If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead, you’ve probably heard that it’s hard. And this is very much true. It’s a couple of hours of content that took me ten hours to beat – and that was without obsessing over the end-of-level rankings, which slap an exam-style grade on your performance. (Mine were mostly B+, which I guess would constitute a pass.) There are two difficulty settings available from the start: “Simple” and “Regular”. The former doesn’t make the game any easier; it just removes bits from it. The latter is the intended experience, and seems designed to break people’s spirits and controllers. There’s certainly nothing regular about it, and you should keep that in mind. Cuphead might not be for you. In fact, it probably won’t be.
All of this is intentional. Cuphead is a fusion of archaic animation and archaic game design. It blends the grainy, rhythmic animation of the 1930s and the simple but exacting demands of 2D side-scrolling shooters. It’s supposed to be hard; as a game comprised almost entirely of boss fights, it wouldn’t be worth playing if it wasn’t. But – and this is crucial – it’s almost always fair. Aside from a couple of late-game encounters that are crippled by an unreasonable amount of randomness, this is an experience that promotes learning by ensuring that success is always just there, a little out of reach, but only one more attempt away. Rarely is that true, of course, but the belief is all you need to keep playing.
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There is no sound more terrifying, more nightmarish, than the countdown that signifies the final five seconds before Sonic the Hedgehog drowns. It has haunted gamers since 1991, when they first found themselves in the depths of the Labyrinth Zone; an underwater maze cleaved into the decaying ruins of an ancient civilisation, where glittering crystal stalactites hung from the ceiling and spears leapt from the stairs. Players loathed this level, still do to this day, which makes one wonder why Sega included such a level in every subsequent 2D Sonic game. The one in Sonic Mania is Hydrocity Zone, from Sonic 3, a better level set in a stone reservoir with an underground waterpark beneath it. But “better” is a relative term. That countdown hasn’t changed.
Since Sonic has become such a laughing stock, it can be difficult to believe that the blue hedgehog once rivalled Mario as the definitive video game mascot. This was in a gentler time, when video games were basically all 2D side-scrolling platformers, and the home console war was between Nintendo and Sega, and both companies only made games. But it was a time I grew up in. It was a time I adored. My childhood was 16-bit; Sonic’s games, as far as I was concerned, were masterpieces. Sonic Mania, then, is a game aimed directly at me, and at people like me, for whom the word “SEGA”, bellowed at a game’s start screen, had roughly the same impact as the words “I finished” might have to a twenty-something. Satisfaction. Pride. Bliss.
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The Finch family home – a bizarre, sprawling estate that has housed several generations of the family which the media once declared America’s “most unfortunate” – is like a lot of video game spaces, in that it’s an interesting place to visit, but you’d never want to live there. The building is a warren of memorials; all its bedrooms, studies, basements and secret passages sealed to preserve the memory of their previous occupants. Its architect, Edie Finch, was playful, and possibly mad. The house loops around and back into itself, builds atop itself, and spirals down within itself. All its odd protrusions and extensions jut from the main building like spidery limbs; a teetering Jenga tower of memories and lives, abandoned and forgotten.
The Finches came to the Pacific Northwest from Norway in 1937, and since then almost all of them have died, most either in or close to the house. So plagued are they by unexpected bereavement that people – including their own kin – believe the family to be cursed. In 2016, Edith, a 17-year-old girl who has recently inherited the property, returns to it six years after its abandonment. Back then, Edith’s mother had believed the curse to be localised, confined to the house itself. She swept up her children and left. Whatever she left behind – the locks, the secrets, the family’s sad past – has been held in stasis ever since, waiting for an intrepid visitor to unravel the tragic mysteries of the Finch family and their clan’s surrealist homestead.
Continue reading Review – What Remains of Edith Finch
The town is Volterra, a sun-dappled rustic swatch of Tuscany. The blue sky is streaked with cottony clouds, and the rolling hills, here the green of a snooker table’s felt, there the amber of a traffic light, they extend to the edge of sight, lost eventually in the shade of gnarled trees that reach and clench from the ground like arthritic hands. At the top of such a hill is Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real-life, once understaffed and overcrowded asylum that has fallen into disuse and disrepair. Now it lies abandoned and unoccupied, rusted over and scrawled with graffiti. But it’s once again about to open its doors to a patient.
Her name is Renee. As a young girl she was committed to the asylum shortly before World War II; as an adult she has returned to revisit the now-empty rooms, hung heavy with misery and rot. Many games have been set in asylums, and we’ve been taught what to expect from them. But The Town of Light is not really that sort of game, and so we get something different from it. The beds are still fitted with thick leather straps, and the mangled wheelchairs and gurneys still screech in the quiet, but the ghosts here don’t float along the corridors – they’re suffused into every brick, and the memories of every patient who was committed to a system that, at best, profoundly misunderstood their problems.
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The problem with Resident Evil isn’t that everybody dies, it’s that nobody ever stays dead. The series has never treated mortality with any kind of permanence. In the first few games, which were fairly traditional zombie stories, that was fine. It was mostly the point. But throughout many, often ill-advised sequels, Capcom started to apply the same logic to their major characters and plot beats. Albert Wesker has been the recurring series villain for 20 years, and he was killed in the first game.
The reason for Wesker’s implausible resilience is the T-Virus – a zombie-brewing superweapon that is also responsible for all of Resident Evil’s other unanswerable narrative quandaries. Sometimes they call it the G-Virus, or the C-Virus, and sometimes it’s a parasite called Las Plagas, but functionally it’s always the same thing: Bottled contrivance. Whatever you need, story-wise, the T/G/C-Virus Parasite can provide it. Monster outbreaks in Midwestern America, rural Spain, Africa? Done. Games set on luxury cruise liners and multicar locomotives? No problem. Villains and supporting characters dying grisly but ultimately unimportant deaths? Easy. Everything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained by this, insofar as anything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained at all.
Continue reading Review – Resident Evil VII
It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Sniper Elite series. It’s one of those gaming guilty pleasures that sounds faintly perverse written down, and utterly ludicrous spoken out loud. Not that there’s anything particularly unusual about sniping in games; almost all shooters have at least one rifle, and many have whole stretches of gameplay that are dedicated to nothing but long-range marksmanship. The sniping in and of itself, though, isn’t the appeal of Sniper Elite. Things would be so much easier if it were. But, no, there’s something else that differentiates this series from other sneaky-stabby-shooty third-person games, and it’s that psychotic slow-motion X-Ray view that lets you see all the catastrophic internal trauma you’re inflicting on your victims.
Seems an odd thing to be into, doesn’t it? Certainly wouldn’t sit well around the office water cooler or the in-law’s dinner table, and you get the sense that Rebellion, the game’s developers, probably recognise this. Which, I assume, is why they continue to set the series in World War II, despite having exhausted every major theatre of the conflict. You need Nazis for this kind of thing. These games have such a throbbing stiffy for lovingly-detailed exploding organs that it would be uncomfortable if your bullets were tunnelling through the brainpans of anyone else. But killing Nazis is always guilt-free. In the context of taking on a xenophobic imperialist war-machine, it’s actually pretty satisfying to watch precisely how much irreparable damage each bullet is inflicting on the Third Reich. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Continue reading Review – Sniper Elite 4