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.

Game Review: Pokemon Ultra Moon

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As a long-time fan of the Pokemon series let me tell you, Pokemon Ultra Moon represents both the highs and lows of being a Poke-fan. The graphical leaps the series has made since Red and Blue in 1996 are impressive, but the 3DS’s limitations become ever more apparent as designers try to push beyond them. Graphically the game looks like a half-step between an N64 and Gamecube game, which sounds alright for a handheld series that began without the ability to display color. (The idea of playing a “black-and-white” game called Pokemon Blue seems a bit ridiculous now, doesn’t it?) The Pokemon are all beautifully rendered in three-dimensions. The environments look alright but somehow feel both confining and empty. You’re not wandering around a big open Pokemon world. You’re still sticking to paths and one-way ledges.

This again feels like a metaphor for the series. Two steps forward, one step back. I remember when Ruby & Sapphire introduced Pokemon Beauty Contests. That always struck me as unnecessarily creative for a series that has eighteen Pokemon types yet still makes you choose from fire, water, or grass types at the beginning every time. Some things are set in stone and some are up for grabs, and it’s never clear which is which or why. For example, the setting of Pokemon Ultra Moon is a surface level riff on Hawaii. This shakes things up on a cursory level, but also removes a diversity of environments from the level design. And in a move that feels like something a stoner might ponder on a pile of pillows at 3 AM- “What if there weren’t even gyms?”- this game does away with Pokemon Gyms in favor of new Island Trials. Ostensibly this was to make things less repetitive, but it ends up being a momentary distraction. The only thing that truly sticks here is the idea of Totem Pokemon, larger than usual boss Pokemon that your team has to take down. These boss battles felt worthy.

Inconsistency seems to be the general theme here. Even the name Pokemon Ultra Moon reveals the truth of the matter. There were two previous versions of this game, Pokemon Sun & Moon, that were considerably less good, and even so this new version isn’t perfect. So what you’re seeing in Ultra Moon is a course correction but not enough of one to really set things straight. It’s not uncommon for each generation of the Pokemon series to have two competing titles, both generally the same except for some version exclusive Pokemon, thus encouraging trading between versions. There is often a third version of the game that follows a year later, adding a few new features, exclusive Pokemon and a new mission or two. There have been variations on this formula, from the full-on story sequels of Black & White 2 to the remastered Alpha Sapphire which acted as a spiritual successor to the well-received X & Y. Ultra Moon is the first ‘third-version’ Pokemon game that I’ve played where it felt like a director’s cut. Plot events and situations are changed to make the story work slightly better. It still has its gaping obvious flaws, but now it feels a bit more polished.

If you were turned off by Sun & Moon their Ultra versions might smooth over some of your problems. Then again, there are plenty of reasons to scratch your head and say, “What?” at these versions too. At some point, the bottom half of your screen becomes dominated by tutorial tips from your talking Pokedex. This is the screen also used for your map and menu information. It is incredibly annoying to glance down at the map only to see the Pokedex rambling about a great place to take photos of your Pokemon. Oh, and by the way, you can only take photos of your Pokemon at the Photo Club, even though your Pokedex clearly has a camera on it for story reasons.

There’s lots of little barbs like this. Lillie and Hau, the game’s insufferable companions, have been toned down a bit but are still load-bearing. The game’s villains seem to be less brutal and are let off the hook a bit easier in this version. The one update the game didn’t get but sorely needed was a line-by-line revision of its dialogue. The awkward phrasing and weird non-sequiturs would be forgivable were any of it funny, but it constantly feels like the localization team is dancing around the idea of jokes without delivering any. The writing in this game makes the writing in Red & Blue sound like Shakespeare, and that includes the little kid who shouts about his love of shorts.

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The biggest let down is how the game mishandles things that were done better in previous entries. The online system is worse than Alpha Sapphire‘s and while Super Training was dull, its replacement in Ultra Moon is a convoluted nightmare. Pokemon fans love to battle and some of them take it very seriously. The game acknowledges the existence of its adult fans. It just refuses to cater to them.

Deriders might say that I am putting too much stock in a children’s property, but Nintendo tentpoles like Mario and Zelda continue to deliver for all ages. Like the best Pixar and Ghibli movies there is a sweet spot where everyone can get a kick out of something, and for a while, Pokemon resided in this spot. To be frank, this sweet spot should be Nintendo’s wheelhouse.

I’ll refrain from my traditional rant in which I beg Nintendo to release a next-gen Pokemon MMO. “Do yourself a favor. It will be like printing money,” etc. Instead I will end this review with a reminder of the inconsistency of Ultra Moon, one that I think will speak to fans of the franchise or even ones that haven’t played it since the old Game Boy versions. What’s the catch phrase associated with Pokemon? “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” That signature slogan is the battle cry of the trainer. You’re supposed to fill up your Pokedex with all the Pokemon you’ve caught, hoping to one day “catch ’em all.” In Pokemon Ultra Moon there is no national Pokedex, meaning there is no complete list of Pokemon in the game. You literally can’t catch ’em all. “Catch some, why worry? Mahalo for buying this game twice, ya dummies!”

Game Review: Far Cry 5 (PS4)

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I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about the political messaging of Far Cry 5, everything from people believing it’ll give Doomsday Preppers and real-world cultists new verbiage for their beliefs to those who don’t believe it goes far enough in taking a stand against Trump’s MAGA minions.  It’s true that Far Cry 5 lets its cult member villains wax poetic about the corrupt bureaucracy and immorality of modern society, but to claim that any of these monologues includes a new lexicon for your local well-armed militia may be pushing it. As noted in other reviews, Far Cry 5‘s political satire is skin deep. It references catch phrases, MAGA included, that have swept the meme-ridden media landscape, giving voice to pat expressions of political propaganda that probably didn’t need another loudspeaker. But then again, can the same work of entertainment really be criticized for being too problematic while simultaneously not going far enough?

Such is the case with Far Cry 5, an action-adventure video game where your rookie Montana deputy gets inextricably involved in the eradication of a cult run amuck. The opening scene sees our hero and his police posse attempting an ill-advised arrest on the Manson-esque cult leader known as Father. Shit goes awry, and soon you’re off on an explosive open-world quest to rescue the members of your team who’ve been kidnapped by Father’s sidekicks, his two creepy brothers and the fatally intoxicating Sister Faith. Most of your time will be spent liberating hostages, blowing up bright red silos, and recreating action movie sequences to the best of your ability.

The game gives you the option of exploring any of the three regions- each controlled by a different evil sidekick- hopping between them and completing missions as you so choose. I went for Sister Faith’s region first, as it felt the creepiest and most engaging. Though the inclusion of zombie-esque drugged out cult-ies is questionable, the fun of taking them down is palpable. The other two regions are fairly similar, but are controlled by forgettable villains whose schtick oscillates between maudlin and cornball. When they’re monologuing, I suggest you skip the cut-scenes and grab yourself a Coke.

The fun of the game, and there is plenty of it, comes from the side missions and the wacky party members- including a bear named Cheeseburger. Very little of the fun comes from progression in the main story, which may be thought of as a momentary distraction from the thrill of adventure. For those sick of open-world games and craving a focused narrative, Far Cry 5 may disappoint, but if you are like me and wanted a more refined take on Just Cause 3, you’ll be in luck.

Now then: I’d like to talk briefly about the game’s ending, but it is a MASSIVE SPOILER, so please turn your eyes off if you have not completed the game. The so-called ‘good’ ending of Far Cry 5 is hilariously ridiculous, making almost no sense. Whoever wrote it wanted to seem clever and failed miserably. Oh well. At least we’re treated to one of the most jaw-droppingly insane endings to a game ever.

Spoiler-fearing citizens gone? Good. The game ends with a series of nuclear detonations, a failed escaped attempt, and the conclusion that you’ll be locked with Father, the evil cult leader, in a bunker for the rest of your life. Game Over. The ‘happy’ ending of the game results in your character ultimately failing and being punished for his or her attempts to save the day. It seems to be implied also that the supposedly bat-shit cult leader was actually a soothsayer- how else could he have predicted this outcome?- or an international terrorist, because otherwise I can’t even begin to explain how this turn of events came about.

The logistics of the conclusion- that the villain had somehow either planned or predicted a nuclear holocaust- go so far beyond the realm of internal logic that it feels more like a fuck you to reality than a satisfying conclusion. However nothing in the game had really built in any particular direction, so the fact that the ending was a surprise was enough of a shallow victory to elicit some chuckles from me. This is Far Cry after all. Exciting it is, but smart it is not.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10