Sunday, September 16, 2018

South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC) - Review

Ball farting strictly forbidden.
So very many spoilers.

I remember the first time I encountered South Park and thought it was just a bad Simpsons rip-off. I didn't understand its popularity and didn't think it would stay around for long. You can put that on my "things I was dead wrong"-about list, almost rivalling the famous "internet is just a fad" quote. It didn't take me long to grow to like South Park however, and pretty much everything Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done - they are truly comedic geniuses if you ask me and the only ones that can make me laugh at fart and poop jokes (beside my brother). So of course I wanted to try out their game when it was released, although as usual it took me quite a while to get around to it.

Reviewing a game based on existing lore and material often means that you're really reviewing two different parts. In this case it's important to look both at how good SP: SoT is at being South Park and how good it is at being a game. Although these often go hand in hand, i.e if one component excels/sucks the other one will too (for perfect example, see Dragonball Evolution. Actually don't, it doesn't deserve to be watched), SP: SoT is a good example of how one of these parts can be really entertaining while the other one isn't so much.

So to begin with - the South Park-elements of SP: SoT are really spot on. One could call it a long, interactive episode, but there is a major difference in that this game is mainly fan service and a lot less message than a regular episode would be. This game is designed to reward you for having watched through all those episodes of South Park, allowing you to meet and interact with pretty much all major characters of the series. I have seen far from every episode of the series and wouldn't say I was ever an active watcher, but the amount of characters I didn't recognize in this game were counted on one hand. The game also doesn't hold any punches, as to be expected by Stone and Parker. By the end of it you will have killed aborted nazi fetuses, crawled into a mans anus, get crushed by your dads nutsack and used your own anal probe to teleport around - just to mention some very few things. Just as in the tv-series, Stone and Parker cleverly never put anything in solely for the shock-factor, everything serves a purpose either story-wise or gameplay-wise.

Whereas in an episode the story is used as a device for Stone and Parker to deliver some sort of message, in this game it feels like the story is used as a tool to allow you as a player to try out as many different gameplay tropes as possible. At its base this is an RPG, but it will throw everything at you. You'll get skills that will allow you to teleport (as mentioned), shrink and blow things up for instance. A lot of the skills are used mainly to find collectibles or bags (the equivalent of chests in most other games), sometimes they're used to allow you to bypass fights. You'll get to do some Dance Dance Revolution. There is a SNES style portion of the game. There are quicktime events. There is stuff to collect. You'll be in space. You'll definitely not find the game outside of the battles too repetative or predictable (except you know you're playing a South Park game and if you know your South Park you'll know what to expect).

But let's talk a bit more in depth about the gameplay, because this is where the game disappoints. Not because the gameplay is boring, overall the South Park elements of the game will keep you going enough to ignore the short-comings, but because there are a lot of cool and interesting ideas in here that are criminally underused or squandered. Combat is turnbased and you (pretty much) always have a buddy with you. Each turn you can use an item or special command and an attack, magic or special attack. The same goes for your buddy. There are a lot of different debuffs like bleed and stun to use, attacks can either attack a single or multiple foes for either several light hitting or one hard hitting blow. Enemies (and yourself) can wear armor that lowers damage and shields that block damage entirely. You can patch your gear to give you different advantages in combat, either by giving yourself buffs or adding debuffing to your weapons. By timing your attacks and block with clicks you can add and remove damage, exactly like in the Paper Mario series. You get perks that give you different further advantages and/or buffs in combat.

So all in all the tactical possibilities to the fights are almost endless and promise to keep you interested and invested throughout. Too bad it doesn't deliver on the promise. It all comes down to one huge problem, and I really never thought I'd be one to complain about something like this - the game is just too damn easy.

A few hours into the game, after pretty much one-hit-killing every enemy, I decided to increase the difficulty from normal to hardcore. I barely noticed a difference. In fact, I only struggled with one fight in the entire game, and that was against Al Gore (and only because I botched blocking his snoozing "seminar on global warming"-attack). For the rest of the game you are simply too overpowered and would have to give yourself some sort of forced disadvantage in the likes of the Nuzlocke challenge for there to actually be any challenge. Most debuffs are silly strong, and before long you will get skills that are so overpowered it kills most things on your first attack. Not only that, but your party will replenish all their hp and pp (but not mana) after every fight. Why they chose to make it that way just baffles me, and I can only think of one plausible reason - it was more important to them to leave the South Park portion of the game enjoyable. Maybe they were worried people wouldn't be able to concentrate on the fun of running around with Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny (and friends) if they had to struggle too much to stay alive. It's an unlikely explanation, but either way the end result is a game with a lot of potential in its gameplay and none of which matters much in the end.

There are also other design choices that makes you wonder whether the game was deliberately designed that way to piss you off, a la old school RPG design, or just some really weird oversight. An example is the fact that you can't see what gear you're wearing when shopping for new gear. In fact the entire shopping experience is a bit of a clusterf*ck. As you run around you amass a lot of junk, that fill no other purpose than to be sold for money and elicit some laughs. For some reason there is no "sell all" button, but you have to sell each individual item by double-clicking it (or highlighting it, then moving your mouse cursor to the "sell" or "sell stack" button). Imagine having 200 pieces of amassed junk in your inventory and yes - you then have to click that mouse button 400 times to sell all of that. Also, every time you buy an item the list of items resets back to starting position. Sometimes that means a lot of scrolling back down to where you were. Games haven't behaved this way in many, many years and it is only fortunate that the game is so easy that you don't really have to spend much time in the shops.

It's also funny, and this time I genuinely mean funny, that even though you can design your characters looks in the beginning of the game, you will quickly get so much look-altering items that it didn't matter what you looked like to start with. You can look pretty much any way you want before long. It also doesn't matter what you choose to name yourself, Cartman will of course make sure you're known as nothing else than "Douchebag" and "New Kid" throughout, a clever way to make the dialogue always fits as well as fitting the South Park Universe.

South Park: Stick of Truth is a fun South Park experience, even if it's not so fun as a gaming experience. The gameplay parts hold together much enough, alternate and introduce new things often enough to not make you bored and the South Park elements will definitely have you laughing just as much as any episode will. It's just that I am always a bit saddened when seeing so much potential just being so badly used, and I can only hope the sequel deals with it better. Because of this I couldn't recommend it if you don't have an affinity for South Park, if you do however, you are sure to be well entertained.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

What Remains of Edith Finch (PC) - Review

What is wrong with these people?

I am so happy about the indie-revolution. Because of it, we're seeing a plethora of game-genres emerge (or re-emerge) that I didn't think were possible some 15 years ago. Back then I thought we'd pretty much be stuck with an endless line of Battlefields, FIFA's and Final Fantasies. Now we've got games that are more like toys, like Chuchél, games that are more of everything like Undertale and then we have games that are more like books, like Gone Home and To the Moon. What Remains of Edith Finch falls into the latter category, although for some reason they've been a bit playfully, or spitefully, called "walking-simulators". It's understandable, if you were to traverse a book you'd mostly just do walking and reading, and so it is in these games. Some argue that they can't be called games at all, and I find that discussion a bit beside the point. They're interactive, but they don't have much of gameplay in the sense of being able to fail at things or achieve stuff. It's an experience, and it's inbetween reading and gaming. The fact is I don't know why these games don't fall under the "visual novel" category, because it would be pretty lame if it was solely because you can walk around in them.

I do feel that these games, as I am going to call them nonetheless, fill a niche that a regular book couldn't though. Even with Walking-Simulators I didn't find very enjoyable, like To the Moon, I find it hard to imagine that the story would've been any good if it had been text only and no "gameplay" at all, even if the gameplay is what I found particularly weak. The interactivity of the medium gives life to a story that could've otherwise potentially not been as strong or entertaining. It's only fair that if we have a ton of games where the story only works as the backdrop or excuse for the gameplay the other end of the spectrum would be where the gameplay is only the backdrop or excuse to experience the story.

I know I've said there will be spoilers, and never is that more serious than with these games. They pretty much are their stories, so if you want to play it I strongly suggest doing so before reading this review.

What Remains... is a story about Edith returning to her childhood home to explore her family history. Four generations of Finches have lived and died in the house, and we pretty immediately find out that most of them died very young. This is due to a combination of Kennedy-esque bad luck and what can only be described as criminally neglectful parenting by the Finches. As you uncover more and more of the stories behind these peoples deaths, because that is the narrative of the game, you'll baffle at how no one seemed to learn from past mistakes. So we learn that Molly dies from eating poisonous mistletoe berries, that were kept in her room. Gregory drowns in the bath after his mom leaves him unattended to answer a phone call. Gus is left out in a storm and Calvin falls into the ocean because someone thought it would be a good idea to build a swing set right next to a cliff. Each story, and subsequent death, is experienced through a little mini-game which is different for each character and quite imaginative. It's difficult for me to wrap my head around whether the designers intended for these mini-games and stories to leave me sympathetic or chuckling. There is nothing funny about a toddler drowning in the bath of course, and the mini-game handles the matter quite delicately, but as a parent myself I found it a lot more frustrating than endearing to get to know the Finches. A lot of the time the stories left me thinking "really?", and not necessarily in the "wow, this is so tragic" kind of way.

As Edith you walk around the house and slowly discover each story. I say slowly because sweet macaroni does Edith walk slow. Fortunately it's not something that becomes very annoying, simply because the game rarely requires you to move, or want to move, quickly anyway. But walking up and down stairs is unrealistically slow and I was glad it wasn't something that I had to do often. Speaking of unrealistic, for some reason the designers have some very un-human looking models in the game at places and they really broke my immersion. Overall however the game did an ok job with making me feel like I was visiting a real place, albeit one inhabited by what must've been semi-crazy people. Because of this the game is also perfectly linear, but if you expected something else from this genre then you should've probably gone for one of those "Pick your story"-books instead.

Here are some of the notes I wrote down while playing it;
- Right at the start of the game Edith comments that they all grew tired of eating salmon after her brother started working in the cannery. Let me just say it's impossible to grow tired of salmon, I could eat that all day, every day.
-  If I've done my math correctly, Dawns dad is supposed to be 33 when he dies. He definitely looks like he is around 50 when we play his segment though, so I guess life wasn't kind to him.
- The first Finch (of the game family tree) is Odin, who is from Norway. Bit cliché to name a Scandinavian after Norse Mythology though, innit? Don't think Odin is a very common name in Norway.
- The end credits are really cool! Each name in the development team is accompanied by a picture of them as a kid. I wonder which picture of me I would choose for something like that?

The game is eerily similar to Gone Home, so much so that I had to check which came first to see which game copied the other (Gone Home was released 4 years before What Remains...). What Remains... is a much more fantasical game where Gone Home is a lot more grounded, and I definitely enjoyed the latter more. They're both only about two hours of gameplay however, and What Remains is still worth experiencing if you enjoy these types of games - if nothing else for the pretty far out death stories and they're accompanying mini-games. I will definitely give credit for those mini-games being quite memorable, especially the first one where you as Molly go on a hallucinogenic trip where you end up eating yourself and the last one where you as Lewis end up cutting your head off. Don't say I didn't warn you.

It makes you wonder though, who comes up with the idea of a game that is basically a whole bunch of kids dying in different ways?