a style of gaming perhaps forgotten because it’s no longer tenable, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its charms. Blazing Chrome embraces what made Contra work while never straying too far outside the SNES’s technical limitations. It’s a specific game for specific fans, and if you’re in the mood for some challenge and carnage you may very well be satisfied.

Game Review: Divinity: Original Sin 2

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For the sake of clarity I am reviewing the single-player experience on Playstation 4. I have not tried the multiplayer or the PC version.

Little things can make a big difference in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Whether it’s the note containing key information buried somewhere in your inventory, the elusive mouse that teaches you the trick to beat a difficult boss, or the many small annoyances that eventually add up to undermine the overall experience, the minute details of Divinity 2 are the deciders of whether or not you’ll have a good time. A devout Divinity fan might say that every choice you make matters, but the game’s lack of a coherent narrative and its focus on free-wheeling exploration results in each choice flying like a firework in a random direction. This would be fine if each one ended in a bang, but more often than not, the myriad choices, plot threads and side-quests result in a fizzle.

There are exceptions of course. A few of the companion quests end pleasantly enough (assuming you decided to help your friends and not murder them ruthlessly). Divinity 2 is the type of game that allows you a lot of leeway in how you solve puzzles or fight bad guys. You might level up a character’s persuasion ability and convince a guard to let you interrogate a criminal, or you could just kill the guard and enter the cell.  Then you can kill the criminal, find out where he lives, and kill his cat too. This might aggravate the guards in the city, but if you over-level your character and manipulate the combat system enough, you’ll find that bashing your weapons against the skulls of an entire city-state is a welcome alternative to diplomacy.

Even if you like the diplomatic approach, chances are the game will troll you and make diplomacy result in exploding death puppets. Divinity 2 has a pedant’s sense of humor, punishing you for misunderstanding its painfully obtuse systems on a regular basis. For example, one status condition known as ‘decaying’ makes healing potions poison your characters. If you’re not exceedingly careful you might murder your own team while trying to play doctor. In this way, it’s the perfect game for the streaming age, where eight-year-olds can’t wait to watch you fail and laugh at your misfortune. “You should have known that the fifteenth lever from the left was the non-murder-y one!” Remember to save often, as the game’s hour-long battles can sometimes end unpleasantly.

Many of these critiques could be leveled at Divinity 1 as well, but Divinity 1 understood pacing and balance a bit better. In the original game you played as a ‘Source Hunter’, an investigator on the hunt for powerful, illegal magic called Source. You investigate a magic-related murder, which in turn leads to an epic conflict with an evil space dragon and an undead psychopath. Though the story struck me as a bit barebones, there was at least a focused core narrative, something that the player could glom onto amidst all the chaos. Divinity 2‘s plot is almost unintelligible in comparison, with much of it hinging on your character following the whims of a sarcastic witch.

The game opens with the player’s Source powers muted by the magical equivalent of a no-bark collar. Your ship is attacked by a Kraken and from there on you’re stuck in a penal colony until you can find a way to remove the collar and escape. This all takes about twenty hours of gameplay to accomplish (longer than the entirety of Spider-Man) and constitutes the game’s tutorial. From there you discover that you’re Godwoken, the game’s fancy-pants name for Dragonborn, which basically means that you and your compatriots are on the short-list for divinity. Only one of you can ultimately ascend to godhood, so you’re forced into a difficult decision. Do you help your friends succeed in their own ambitions, or use them, then leave them flailing in the dust? In this way, it’s just like life as an actor in Los Angeles.

Who wouldn’t want to be the god of a fantasy universe- Hollywood or otherwise? It’s unclear what qualifies your character for such a position, what you might do with godhood if you got it, or what makes divinity distinct from being a really, really badass wizard. A couple levels into the game you can turn people into chickens, so how much more powerful do you need to be, really? Those are some questions that are never really answered, at least not to my satisfaction.

You’ll try to ignore them as you bumble your way to victory, accidentally finding secret lairs only to be told that you couldn’t possibly have found such a place by accident. The relentlessly boring lore is a ball of knots waiting to be untangled, but I preferred to turn it into a chicken and set it on fire. I like my fantasy Kentucky Fried.

It’s a shame that Divinity: Original Sin 2 has such interesting systems and beautiful music, because a lot of it feels wasted on a blasé story. Aside from killing whomever wanted to take my Source, I never got a sense of what my character wanted or needed. Divinity, sure, but to what end? The characters felt like passengers on a train, headed in the same direction whether or not they wanted to go that way, their individual plot lines mere distractions. Every character aside from the ridiculously arch villains existed in a moral gray area without any specific layer of nuance. While superior to the wafer-thin characters in the first Divinity, the Godwoken here still felt like watered-down versions of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s cast. Even the romantic elements felt phoned in. Love was just a matter of clicking a few text boxes.

After I’d discovered a majority of the combat abilities you can acquire, I was desperate to push forward to the ending. The game had other plans, hoping I would enjoy thirty more hours of combat. The joy I’d felt when concocting strategies for my undead summoner at hour forty was absent at hour eighty. Once you learn how to manipulate the game’s systems things become rote. Can I persuade this person? No? Then I shall murder him. There are no real consequences either way, aside from some quests not appearing because you killed a related character way back in Act One. And it’s not like any of the quests are particularly interesting- aside from the Red Prince’s companion quest, which allows you the insane and deeply questionable option of watching him have sex with his fiancé. That quest has a happy ending in both senses, even if it leans way too hard on Game of Thrones.

You could play Skyrim for a hundred hours and not get bored, carving your way through a vast world, following your heart. You don’t have quite so much freedom here, because each of the game’s areas are separated by huge bodies of water. Once you leave an area you’re gone forever. It’s off to the next “Act” to chicken-ize new victims. This becomes problematic occasionally, when your character learns of something bad, like a terrorist plot, but you are unable to prevent it until forty hours later when you get to the right locale. You will go where the sarcastic witch wants you to go, when she wants you to go there, and not a second sooner. It’s never clear if it’s a worthwhile endeavor to work with this woman, but since you have no alternatives in this masterclass of choice, you will do your wicked queen’s bidding, over and over.

What it all amounts to is a hundred-hour board game, which wouldn’t be so bad if the game had ever bothered to tell you the rules. The first unspoken rule seems to be ‘combat first, story TBD.’ Every time I was expected to care about a turn in the story, the return of a character from the first game, I sighed or shrugged. The combat is the through-line here, but as soon as you run out of new tricks to learn, the story’s shortcomings steal the spotlight. It is a game that requires patience and strategy, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when you want nothing more than to get to the ending, only to be repeatedly punished for rushing things. Maybe you’re too low in level, maybe you forgot to talk to the random NPC who knows the secret phrase for a puzzle on the other side of the island, or maybe the game just wants to kill you. In any case, you’ll finish when the game lets you finish. And if you’re like me, the only thing you’ll find satisfying about the ending is the promise that you’ll never have to play it again.

Game Review: Spider-Man PS4

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Fans of Spider-Man will be happy to know that the new PS4 game does for their favorite wall-crawler what the Arkham series did for Batman, but hardcore gamers may be disappointed that in terms of groundbreaking gameplay Spider-Man on PS4 doesn’t swing too high above the watermark that Arkham set. The open world gameplay is heavily indebted to open worlds past, specifically those inhabited by Batman, Ubisoft’s many Assassins, and the Infamous gang. Spider-Man‘s Manhattan is littered with colorful icons indicating side missions to delight, distract, and occasionally bore the player. Of course this is all par for the course for the modern open world gamer. What sets Spider-Man apart is the sweet sublime feeling of swinging through the city streets, a kind of divinely relaxing routine that allows the player to forget their worries and get lost in the fun.

The story will be hard to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest to keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice it to say that in general, the narrative takes an awfully long time to reach some familiar places, pitting Spidey against supervillains while his alter ego Peter Parker is dealing with guilt, grief and relationship woes. The game opens with Spidey on the verge of a criminal bust after eight years of work. Once a renowned mob boss is in jail, Spider-Man is forced to deal with the power vortex he’s created. A new supervillain rises to power, Mr. Negative, a photo-negative look-alike who can zombify people by unleashing their inherent darkness. This darkness idea isn’t really explored so much as it is shoehorned in amongst all the other madcap nonsense involving Dr. Otto Octavius and Norman Osborne, characters so thoroughly established that they feel like an odd mix of nostalgia and redundancy here. The story isn’t as artfully crafted as the dialogue, and eventually the crime narrative rubber-bands to a rapid conclusion, one feeling a bit short and sluggish. Thankfully the character moments are charming and nuanced enough to counter-balance these flaws.

Underwhelmed by is offerings, I rushed through the story so I could dig into what I cared about the most, swinging around the city and stopping crimes. Once the story is complete you’ll have plenty of time to explore, collect backpacks, try on new super-powered suits, and do whatever a spider can, even though sometimes ‘whatever a spider can’ feels oddly familiar to ‘whatever a bat did yesterday.’ The stealth mechanics aren’t quite as polished as Arkham‘s, but they get the job done. Combat is a bit looser and doesn’t feel as much like a rhythm/puzzle game as Arkham. Once you get a hang of the many different mechanics and how they can be hybridized to create your own natural rhythm, things get fun and fluid. Sometimes you’ll find yourself scrambling for that perfect swing or shot and inadvertently doing something more spectacular than you could have imagined. That moment of discovery and the glee that comes with it is enough to make any comic book fan feel like a kid again.

For the Spidey Squad this game is a clear no-brainer, but for everyone else I’d offer a caveat. Spider-Man feels more like a game that might have been released prior to Breath of the Wild or The Phantom Pain in terms of its workhorse aplomb. It never tries to push any boundaries or exceed expectations. It merely tries to match them and provide a game worthy of the name Spider-Man. By that metric it succeeds, and likely will pave the way for DLC and sequels that push the game engine to exciting new heights.