Columns, Video Games

ROBOTIC GAMING MONTHLY – Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing

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Artwork by Citrus King

Welcome to another edition of Robotic Gaming Monthly, Topless Robot’s look into what’s been happening recently in the world of video games! And this may be the calm before the storm that is gaming’s holiday season, but we still have a lot to work with, including a mess of game reviews, more game trailers from PAX and Gamescom, rebuttals to Internet videos, and a chance to win what could possibly be the year’s best stealth game (which is totally what you think it is)! So come on in and take a look!

So unsurprisingly, I tend to watch a lot of various videos around the web, even by those who hate other web personalities that I watch. And earlier this month, Bob “MovieBob” Chipman posted this as part of his Game Overthinker series…

Now, I did enjoy Bob’s list of forgotten game heroines, but I felt that his overall message of how the modern video game industry could stand to take a lesson from older video games when it comes to prominently featuring heroines as main characters could have used a couple of asterisks, or at least had a few parts that deserve to be elaborated on more. Granted, working with a monthly schedule means my response would be a tad dated (hell, two more Game Overthinker video have gone up since then), but for some reason I just couldn’t resist an open invitation to contribute further to the continuing discussions concerning female characters in video games. Besides, since that rivalry some of the other writers wanted to start with Ernest Cline didn’t pan out, maybe we should move onto somebody else to start a debate with.

Anyhow, the points I want to make concerning Bob’s “Lost Girls” list are simple. First, there’s the fact that the majority of games featured are Japanese in origin, meaning they were initially designed for a completely different audience in mind compared to the now-dominating world of western game development. Speaking of which, a lot of the games included come from the eras in which video games were primarily marketed to kids in general, as opposed to the currently damn annoying trend of marketing every major video game that doesn’t have the words “Nintendo” or “Lego” attached to it to teenagers and above.

And aside from target audiences, there’s also the fact that a major chunk of games here include platformers and arcade-style action games…genres that sadly don’t exactly carry the same clout as they used to when it comes to triple-A video games. It’s one thing to suggest that Francesca from The Krion Conquest should be allowed to make a comeback, but the age in which a game like that could sell for fifty dollars on store shelves and receive coverage in major video game publications complete with a minimum-four-page strategy guide in Nintendo Power have long ended (well, there is Shovel Knight, but even that had to work extra hard and become a major success before getting a retail release).

These days, such genres tend to be the domain of the indie scene, where not coincidentally, there happens to be less of a problem with a lack of female protagonists. Heck, just to name some examples from the past year or so, there’s been Freedom Planet, Dyscourse, The Next Penelope, Traverser, Curses ‘N Chaos, Never Alone, Chariot, Velocity 2X, Ronin, Toren, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, Technobabylon, Anna’s Quest, Gravity Ghost, A City Sleeps, and many more. Even among smaller input from larger studios, we’ve had Life is Strange, Resident Evil: Revelations 2, and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China. Heck, on the very next page I review three current games with female leads.

Now, based on a group of games like that, someone could put up the argument that there really isn’t much of a problem with women represented in playable game characters, and assuming that they could actually communicate their ideas in a mostly sane and logical manner, they might be a valid point. But the world of larger, blockbuster video games still has a rather massive image problem, and I guess what I’m trying to get at here with all of this is that in order to fix this problem, we need to cultivate a better atmosphere that would allow female characters to thrive again. Perhaps we need to find ways to give indie games more prominence, to highlight and import more promising Japanese games, to work on developing more high-profile, kid-friendly games again (which I have been yelling that we need more of for years now). After all, it’s one thing to suggest that certain women in video games should make a comeback, it’s another to ask how they should be able to make a comeback…and I assume that the guy called “Overthinker” should be able to tackle that issue further (heh).

BUT…Bob’s video did get me thinking about how video games from the ’80s and ’90s excelled in presenting female characters better than current games in one particular way, and that would be in the area of multiple playable characters.

 

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Ah, how it was easier back then. Do you want to play as a female character? Then choose the female character. If you don’t, choose the guy. Characters of both genders would be given equal prominence when promoting and displaying the game, and no one complained.

Now, we still have certain genres with multiple specific characters today – team-based shooters, MOBAs, fighting games, and such – but it seems like a lot of character selection in video games today has been phased out in favor of character customization. Obviously, this shouldn’t be a problem if the player is able to mold their persona into whatever gender or race they want. No, the real problem here lies in the default protagonists these games choose to advertise themselves with.

 

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Now, I hate to be the guy who writes thinkpieces about why certain video games should have female leads for seemingly no reason other than “Why not?” but this is something about video games boasting custom character design that has bugged me for the longest time, even before these current issues gained mainstream attention. Specifically, what causes executives and a marketing department to think “Hmmm, what’s the best way to advertise our gigantic new game that allows the player to be virtually anyone or anything that they want, be it a male or female with a variety of races? I know, let’s make the face of the game the most average-looking motherfucker imaginable!!

This is because over the past few decades, the target demographics that companies want to market video games to have shifted from kids and people of all ages to the oh-so-lucrative market of white males ages eighteen to thirty-four. You know, the magic demographic that large companies and organizations kill for. The ones whose opinions are worth those of five women each, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in a call center. So despite a game with several options for creating your own hero, the actual product is given a face designed to lazily sell itself towards the largest and most lucrative crowd they can, regardless of whom they actually want to play as. The end result is a gigantic chunk of video games where you can be as creative as you want when it comes to the protagonist, but mention Commander Shepard, Dovahkiin, The Boss, The Lone Wanderer and many more, and see what gender or race of character pops into your head first.

BUT…video games which make themselves more welcoming when it comes to playable heroines (or minorities, since I’ve just brought it up) sadly seem to have all of their effort nullified when the heads in charge are too scared to market to anyone but the mythical “Dewritos” crowd of frat boys and manchildren. Hell, even the poster child of that group, Call of Duty, will finally allow players to choose their main character’s gender and customized appearance for the first time ever in a campaign for the upcoming Black Ops III, but that act of progression has seemingly been swept under the rug in favor of advertising the game with more burly white guys. What should be an example of highlighting creative character design is instead shunned in favor of the same ol’ same ol’, so we end up making little to no advancements (or at least it seems that way).

I know by this point it seems that I’ve probably been rambling pointlessly for longer than usual, but yes, in addition to bringing back forgotten females of video games and crafting newer memorable faces among them as well, perhaps we should also encourage the gaming industry to have the balls to be able to sell video games with women as selectable default leads again, because if we had no issues doing so twenty years ago with multiple pre-made main characters, then there’s no excuse with having any for games where the main character can have any gender or appearance. Now, I definitely don’t want any developers to use female characters as leads solely because they feel forced into doing so, or because they’re under any pressure to feel politically correct. What I am saying is that for the sake of showcasing variety and creativity in video games again, perhaps even a slight slant towards a different sex would be highly beneficial.

Also, I am 100% down for Mischief Makers making a comeback as well. We need more Treasure games again, dammit…

Alright, I do realize that the combination of MovieBob and discussions about female video game characters and their struggles might have alienated a few readers, so now I guess I have to draw them back with something they can gripe about…HEY, DON’T PRE-ORDER BONUSES FOR TRIPLE-A GAMES SUCK??? There, something that obvious, for everyone. That said, I would indeed like to address a rather loathsome pre-order bonus announced recently surrounding a Square Enix game…

Oh no, not that loathsome pre-order bonus for a Square Enix game. Don’t get me wrong, that idea for a pre-order bonus is fucking atrocious…I mean, have you seen the “Likes” bar for it on the YouTube page? Christ, the Hitler grandchildren from Code Monkeys could come back and release a more positively-received video about a game as long as it didn’t mention pre-orders. But everyone has pretty much universally agreed that this particular gimmick blows, and several major personalities have already voiced their opinions on it, so I don’t have much else to add to the pot.

No, I’m talking about that other loathsome pre-order bonus for a Square Enix game this month…

Yeah, thought you could get away with this, did you, Just Cause 3? You thought you could just sneak away now that Mankind Divided was taking all of the heat? Niiiice try.

Mind you, Just Cause 3 has a relatively more minor offense than that that of Deus Ex, but still one that should be criticized. Now, on the surface, it’s the type of insane gimmick that should get you excited: Pre-order Just Cause 3, and HOLY SHIT YOU CAN WIN YOUR OWN PRIVATE ISLAND YAAAAAYYYY!!! Yeah, well, if you were to take a look at the rules and legal bits, you wouldn’t be that excited. The winner of the island is not guaranteed that the island will be inhabitable, developed, or reachable by any means other than a boat (not included), they still have to pay taxes on the island, and the island itself will only be worth up to $50,000, which a quick search tells me will not be enough to buy you much of an island.

But to be fair, Square Enix at least had the good sense to just offer $50,000 cash as an alternative to those who don’t want the island (which begs the question of why they just didn’t advertise the cash as the main prize, but I guess that wasn’t as exciting or appealing as your own damn island). And hey, let’s say the island is better than expected, or maybe there are those interested in such a contest who just think owning their own island no matter what would be neat. That doesn’t change the fact that limiting this contest to the pre-ordered “Day One” editions (or just the Day One editions in general, which Square Enix advertises that your pre-order as opposed to just purchase) is still bullcrap.

Why am singling this out? Well, let’s go over how you win the contest here. According to the rules, the goal is to achieve the highest number of “Chaos Points” in Just Cause 3 during a period of time starting from when the game is released. The person with the most points on the top of the leaderboard is the winner. You gain Chaos Points by…well, pretty much doing anything, but mainly by destroying property.

So let’s say someone is trying to win, and is serious about the contest. If they want to ensure that they have the most chaos points, they would probably want to play the game regularly. In particular, they would want to start playing ASAP to get the jump start, especially to get the most within the contest’s time period. To do so, they would want to get the game on day one, most likely by pre-ordering it to ensure a copy.

In other words, the pre-order bonus for Just Cause 3 is…a contest that is already encouraging you to pre-order the damn game.

This is what it it’s come to, folks. Big game companies are now so obsessed with pre-order culture that they’re now locking advertisements for the games behind pre-orders, limited editions, and whatnot. There is NO logical reason – at least none that I can see – why this contest had to be limited to the Day One editions. It is a completely pointless move that only serves to illustrate how all of this has gotten out of control. Note to all triple-A heads out there: You know which game this past month did pre-order announcements right?? Rare Replay.

“You should pre-order our game! Why? Because it’s a fucking good game, DUH. Why else would you immediately want a game?” That is how you do it.

Alright, on to this month’s Burning Question! And given the subject matter in this edition’s main editorial, perhaps it would be a good idea to show the big boys of gaming industry how to improve things a bit via examples of other current works that weren’t afraid. In other words: Who’s your favorite gaming heroine of recent years? Whatever lady you’ve enjoyed playing as. Bonus points if you can explain why you find them to be a great character as well.

 

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As an additional bonus, alongside the always-classic Mystery Prize, we will be offering up a copy of Volume on Steam, courtesy of Mike Bithell! The review is coming up on the next page, but long story short, I loved it, so let’s see more people competing this time around for such a quality prize, ‘kay?

As for the winners when it comes to last month’s Burning Question, congrats to Robert Brandon Baldwin for winning the latest Mystery Prize!! Robert, e-mail us at [email protected] with your e-mail address, and we’ll send you your prize.

Next up: new video game reviews, starring both blasts from the past and presents from the…um, present. Dammit, we need a catchy rhyming term for current stuff as well…


This month in game reviews: Enjoyable retro stuff, slick puzzlers, and pure artsy pretentiousness…because in the case of the latter, sometimes you have to suffer for your work.

Beyond Eyes

You know, there’s nothing I like more than seeing video games with promising, unique, fun concepts appear on the horizon. And there’s nothing I hate more then getting closer to that game and detecting the stench of awards bait all over it. And finally having made contact with the game only to watch everything before you crumble into a dull mess is naturally the final straw. Such is the sad tale of my experience with Beyond Eyes.

The actual tale of Beyond Eyes is that of Rae, a young girl who gets blinded one summer in a fireworks-related accident. After her disability ends up isolating Rae from her schoolmates, she eventually befriends a cat named Nani, who quickly becomes her BFF. When Nani mysteriously disappears, Rae naturally decides to do the sensible thing and tell her parents about the cat’s disappearance so that word gets out about the missing pet in order to find it as swiftly and safely as possible.

…Oh, sorry, I was reading from the sane version of the game’s script. What really happens is that Rae, the blind grade-schooler, sets out on a journey several miles across town to find her damn cat. And it’s heavily implied that this is all meant to show that this is an act of bravery on Rae’s part, and while I get that she’s supposed to be overcoming her handicap, it should be noted that there’s still a fine line between bravery and outright stupidity.

As for the actual game itself…well, I hate to use the term “walking simulator” to describe a game, but alas, that basically sums up the majority of everything that happens here. You have Rae travel around as all of her surroundings get filled in with watercolor paints in a manner similar to The Unfinished Swan, the rest remaining a blank canvas due to her lack of sight. And while I admit that the visuals are quite striking indeed, it doesn’t take long to discover that the game’s central gimmick of Rae’s mind filling in the surroundings based on what she senses only has two tricks to it, those of “an object you thought was one thing turns out to be a different thing” and “it turns out there’s actually an obstacle here acting as a wall.”

So that’s basically it. The entire game just has you wandering around an extremely weak, linear maze of sorts, heading to one spot to trigger an event that allows you to move to the next spot, your only true obstacle being slightly aggressive wildlife that just yells at Rae so much that she’s too afraid to even go near it. And I don’t have a problem with linear storytelling and gameplay, as long as it’s still compelling and enjoyable, which Beyond Eyes isn’t. Rae moves at a pathetically slow pace, presumably to depict how an actual blind girl would move cautiously, but also while conveniently disguising the fact that this game would be over in about forty minutes if she were to move at a normal speed.

The story is also a mess, with adults all around who never seem to give a crap about helping out the obvious blind girl bumping into things and Rae never bothering to ask anyone for help (except for one lone instance), moments where the plot is moved forward simply by Rae being able to just sense what way Nani has traveled next, and without giving anything away, the ending is so blatantly emotionally manipulative that I pretty much outright facepalmed at it (although the epilogue was better, I must say).

Beyond Eyes is a game of wasted potential. What could have served as a unique experience based around the life of a disabled person as she explores her challenges in life is instead reduced to a slow, hackneyed drama whose actual game amounts to little more than wandering around and bumping into things as you move in one direction. Perhaps this game could have benefited from a designer with a better vision for it.

Also, if you want to see me stumble around as a blind girl for two hours, here’s my Let’s Play for Beyond Eyes. Enjoy (I guess)!

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

So in case I didn’t make it clear when I named Goodbye Despair (and by extension, the first and previous game in the series) the second-best game of 2014, I have quickly become a massive fan of the Danganronpa franchise, revolving around a group of high-school students forced into playing a deadly murder mystery. So when it was announced that a spin-off game set between the first two titles would be coming out, I jumped at the chance to play it, even if this game was going to take a different direction as a third-person shooter. The end result is…well, something that I liked, even if I feel a bit iffy about certain parts of it. NOTE: Minor spoilers for the first Danganronpa game to follow (along with some in the trailer above, sorry), since they’re unavoidable.

So taking place months after the original Danganronpa, we find Komaru Naegi, average high school student and sister of the first game’s protagonist, having been held hostage in a mysterious room ever since things went down earlier, with no idea as to why she was abducted. When an army of Monokumas (think giant, clawed, even-more-evil and murderous Teddy Ruxpins) attack, Komaru is freed and rescued by an organization known as Future Foundation, who give her a “hacking gun” shaped like a megaphone that can defeat the Monokumas, and tell her to reach their helicopter to escape the island of Towa City. Unfortunately, things go wrong and Komaru finds herself kidnapped by the Warriors of Hope, a group of five Children of the Corn-esque elementary school students who control the Monokumas and plan to create a paradise for all kids by killing all of the city’s adults. They then strap a collar to Komaru and drop her back into Towa to play a game where they are to hunt her down as a “demon,” but luckily she finds help in the form of Future Foundation intern (and survivor of the first game) Toko Fukawa, a socially awkward writer with a yandere serial killer for a split personality. Together, the two try to find a way to escape Towa City.

…And if your first reaction to all of that was “What the eff??” well don’t worry, that’s normal.

Anyhow, the part of Another Episode that’s meant to be the center of everything is the third-person combat, which tends to be a bit on the simplistic side and somewhat awkward (especially with the sprint function mapped to the circle button and firing set to the right trigger, so good luck running and gunning), but is still pretty enjoyable. Your hacking gun has different kinds of bullets (no, don’t bother trying to figure out the science behind this) that you naturally unlock along the way such as stun, rapid-fire, knockback and such that are used to either destroy or manipulate the different types of Monokumas that gradually get introduced (including ones that fling bombs, have riot gear that you have to knock off, or ones that even spew garbage into your face to obscure your vision). Supplies are limited in a fashion almost similar to survival horror games, but are still plentiful. Aside from each chapter having the simple goal of getting from Point A to Point B while searching for goods and various collectibles, you also have to get through the occasional puzzle room, typically consisting of having to find a way to defeat all of the enemies inside with one particular blow. They’re not particularly challenging, but make for a nice change of pace. If you have enough energy (represented via batteries), you can also switch and play as Toko’s Genocider Jack persona, which makes you invincible, allows for hands-on combat, and is designed to get you out of tough situations…a feature that I never used, because as you may have grasped, this isn’t exactly the hardest game out there right now.

But then again, the true meat of the Danganronpa games has always been the intriguing stories, and Another Episode is no exception there. Hell, there’s even a difficulty option that simply allows you to play as Genocider Jack a near-infinite amount of times, which the game openly states is for those who just want to enjoy the story. Of course, the problem here is that I can’t really go into detail about what makes the game’s story impressive without spoiling anything, so I’ll just say that it includes complex schemes with many twists and turns, amazing villains, a focus on friendship, disturbing moments, actual uncomfortable moments, brutal choices, breakdowns, dark comedy, and an impressive ending, among other things. On the negative side, though, we also have some instances where major characters are killed off less than fifteen minutes after being introduced, one particular plot device that just seemed silly for the series to me (take that as you will), and one huge plot hole in the finale, unless I missed something.

So the story is great and the gameplay is good, but here’s thing: With Another Episode, the two aspects really have some trouble mixing together. See, despite this game’s focus on third-person action, it’s still stuck in the roots of the visual novel genre the Danganronpa games belong to. And while the original games were able to balance large sections devoted to the story with the investigation elements, trials, and moments where you interacted with surviving classmates, AE has loooong stretches of cinematics and dialogue in between gameplay. Probably the most notable bit is at the end, which I swear has what felt like an hour of text between the final boss battle and the true final boss battle. And the fact that the game uses save points in contrast to previous games allowing you to save at practically any time doesn’t help, resulting in bits such as the beginning of one chapter where I had go through fifteen minutes of exposition followed by twenty minutes of a part where you have to escape a completely dark area before being allowed to actually save things.

But that notable flaw in pacing aside, Another Episode is still a stylish little entry into the Danganronpa franchise that I can recommend checking out just for its gleefully crazed story alone, although those who aren’t fans of the series or visual novels in general are probably best steering clear of things. Now to just sit back and hope Danganronpa 3 gets announced soon…

Galak-Z

Right off the bat, the first thing to catch your eye when it comes to Galak-Z will be the visuals. Developer 17-BIT has gone to great lengths to replicate the look and feel of a 1980s anime for the adventure of Atak the space fighter, right down to the character designs, music, and even the pause screen that resembles a decades-old TV options menu. So this is a game that definitely hits it out of the park when it comes to presentation, but it comes to gameplay…well, it also ends up with a hit there as well! Go figure!

Galak-Z is set up to play like – appropriately enough – a classic arcade-style shooter and action game similar to those such as Asteroids. Of course, what we wind up with is a wee bit more complex, involving randomly-generated levels, multiple weapons and skills to use, enemies that can detect you and call for backup, and levels with a lot of quirks to figure out. It does seem like a lot to take in, and I won’t lie, it gets a bit tricky to control at first. But things thankfully get easier quite quickly (and more fun when you gain the ability to transform into a mech, because hell yes), and soon you’re circling around dreadnoughts and dodging fire with ease.

Keeping with the ’80s anime theme, the goal of the game is to complete five “Seasons” of five levels/episodes each, typically culminating in a boss battle at each end. However, Galak-Z also happens to have roguelike elements, meaning that when you die, you have to start the entire season over again (which each completed season unlocking the next) having lost all of your upgrades and with only certain items and currency carrying over to the in-game store. Annoyingly though, your upgrades don’t carry over to the next season after you complete a previous one, with no explanation given as to why, which is definitely an unnecessary hindrance.

So needless to say, Galak-Z is a rather challenging game. Each level starts you out with a basic objective of having to collect a certain object inside a maze-like area, but getting there is easier said than done. Your first instinct might be to charge in guns a-blazing and take out any enemies in your path, and as I learned the hard way, this approach will fail quickly the second the tougher enemies show up. The more proper approach is to use stealth, especially since your ship’s movements cause noise that the enemy can detect. So avoiding enemy detection at every turn and taking advantage on alternate paths is a better idea, but you also need to gather salvage to purchase upgrades and weapons as well, which is typically dropped by defeated enemies, and you also need to search around for upgrades you can find outside of the store.

So there’s a large emphasis on exploration as well, not to mention the risk/reward factor that comes into play when deciding whether or not to venture out of hiding to beef up your ship. And we haven’t even gotten into the different teams of enemies that will attack each other, or the environmental hazards that you can trigger and use to your advantage. What I’m trying to get at here is that what may have a simplistic appearance here actually disguises a game that requires a good amount of strategy, one that provides a satisfying level of difficulty.

Sadly, as good as the twists in each level’s layout are, Galak-Z kind of drops the ball a little in level design. The randomly-generated levels make sure that the game keeps you on your toes, but they don’t exactly provide much in the way of unique objectives or story elements. You’re only given a handful of goals each season, and be they having to search for warp crystals or possibly rescuing fellow pilots, they didn’t really get any more complex for me than “Travel into stronghold, head to the point on the map, return to the warp point.” And while each level is even given its own mock episode title and writer, the visuals always stay the same, so not a whole lot of variety is offered up.

But that aside, Galak-Z is a great shooter, one that evokes a simpler time while providing a level of fun and challenge on par with today’s standards. It’s a terrific bit of anime goodness, and I highly suggest checking it out.

Rare Replay

Well…this is kind of a tough one for me to tackle. See, typically I never review re-releases, remakes, “Definitive Editions” or such, largely because I see no point in talking about a game everyone’s discussed before, especially if it means taking away time I could use to cover a potential new classic. But I am willing to bend the rules now and then, and given the massive impact Rare Replay made when it was unveiled at E3 this year, along with the fact that several games in it haven’t seen daylight in potentially decades, I felt I should step in.

Still, thirty games?? Despite how the rest of you might imagine me, I do not have either the time or energy to fully play through every single game, so you’ll have to forgive me if I only had enough time for a sample of each one. But yes, as you may have deduced, Rare Replay is a collection of thirty titles by the legendary game developer Rare, minus all of the licensed games and they obviously couldn’t get due to legal reasons (so no Goldeneye or Donkey Kong Country games here).

Going chronologically, we start out with Rare’s ZX Spectrum games such as Jetpac, Sabre Wulf, and lesser-knowns like Atic Atac and Gunfright, which you will discover are kind of interesting, but have not aged well at all due to confusing, unforgiving gameplay circa the 1980s. Jetpac is the only real standout, but since the Jetpac Refueled remake for the Xbox 360 is included, that kind of makes it unnecessary. From there we go into Rare’s NES era, featuring the hidden gems you’ve always heard about (Solar Jetman, Cobra Triangle), the ones you haven’t heard about much but are actually pretty good (Slalom, R.C. Pro-Am II), and the ones you were better off not hearing about (Digger T. Rock).

Of course, I couldn’t exclude Battletoads, the franchise that’s practically the face of this collection. The NES classic still stands up for the most part in all of its hair-pulling glory, but the seldom-seen 1994 Battletoads arcade game deserves to be highlighted as well…if only because it might be another candidate for the Most ’90s Game Ever. It’s a beat-’em-up that features mounds of over-the-top violence and gore, attempts at “mature” adult humor, kewl misspellings, and certain enemies where you can grab their crotches and punch them in the dick because WHAT THE F***. Still, the graphics are great.

Now we move into the Nintendo 64 era, where Rare made Killer Instinct Gold, the classic fighting game that’s also in the running for the Most ’90s Game Ever but is still decent, Blast Corps, a tragically underlooked action game with a unique premise that was fun to play, and Jet Force Gemini, which REALLY suffered when it came to translating N64 controls. Then there’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the anarchistic platformer Nintendo didn’t want you to play and was a middle finger towards the overly-cutesy direction 3D platformers were heading in, which still impresses me based on its voice work alone. We’ll get to the rest soon, but then comes Rare’s only game for the original Xbox, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, which isn’t as bad as the game’s original reception made it seem. Mind you, it’s not that good, either, but at least it’s better than we thought.

Finally, we enter the Xbox 360 era, which includes the original Banjo-Kazooie games and Perfect Dark, which were re-released for the console. Sadly, this is where technical problems tend to sneak in, not helped by the fact that all nine of these games had to be installed separately outside of Rare Replay (at least on the digital copy I was given), and where switching over to them feels awkward. This includes moments where Xbox Live wouldn’t let me sign in and earn achievements, a moment in Kameo where the game froze up (which was sad, because the game was decent up until then), and certain games like Jetpac Refueled even flat-out refusing to install for a while. Still, there’s no denying that those N64 games are classics, along with the goddamn-why-wasn’t-this-franchise-more-popular Viva Pi?ata games. The others…well, they already get enough of a whipping as is; let’s leave it at that.

So technical problems aside, the entire collection might come off as a mixed bag based on what I’ve written, with many awkward games alongside the greats. And it is a mixed bag, I suppose…which, honestly, is kind of why I love it.

See, as I’ve said before about publishers such as Devolver Digital and developers such as Platinum Games, I have a deep amount of respect for those in the game industry who love to experiment with several various genres and styles, no matter how crazed they are. Even if the finished product isn’t perfect, they were willing to take chances. And instead of just simply cherry-picking their most beloved games, the ones that would sell just based on name recognition alone, Rare threw in practically every game they conceivably could. This isn’t a celebration solely of Rare’s best games, this is a celebration of Rare’s entire career spanning three decades, where they experimented with several different games, and even the lesser ones are still interesting to discover, try out, and talk about.

So for that alone, I applaud Rare Replay greatly. Heck, even everything else from the theatre-style presentation to the unlockable extras are executed greatly as well. It’s a terrific collection from a terrific game developer, and hopefully inspires confidence that Rare will continue making a variety of interesting games for years to come (looking at you, Sea of Thieves…).

Replay: VHS Is Not Dead

To say that indie puzzle games with a central mechanic based around time manipulation have been a dime a dozen ever since Braid might be a bit of an understatement. So any game that can come along and prove that it’s still possible to create something groundbreaking and wholly unique with such a gameplay feature shall be an acclaimed savior indeed, and Replay: VHS Is Not Dead is…definitely not that game. What it is can still be a fun little puzzler, albeit one that I had difficulty getting into.

So our hero today is Harvery, a regular joe who just rented some new films from his local video club. One the way home, though, he is struck by lightning in a freak accident while holding his tapes and when he tries to play them, he finds several key moments in the movies seemingly erased before being mysteriously sucked into his television and forced to enter the worlds of the films themselves. Harvey, somehow feeling that the possibility of being banned from the video store is his biggest worry at the moment, decides that the best course of action is to recreate the missing scenes from the films and hold on a second, isn’t this just a 2D puzzle-platformer version of Be Kind Rewind? Not that I wouldn’t welcome that, but still…

As hinted at in the beginning, Replay isn’t exactly that big on innovations in gameplay. Well, to be fair, it does have a neat idea in that the goal is to get Harvey and the various characters in the film he’s working with to reach their designated areas, but you can only play as one character at a time. When you’re done, all of your current character’s actions are recorded, and you have to rewind to the beginning to play as someone else while all of your previous character’s actions play out. The catch is that as you progress, you’ll need to be constantly switching between characters multiple times, having to plan out every move in advance and needing to memorize and re-perform previous moves correctly in order to progress. So a lot of thought and a lot of timing are required, which is a good thing. However, this doesn’t stop the obstacles in your path from being of the stock variety, including weighing down switches, pushing boxes, redirecting lasers, et cetera. Again, it’s not bad, and the puzzles are still well-designed; it’s just nothing particularly special.

But if I still found the core gameplay of Replay to be good, why did I have trouble getting into it, as mentioned earlier? Well, the thing is that all of the game’s levels are meant to be satires and tributes of famous movies, but it never really does anything with them. Aside from falling victim to shallow parody tropes such as sticking two characters in different franchises together for no reason (a Ripley expy in the Star Trek parody, for example) or obviously lazy name changes (Kirk is now Berk, hahaha), the whole story just never seems to take advantage of its own premise. There’s dialogue between the characters before each stage, but none of it ever takes shots at any of the movies they’re representing, nor even comes off as feeling like the developers even watched the movies, just mostly uninspired dialogue about where everyone should go next. So instead of a humorous jab at or tribute to Pirates of the Caribbean, what you get feels more like an excuse to use Generic Pirate-Themed Level #394B.

Then again, it feels kind of petty for me to criticize a game for what it isn’t. So in the end, Replay: VHS Is Not Dead is still a good brainteaser that makes fine use of its titular gameplay element – just don’t expect something that required a lot of uniqueness in the style and concept areas. Somewhat fittingly, some of you may only find it worthy of a rental…well, if it weren’t a digital indie game.

Submerged

From the outset, Submerged prided itself on being a non-violent game, one that was based more around exploration that allowed you to venture about at your own pace. Now, several commenters have since mocked the idea of such a game marketing itself as violence-free, saying that genres such as puzzle games or point-and-click adventures have existed for decades without the need for violence. That’s a valid point, but I think what Uppercut Games was trying to go for here is that Submerged is a non-violent action-adventure game, which is still quite the rarity to see these days, and any attempt at such a unique game should praised.

Of course, it would mean more if the finished game was actually good.

Submerged is the story of Miku, a girl who brings her younger brother Taku to a mysterious flooded post-apocalyptic city in order to search for supplies to heal his wounds. To do so, Miku will have to search the entire area for ten buildings that each contain a supply crate which only contains one item for some reason, but that item is the exact piece of equipment that she needs at the given time. So yeah, despite the game aiming for something deeper, storytelling clearly isn’t its strong suit. You can attempt to fill in more blanks by searching several areas for bits of story that tell the tale of what happened to this world, but A. they’re all told solely via ancient tribal images (that Miku apparently translates from clearly normal books and writing), which is a cute idea but doesn’t make things all that clear, and B. from what I could deduce about the story, it’s still basically a completely generic apocalypse about how the environment got screwed and the earth got flooded (although I think an Eldritch abomination is involved at some point, though that’s just my interpretation). The between-supply flashbacks of how the two siblings got into this predicament fare no better, especially when there’s so little story to tell that they eventually begin recapping the prologue that you’ve already seen and played through.

The actual meat of the gameplay pretty much boils down to two core elements: Sailing between buildings and climbing buildings. Sailing is particularly awkward thanks to its controls, which can be hard to get used to even when you’re halfway through the game. You can also find additional collectible boat parts to make it run smoother and have longer turbo boosts, but considering how small the world map is and the lack of a time limit, they’re pretty much unnecessary. Once you located a building containing something to search for (which can be found with the help of Miku’s magic telescope that can somehow seek and highlight collectibles two hundred feet away), you dock and begin climbing up buildings Assassin’s Creed-style. In other words, you find the distinctive ledges and pipes and shimmy up and around them. However, since the game doesn’t even allow Miku to jump, all you have to do is just move the joystick in the correct direction, thus somehow remove any sense of challenge from the equation.

That being said, despite a few awkward moments, I never felt anything inherently wrong gameplay-wise with the climbing portions, save for several moments when the camera would suddenly switch to a completely different fixed position for no damn reason other than to provide what it thought was an impressive shot. No, the actual sin of the climbing segments is that the buildings you climb are just so damn boring. Because you’re allowed to visit all of the buildings in any order, the error of a lack of any escalating difficulty creeps in, and all of the tall structures feature the exact same kind of level design. No unique twists, no different puzzles to solve (or any puzzles, really), no real changes in architecture, nothing. None of them even appear to offer any unique visual details, which is another shame. You’d think a game like this would take advantage of some golden opportunities to peek inside the ruined structures and get a glimpse of what life might have been like for the people of this city before disaster struck, but nope, be it a hospital or an office building, you only get to see the outsides where everything looks the same.

If there is one positive thing to say about Submerged, the graphics at least look impressive, especially when it comes to the various wildlife traversing the waters and the ruined landmarks that dot the spaces in between as well. But it can’t disguise the fact that yet another game that appears to have so much potential and ambition on the outside is, on the inside, ultimately a shallow and overly-simplistic, fleeting experience, constantly suggesting what could have been had they followed the plans of the team members who actually cared about the concept. I think fellow TR member Gallen Dugall put it best when commenting on my stream of this game: “Someone put a lot of work into this game – clearly not EVERYONE involved in it did.”

And again, if you want to see me awkwardly play through such a game, here’s my Let’s Play of Submerged. Yes, the two Let’s Plays I made this month were of the worst games I reviewed for this edition of RGM. I’m sorry…

Volume

So while everyone is immersing themselves in the adventures of Snake and his magic cardboard box again this month (including myself), it should be noted that it isn’t the only notable stealth game to have been released recently. As a follow-up to Mike Bithell’s BAFTA-winning game Thomas Was Alone, Volume has some notably big shoes to fill while also having to work with an entirely different genre. So do we have something that successfully snuck in as a sleeper hit, or did it get spotted by a guard and got shot down in hail of mediocrity?

The story of Volume is a direct adaptation of Robin Hood (which with Gunpowder last month, makes two games in a row to do so), with the young Rob Locksley taking on the evil Guy Gisborne. Of course, this time around Guy Gisborne is the CEO of a corporation who has taken control of England, and Rob is trying to get the company’s wealth stolen and redistributed by using a device to simulate heists with the help of a snarky AI named Alan, so, you know, some liberties may have been taken. There’s a bit of meta-commentary in the fact that Rob is simulating the heists of real-world locations and broadcasting them via social media for everyone to see and pull off in reality, providing a neat little commentary on the nature of video games, Let’s Play culture, and internet personalities.

The meatier bits of the story are communicated mainly through dialogue between the characters at the beginning of certain levels, and succeed largely thanks to the help of some terrific voice acting by Charlie McDonnell, Danny Wallace, Andy Serkis, and others. Unfortunately, the setups for the missions fall a tad flat. All you get is a small text dump during the mission select screen about who you’re hitting next and why, but it never seems to have much of an impact on the rest of the game. And while the game’s visuals are magnificent and striking indeed, appropriately going for a minimalistic style in the vein of Tron with specific color palettes, there’s no real variety in the game’s settings (making it the fourth game I’ve reviewed this month to have such a problem). The game tries to inform you that you’re robbing a celebrity’s house, the offices of a business magnate, or a soldier’s headquarters, but save for the occasional document lying around, you’d have trouble telling them apart (even if they are just supposed to be simulations).

Of course, the real star here is the stealth-based gameplay, deliberately taking inspiration from the likes of the original Metal Gear Solid. It’s played from a top-down, third-person perspective, and the goal is simply to get all of the gems in a level and reach the exit. Everything controls smooth and swiftly, and the obstacles escalate perfectly with each level, making sure the classic “easy to play, hard to master” school of thought is in effect. Despite the aesthetics of the levels failing a bit in the story, the actual level design is terrific, especially when things get more open-ended about how to approach things and multiple gadgets pop up.

Speaking of which, the various gadgets you get to play with are a fun lot indeed, ranging from noisemakers to holographic projectors and the ability to run without making a sound, and figuring out how to use them properly is always enjoyable. Obstacles and surroundings that you can use to your advantage are also introduced and used frequently to provide a good amount of variety, along with different types of guards that always make sure to up the threat without proving to be annoying, since the game makes it crystal clear whether or not an area is in a guard’s line of sight, and you always have a fair chance to escape them if possible. That being said, I easily could have done without the lasers that get introduced halfway through, because any device that sets off alarms and moves up and down in a top-down game is going to make it quite tough for the player to judge whether they’ll actually be able to just bypass them or not.

So despite a slight misstep in the story department, I found Volume to be a highly enjoyable stealth game, one that does Solid Snake and company proud by offering up a fun little set of puzzles and challenges that plays incredibly damn well. So yeah, Snake’s crazed adventure may be drawing the attention now, but be sure to make some time to give this little gem a shot as well.

Next time: Armello! Armikrog! Circa Infinity! Dropsy! Party Hard! And yes, I might be able to get around to a Metal Gear Solid V review, assuming I can actually finish enough of the game in between everything else in order to create a proper impression. But for now, let us move on to the latest in video game trailers!


Alright, so with Gamescom and PAX having come and gone, there should have been a ton of notable game trailers to sort through this month…there should have been, but Gamescom kind of dropped the ball in that area, due to a lack of any notable presence by previous highlights such as Sony or the Indie Megabooth this year, and what seemed like a dominance of games that have already received major E3 coverage. It’s kind of disappointing when freaking Red Bull were seemingly the only ones willing to offer any diverse Gamescom coverage. Sheesh. Well, thankfully PAX and the regular output of trailers picked up some slack, so let’s see what we’ve got…

Scalebound

So as it turns out, the elusive Scalebound is an action-RPG that apparently plays out like the Platinum Games version of How to Train Your Dragon, and having read that concept’s description again, that makes me want this game more than anything (along with some great-looking gameplay). In other words, I finally have a new triple-A game that I will no doubt not shut up about until it’s released next year, so my apologies in advance. Sorry, but this is possibly my new Sunset Overdrive.

Necropolis

Necropolis was already looking like a damn fine roguelike game as is (and it still looks amazing here), but the decision to add funk music to it (at least for the trailer) is one I highly approve of. I mean, imagine the Dark Souls games being sold with music like this. That’d sure as hell get me to buy those games, at least…

Headlander

So the result of the Double Fine/Adult Swim Games collaboration we heard about a while ago has finally been revealed, and it is glorious. Headlander is a Metroidvania game where you play as a severed head that can attach itself to and take control of several other automatons in a false utopia inspired by ’70s sci-fi films where the rest of humanity have transferred their brains into robot bodies…which come to think of it, explains why Adult Swim Games decided to get involved with this.

LawBreakers

Well, after the previous tease a while ago, Cliffy B did indeed reveal a new video showcasing some of the gameplay for his new free-to-play shooter LawBreakers during PAX, and I’d say it looks like it’d make for a damn fun time indeed. Particularly impressive considering that this appears to be the game that got him out of a retirement caused by people in the gaming scene being too jaded (can’t say I disagree with him).

Transformers: Devastation

This new trailer is mighty impressive indeed, but given the average Topless Robot reader, I’ll just leave it at “playable Grimlock” and that should be enough to get everybody all hot and excited for this.

River City Ransom: Underground

Since we already began this edition with someone talking about the idea of potentially reviving older video game characters, it seems appropriate to include the River City Ransom revival here as well, now complete with some nods to the Double Dragon games to take it all one step further. Underground looks like it’s coming along quite nicely, and looks to expand upon that classic game while still staying true to its roots, right down to the mid-fight enemy dialogue (though it had better include the traditional “BARF!!!”).

A Fistful of Gun

A Fistful of Gun was already looking like an amazing action-packed arcade game based on everything else I had seen of it so far, but the reveal that it will allow you to play as an old-timey circus strongman(?) who attacks by throwing knives is the cherry on top, along with eight additional cherries that look like they’ll make for some sweet co-op games.

OmniBus

After several, several cases of indie games inspired by 8-bit and 16-bit games, I guess we should have seen this coming as the next logical step: An indie game that outright states on its Kickstarter page that it was inspired by low-poly early PlayStation games. So OmniBus has my curiosity, but here’s hoping that it doesn’t fall into the increasingly-tedious “intentionally bad novelty game” category (Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator, et cetera).

Battleborn

Okay, Battleborn still looks impressive, but honestly, I’m spotlighting this simply because any trailer with music by Death From Above 1979 in it deserves all of the attention it can get. Say what you want about Gearbox, they sure know their trailer music.

Mafia III

Mafia III is a game set in New Orleans during the 1960s, about an African-American Vietnam veteran and member of “The Black Mob” who seeks revenge on several organized crime members. I have to explain all of this here because as you can see, the debut teaser is really subtle about it all.

Quantum Break

I admit that I am kind of skeptical about how Quantum Break plans to incorporate its TV elements, wherein an episode of the show will play after each important gameplay segment. I mean, I loved the little show-within-a-show bits in Remedy’s previous games as well, but as seen this month with Danganronpa Another Episode, I’m not fully sure a structure like this is good for pacing. Still, I’m willing to give this experiment a shot, especially if it allows you to play as a version of Iceman with a hobbit brother.

Cobalt

Because Microsoft paid a s***load for Mojang’s services, and damned if they aren’t going to publish any other games of theirs besides Minecraft. And their new game does look like an impressive 2D action romp combined with some hints of Worms-style multiplayer, so we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this to see if the Big M gets their money’s worth.

The Rust Belt

Needless to say, I am one hundred percent all for a top-down action game where the goal is to eliminate your enemies by doing enough donuts to make Carter and Briggs blush with envy so that you can swing several destructive objects into them. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

Hue

In one of those weird coincidences, Hue debuts its teaser trailer just as another indie platformer revolving around altering scenery by changing the background’s primary colors – Runbow – gets an official release. Just an odd observation, is all. Nonetheless, what we have here still looks like what could be an incredible puzzle-platformer, so I’ll gladly take both, thank you very much.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Impressively enough, someone at Square Enix decided that after several off-putting gameplay demonstrations featuring either excessive cinematic bits or Lara Croft killing loads of people, the best way to show off a new Tomb Raider just might be a demo highlighting the main character raiding tombs. I know, crazy, right?

Randall

Holy crap, I did not expect to see this game all of a sudden. The last time I saw Randall, it was at E3 two years ago. Then I didn’t hear anything from it after that (and no other piece of gaming media appeared to even notice it), but now voila, apparently it was at PAX all along last month, complete with a redone trailer showing off some gameplay. It all looks pretty good, so here’s hoping this little platformer with a focus on mind control succeeds.

And thus we reach the end of another edition of Robotic Gaming Monthly! Thanks for dropping by and celebrating our first anniversary with us, feel free to leave any comments offering suggestions, questions, additional discussions on what we talked about, or messages about how much we suck, and remember, shaking the crap out of enemies for money never gets old, so let’s get on that Mischief Makers comeback ASAP. So see you next time, and thanks for dropping by!

Previous Editions of Robotic Gaming Monthly:
Robotic Gaming Monthly #15 – Saving The World From Solomon Grundy
Robotic Gaming Monthly #14 – The Post-E3 Edition
Robotic Gaming Monthly #13 – First-Year Anniversary! Kyle’s 10 Best Games of All-Time!
Robotic Gaming Monthly #12 – The Cancelation of The Mod Squad

About Author

I'm Kyle LeClair, AKA "SlyDante." I'm a freelance writer for Topless Robot, I love video games, and when I stop being lazy, maybe I'll finish the rest of this profile.