A Dark Knight of the Soul

Batman 1

Author’s note: This blog was drafted prior to Chester Bennington’s suicide, and prior to recent studies showing a link between the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and an increase in Google searches about suicide, including how to go about it. So, allow me to issue my first-ever “trigger warning;” this piece will discuss depression, suicide, and some of the philosophy behind suicide. It is my intention for this piece to be a hopeful one, with a message that may be of benefit to those who suffer from depression, but if you suffer or have suffered from suicidal ideation and are concerned that reading about such things may trigger or worsen those thoughts, please turn back now. And if you are feeling suicidal, there are resources available to help you; https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or their phone line, 1-800-273-8255, are excellent places to start.

Recently, DC Comics launched its “Rebirth” initiative, a re-launch of all their titles that, while not a full “reboot” along the lines of what happened with Crisis on Infinite Earths, changed a lot of the status quo from their “New 52” run, and fixed most of the decisions that I disliked about that continuity. Superman and Lois Lane are back together and have a son, Bruce Wayne is back to being Batman with all of his memories restored, Damian Wayne is alive and in costume as Robin again, and Dick Grayson has reclaimed his identity as Nightwing, among other changes. With most of the elements I considered problematic swept away and with all the positive reviews I’d been hearing about the new runs, I decided to take the plunge and read some of the new stuff, picking up the first two trade paperback volumes of the Rebirth run of Batman.

I’ve been a huge fan of Batman ever since I can remember. The 1989 Tim Burton film turned me on to the character and the reruns of the Adam West TV series that were airing at the time sustained that interest. Then Batman: The Animated Series hit the air and cemented my love of the Dark Knight, a passion for the character, his supporting cast and villains, and the setting of Gotham City itself that has endured for over 25 years now. I’ve never been a collector of individual issues (I’m far more interested in reading complete stories, so trades suit me better), but I’ve read most of the seminal works in the Batman canon. Though I have yet to read The Long Halloween or The Court of Owls, but I plan to remedy this lapse eventually.

I write all this to say that I have steeped myself in the Batman mythos for over two decades, and I have a strong understanding of who Batman is as a character and why he does what he does. But I have never read something that so thoroughly redefined the character in my eyes as the second volume of the Rebirth run of Batman.

In this volume, which spans issues 9-15, Batman leads a mission to recover Psycho-Pirate to get him to undo the mental conditioning he placed on a new heroine named Gotham Girl. Psycho-Pirate has been taken by Bane to the prison he rules on his home island of Santa Prisca, a fortress isolated by shark-inhabited waters and guarded by a small army of Bane’s loyal soldiers. With the sanction of Amanda Waller (of Suicide Squad fame, who was responsible for Psycho-Pirate when he was taken), Batman assembles a strike team of Arkham Asylum inmates to help him with the extraction, including b-list Batman villains Bronze Tiger, the Ventriloquist, and Punch and Jewelee, promising them parole or better accommodations in exchange for their help. Also on the team is Catwoman, who is on Death Row for the murders of 237 men comprising the terrorist organization who bombed the Gotham orphanage where she grew up—murders Batman is convinced she’s innocent of, though he can’t prove it.

While the plot focuses on the extraction of Psycho-Pirate and the twists and turns of Batman’s plan to defeat Bane and get out of the prison with their objective, the thematic focus of the story is on Batman, Catwoman, and their troubled romantic relationship. This, as any long-time Batman fan can tell you, is par for the course whenever these two share the page together. However, the approach to this examination and what is revealed make it a unique and defining tale for both characters, Batman especially.

The backstory of what Catwoman is to be executed for, and how she and Batman are dealing with it, takes an epistolary form. As the story of the prison break unfolds, letters that Catwoman and Batman exchanged in the wake of her arrest are given in captions. In her letter, Selina opines that the reason for their attraction is that they share a common pain, both being orphans, and that being with someone who understands that pain makes it stop, albeit briefly. But, she says, the fact that Bruce rose above his pain, turning it into something that would allow him to create a better world, while hers caused her to turn to crime, is why the pain never stays gone, and why things never seem to work out between them.

Bruce, however, has another take, stating that “it’s time to acknowledge what we are.” He acknowledges the absurdity of the Batman identity, the ridiculousness of “A grown man. Dressed as an animal. Sitting on a gargoyle. Waiting for crime to come.” He admits that it’s childish, the response of a boy who never mourned his parents properly and instead dedicated his life to vengeance through a war on crime. People should laugh at it, he says, but he doesn’t. Instead, he thinks of Selina and knows she wouldn’t laugh. “Because you know. You know what this is.”

Bruce then goes on to talk about the oath he swore as a boy. It’s a famous scene, one that has been told and retold in comics and other media more times than I can count. But here, writer Tom King adds additional context and detail that fundamentally changes what we, the audience, know about that scene, and about the character of Batman himself. A summary would dilute the impact of the writing, so I’m going to quote this portion in its entirety:

After the alley and the gun. And the pearls. What use was I? After the blood on her hand, what use was a little rich kid whose mommy and daddy got shot? I was pain. That’s all I was. Everything else, every chance given to me, every promise I’d made, all of it was pain. And what use is pain? What use is being just pain? It’s not dignified. It’s not kind. And if it’s not dignified and it’s not kind, then maybe it’s not worth anything. Maybe it’s better off as nothing. Gone. Dead.

I was ten. I got one of my father’s razor blades, and I got down on my knees. I put the metal on my wrist. The edge scratching cold. The blood on my hand. And I looked up. To Mother and Father. I told them I was sorry. I was so sorry. I was on my knees in Gotham. And I was praying, pushing my hands together now, the blood and the blade warm between them. I prayed.

And no one—no one answered. No one answered. No one answered. I was alone. Like everyone else. Like everyone in Gotham. I saw everyone in Gotham, all of us. We’re all on our knees, our hands together, the blood and the blade warm between them. We pray. And no one answers. I saw. And I understood. Finally. Kindness. Dignity. I let the razor fall and I understood, it was done. I’d done it. I’d surrendered. My life was no longer my life, and I whispered, “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

So that’s what it is. The ears. The belt. The gargoyle. It’s not funny. It’s the choice of a boy. The choice to die. I am Batman. I am suicide.

And here we see the truth of the character laid bare, in his own words, a completely different interpretation than what has come before. Beneath the Detective, beneath Vengeance, beneath the Night, at the core of it all is a boy in pain who, instead of ending his life, takes the pain and turns it into something else. Instead of ending it all, he gets up and keeps going. Doing one task after another, always going, always moving forward, because stopping is stillness. It is death. It is non-existence.

King also presents the logical counterpoint, the classical counterpoint, to this argument in the form of Bane. Bane, we have long known, grew up in the Santa Prisca prison he now rules, imprisoned as a child for a crime committed by his father. He grew up in a cell that flooded with the tide, living on the rats and sea creatures that entered his cell as part of this cycle, treading water for hours at a time, clinging to life. He endured much the same struggle as Batman, surviving impossible pain through sheer willpower, shaping himself into something more.

But Bane, we learn in this story, views this survival as a weakness, a lack of courage to stop, to let it end. This lack of courage, Bane asserts, is what drives both himself and Batman to leave the safety of their homes and seek out monsters to finish their lives for them. This is the reason Bane became addicted to the Venom steroid in the first place. This is the reason he has “acquired” Psycho Pirate: so that the psychic villain can hypnotize Bane and tell him that “You are brave. You are happy. You can always stop.”

It is an old argument, one that claims that suicide is the nobler path, the harder path, the more courageous path. It is at least as old as Socrates, and possibly predates the philosopher, and written language itself. During their confrontation, Bane puts this argument to Batman, and asks him to let go, to be at peace. Batman refuses, and he and Catwoman defeat the troubled tyrant. In a fitting bit of symbolic symmetry, the Cat and the Bat overpower Bane and “break his damn back.” Batman rejects Bane’s philosophical endorsement of suicide, of surrender, by throwing his own platitudes back in his face, by telling him to remember, “You’re brave. You’re happy. You can always stop.”

My friend and fellow author Steve Mix recently wrote an essay about the character of Cyborg, discussing how he is, in many ways, a superhero for those on the autism spectrum. Similarly, with this revelation, this additional context to his origins, Batman is now a superhero for those with depression. For many years now, Batman stories have had a focus on mental illness and its treatment. Many of Batman’s rogues’ gallery suffer from mental disorders: Two-Face famously has dissociative identity disorder, the Riddler has obsessive-compulsive disorder and clinical narcissism, Firefly suffers from pyromania, Harley Quinn is a textbook case of battered woman syndrome…the list goes on and on. And this is one of many reasons why Batman doesn’t kill; many of the criminals he catches are mentally ill and maladjusted. Dangerous though they might be, their actions are not their own fault, and they deserve a chance at healing and redemption. And the portrayal of Arkham Asylum is easily viewed as a condemnation of the way mental illness is handled in this country, and the lack of funding and proper care that are available to those in need.

Batman himself has always been a character defined by his willpower: the will to train himself to be the World’s Greatest Detective, the world’s greatest martial artist, a world-class scientist and inventor, the will to keep going in the face of impossible odds, to stand against beings more powerful than himself, to do whatever is necessary to stop criminals and protect the innocent. And now we see another layer to that willpower: the will to live. The will to push aside pain and grief and take one step, and then another, and to keep going.

For a person suffering from depression, sometimes it’s all they can do to get out of bed, shower and eat a meal. Some days it’s a victory to be celebrated when they resist the urge to walk into traffic and instead go to work like everyone else. One of the first things any person with depression learns is to do whatever they can, to continue living their life as though they aren’t just pain. Whatever they can accomplish that’s more than ending their life or just laying down and waiting for it to end is a success. When you have depression, some days putting one foot in front of the other is all you have.

Batman, we now know, deals with the same struggle every day. Every day he faces the pain, moves past it, and does what he has to do. He succeeds. He triumphs. He makes the world a better place, not because he is without that overwhelming pain, but rather because he endures it. Just as nearly 20 million adult Americans endure it every day. In a world where depression is still marginalized, dismissed and treated as not serious by so many, it’s important that those living with it have a sense that they are not alone, that they are understood, even to have someone to look up to.

Having one of the greatest heroes in popular fiction demonstrating that understanding and showing a way to survive is invaluable. And so I salute DC Comics and the creative team behind Batman for having the courage to run a risk and make that happen by telling such a bold story. I can’t wait to read the next volume. And the next time I have a depressive episode and wonder what’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning, I may also find myself asking, “What would Batman do?”

Fashionably Late: Mass Effect


Storytelling in video games has come a long way since the creation of the medium, but in many ways it still has a long way to go. Gamers have often bemoaned the fact that movie adaptations of video games have been so universally shitty, but aside from the fact that the studios let hacks like Uwe Boll helm these productions, there’s a very obvious reason for their poor quality. Most video games barely have a story to speak of, or if they do have a plot, it’s some variant of “overpowered protagonist kills a lot of people.” That’s not a deep plot; it would barely suffice for a B-grade kung fu flick. So is it any wonder that adaptations tend to fall apart when you pull out the only thing holding the video game’s story together, i.e., the gameplay?

Still, while most game developers have spent their time aping plots that sound like they belong in movies the Cinema Snob would review, a select few have made the attempt to marry good gameplay to strong stories, mostly in the RPG field. And one of the luminaries of this movement is Canadian RPG developer BioWare, makers of such titles as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, MDK, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and the subject of today’s Fashionably Late, Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is, in many ways, one of BioWare’s most innovative and experimental titles, and is clearly an attempt to do what so many game developers have tried and failed to do in the past; to forge a genuine, original sci-fi epic that is unique to the medium of video games. And while Mass Effect is the first game in a trilogy, and I’ll be unable to measure the true extent of their success until I have completed all three games, from what I’ve seen here BioWare was clearly on the right track.

The story of Mass Effect is complex and detailed, but I’ll do my best to give my usual bite-sized summary here. The year is 2183. 40 years prior, humans discovered the ruins of an alien race called the Protheans on Mars, along with records detailing aspects of their technology that allowed humanity’s own technology to radically advance by utilizing a principle called “Mass Effect” that enables all sorts of futuristic phenomena such as force-fields, guns that never run out of bullets, and most importantly, faster-than-light space travel.

The Protheans had a vast empire that spanned the entire Milky Way galaxy up until they mysteriously vanished 50,000 years ago, leaving their cities and technology behind. The races that have evolved since then have discovered Prothean technology, much as humans have, and have formed a pan-galactic government called the Galactic Council, based out of an ancient Prothean space station called Citadel. Humanity has taken its place living in the galaxy and new human colonies alongside these other races, but has not yet attained full status as a member species of the Council; as the newcomer to the galactic scene, other races tend to view humanity as the snot-nosed new kid who’s too big for his britches.

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks...

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks…

The player takes the role of Commander Shepard, a customizable (and male or female, hence why he/she is only referred to in-game as Commander or Shepard) player character who is a member of the Human Alliance’s navy. And when I say Shepard is customizable, I mean it in a very broad sense; not only can you choose Shepard’s sex and facial features, but also his/her backstory (from a selection of options) and a number of character classes that determine what he/she can do.

Shepard is the XO on a prototype Alliance ship called the Normandy, and considered to be one of the finest representations of the species that humanity has to offer. As such, Shepard is auditioned to join the Spectres, a group of agents that act as problem-solvers for the Council. They act with complete autonomy to preserve the security of the galaxy as they see fit, and Shepard would be the first human to receive the appointment. The Normandy is sent to secure a piece of recovered Prothean technology from a human colony called Eden Prime, along with a Spectre named Nihlus who is to monitor and evaluate Shepard’s performance. However, things rapidly go wrong when the Normandy arrives on Eden Prime, only to find it under attack by the Geth, a synthetic race of rogue robots who have not been seen in Council space for centuries.

Shepard’s team lands on Eden Prime to deal with the situation, only to find out that situation is far worse than they thought. The Geth appear to be working with an alien Spectre named Saren, who has razed the planet to gain access to the Prothean beacon. Saren kills Nihlus, makes contact with the Beacon, and wires the colony to blow. Shepard’s team defuses the bombs, and Shepard comes into contact with the beacon, accidentally triggering some kind of message that implants data into his mind; horrific visions of the Protheans being wiped out by a race of machines from beyond the edge of the galaxy called Reapers. Shepard and his crew are placed center-stage in a conflict to bring Saren down and stop the Reapers from invading and annihilating all sentient life in the galaxy.

To that end, Shepard is given command of the Normandy and her crew, and must follow Saren’s trail, determine what he and the Geth are up to, and put a stop to it. As Shepard, the player is given very free rein on how to deal with this investigation; the Council and other NPCs will, in traditional RPG fashion, give Shepard missions (i.e., quests), and the player is free to tackle them in any order he wants. The Normandy, in addition to serving as Shepard’s mobile base of operations, where Shepard can talk with members of his crew and squad, also serves as his means of going from solar system to solar system and reaching new planets to explore.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

The bulk of the action in Mass Effect takes place on foot; traveling to a new solar system or planet is as simple as pointing and clicking on the Normandy’s interactive star chart; the piloting is left in the capable hands of the Normandy’s helmsman, Joker, voiced in an excellent turn by Seth Green. If the world is a colonized, established planet, then the Normandy will simply dock and Shepard, along with a squad of two other characters that the player chooses before disembarking, will simply step out of the airlock and go about their business.

These worlds are the biggest game areas and contain many hidden items to find, are populated by many NPCs from several different alien races, and many of them will either advance the main plot or provide Shepard with new side quests when spoken to. A huge chunk of the game’s 35 hour length is spent on these worlds, and the Citadel in particular has lots of new quests that will become available over time, making it worth the player’s while to revisit frequently.

If a planet doesn’t have an established colony, then Shepard’s squad may still be able to go down and explore it, using an armored ATV/truck called the Mako. These un-civilized planets have mineral deposits and alien artifacts to recover, nests of pirates and smugglers to fight, and outposts that are the locale for several of the game’s side-missions. Inside these structures, the gameplay is much the same as the on-foot gameplay on the more established planets, but on the planet’s surface, exploration and combat is handled by driving the Mako around and taking out any threats with its mounted machine gun and cannon.

When Shepard and his squad encounter enemies, the game’s combat comes into play. Combat is one area where Mass Effect differs significantly from other RPGs, and even most other BioWare games. Mass Effect is an action RPG, but rather than combat being based around medieval melee weapons, it is instead a futuristic third-person shooter. Combat is handled in real-time, with Shepard (controlled by the player) and his two squad-mates (controlled by the computer) taking on foes using cover-based gunplay. The meat of combat in Mass Effect is avoiding enemy shots by taking cover, and taking out your foes either from a distance, or by flanking them and dealing with them at closer range.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they're dead, but it's not very sporting.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they’re dead, but it’s not very sporting.

Gunplay in Mass Effect differs from similar titles in that guns in the ME universe have unlimited ammo; the in-universe explanation is that bullets are actually slugs sheared off of a block of lead inside the gun via a miniature Mass Effect field, calculated to the appropriate size for the firing circumstances and distance by an on-board computer, so in-universe guns rarely need reloading (and mechanically in-game they never do). However, the act of firing the bullet along magnetic rails heats up the weapon with each successive shot, and firing a gun too quickly will cause it to overheat, rendering it inoperable until the weapon vents and cools down. Therefore, the player will always be searching for that balance between firing as quickly as possible and not overheating their gun, which adds an interesting layer of strategy that ammo-driven weapons mechanics lack. The exception to these rules are the grenades, which you have a finite amount of and should be reserved for dealing with large crowds of enemies.

The combat is in real time, but there are selection wheels for equipping weapons or activating character powers that, when brought up using the shoulder buttons on the controller, freeze the action while the player makes their selections. The player can directly order the allied AI characters to use specific powers or equip specific weapons, and can also issue commands using the hotkeys mapped to the d-pad to go after particular targets, advance to a selected point, follow the player or stay put. Or the player can simply let the AI make its own decisions, which actually works out fine most of the time. The friendly AI in Mass Effect is rather good, to the point where even a dedicated turn-based RPG wonk like myself doesn’t mind letting the computer handle my teammates for me.

Mass Effect utilizes a health system reminiscent of the first Halo game, in that it has two separate damage meters: health and shields. Every piece of armor in the game provides shields to the equipped character, and those shields will regenerate when not under fire and prevent the character from actually getting injured. Once a character’s shields are dropped, though, any damage goes to their health bar, and once their health bar drops, they’re unconscious (for squad members) or dead (for NPCs and Shepard). Health doesn’t regenerate on its own; the only way to restore lost health is through the use of Medi-Gel, a panacea that is dispersed to the entire squad via the power wheel, and can only be carried and found in limited quantities. Thus, it behooves the player to take advantage of their shields and of cover in the environment to protect themselves from damage.

A big part of what determines how combat will play out is the choices the player makes in character creation and character advancement, and this is where the game’s RPG roots really show. As I said, Shepard is a highly customizable character, and at character creation the player can choose from six different character classes to play as, which greatly affect the role Shepard will play in combat and in the field.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

There are three schools of talent in the game; combat (i.e., weapon skills and physical abilities), tech (hacking equipment and manipulating computers and machines), and biotics (Mass Effect-driven telekinetic powers), and each class either focuses exclusively on one of these schools, or has a dual focus on two of them. For example, a character who takes the Soldier class can fully utilize every gun in the game and has access to skills that make them formidable at gunplay and physical combat, but gains no tech or biotic abilities at all, while someone who takes the Adept class has access to every biotic power in the game, but can only use pistols and is less physically powerful and durable. Meanwhile, a character who takes the Vanguard class gains some combat and biotic abilities, but doesn’t gain all the talents an Adept or a Soldier would, and only has full use of pistols and shotguns.

Characters can also be customized with equipment. By default, each character is outfitted with a suit of armor and one of each of the four weapon classes; a sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun, even though they can only effectively use a few of them (any gun a character isn’t proficient with can only be shot from the hip, with no aiming down the sights). As the player progresses through the game, they’ll find new weapons and armor squirreled away in storage containers in true RPG fashion, or available for purchase at vendors throughout the game. The equipment you find scales up with you, so you’ll always be finding new gear you can use. Additionally, the armor and weapons can be customized with mods, items attached to the gear that alter its properties to the player’s taste. Want to add some extra shielding to your armor, or reduce a gun’s overheating, or shoot an enemy with radioactive bullets? You can do all of that and more; the possibilities are very open.

However, the abundance of gear you find and the relative lack of inventory space (you can only hold 150 pieces of gear, including armor, guns and mods), means that you’ll either have to frequently visit vendors to sell off old equipment (which results in truly astronomical sums of cash by the end of the game) or you’ll have to break unwanted gear down into Omni-Gel, a futuristic substance that can be used for everything from overriding locks to repairing the Mako. Also, on another note, it is somewhat immersion-rattling that every locale in the game, from office buildings to abandoned ruins, has caches of body armor, assault weapons and grenades squirreled away. Office parties in the Mass Effect universe must be fucking terrifying….

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist's Rendition)

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist’s Rendition)

Each member of Shepard’s squad has their own class pre-assigned, and thus has certain abilities and weapons they can use and certain ones they can’t. It’s up to the player to pick teams to bring into the field that round out their weaknesses and compliment their strengths. Additionally, as the player completes quests and defeats enemies, Shepard and all the squad members (including those who aren’t on the active team, which is always appreciated) will gain experience points and their levels will go up. When characters gain a level, they gain a number of Squad Points that they can then spend to unlock new powers and skills, and to increase the potency of those they already have.

Powers are just what they sound like; they’re the abilities that are used from the power wheel to either buff the character using them, or cause damage or debuff enemies. Characters with a combat focus will get powers that enable their weapons to fire more rapidly, more accurately, or do more damage, or will make them tougher for a period of time. Characters with a tech focus can gain abilities that let them bring down enemy shields, hack enemy robots (including the Geth) and overload devices in a spectacular fashion.

Biotic focused characters gain telekinetic abilities that allow the player to fling enemies around like rag dolls, levitate them, freeze them in place, shred them in miniature black holes, and telekinetic barriers to supplement their shields. There aren’t MP or “Force Points” in Mass Effect, but there are cooldowns for each power, a delay that the player must wait after using a power before they can use it again. The cooldown time, damage dealt and effect duration all improve as a power is leveled up.

Passive skills aren’t activated in battle, but rather increase statistics like character health, weapon damage, damage reduction and the like. These skills are always on once they’re bought, and players should prioritize them when allocating Squad Points, since they offer a lot of bang for the buck. Additionally, some skills unlock both powers and passive skills. For example, the Shotgun skill both increases damage with shotguns, and also unlocks the Carnage power. Likewise, the Decryption and Electronics skills that Tech focused characters can learn not only unlock the Sabotage and Overload powers, respectively, but they affect what locked objects and computers the player can hack open in the environment, how efficiently the Mako can be repaired in the field and grant a bonus to the character’s shields (yeah, techies are a little unbalanced in Mass Effect).

Hmm...it's good, but it needs more "dakka."

Hmm…it’s good, but it needs more “dakka.”

Shepard also has some unique skill options that the squad members don’t when it comes to leveling up. First, after completing a particular mission and stopping a rogue military computer on a lunar base, Shepard’s class-titled passive skill will open up the option to select a secondary class that functions as a variation of the base one; all of Shepard’s previously unlocked powers will remain the same, but purchasing further ranks in the class skill will grant different bonuses than before, offering another degree of character choice and customization.

Second, Shepard is the only character who gains access to the Charm and Intimidate skills. While it may sound like Mass Effect is nothing but running around shooting people, the game involves a lot of dialogue sequences where Shepard can talk to people, learn their backstories if they’re central characters, and even romance a few of his squad mates if he wishes. Certain events in missions and the story at large can also be impacted by what Shepard says, and characters can be saved from death and conflicts can be avoided if Shepard is silver-tongued.

That’s where the Charm and Intimidate skills come into play; paying points into those fields unlocks Charm and Intimidate options in certain conversations—Charm dialogue options are highlighted in blue, while Intimidate options are highlighted in red. Both options have the potential to be real game-changers, but they can only be used if the player has put enough points into the skills. Also, advancing Charm and Intimidate is dependent on more than just spending squad points; it’s also dependent on what Shepard says and does over the course of the game.

Mass Effect has a morality system of sorts; it’s not quite as stark as the good/evil systems you’ll find in games like Fable, Infamous or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Rather than categorizing actions as “good” or “evil,” it uses the characterizations “Paragon” and “Renegade.” Paragon actions tend to be by the book; not breaking the law, being nice and respectful where appropriate, not resorting to lethal force as a first option, and respecting human/alien rights. Renegade actions break or bend the rules; resorting to violence and coercion to solve problems, being unnecessarily rude, breaking the law, and generally any action that’s self-interested and non-benevolent (though not necessarily evil, as Renegade actions frequently still contribute to a “good” goal). The dichotomy is less “good vs. evil” than it is “hero vs. anti-hero.”

Though some have observed it's more "reasonable person" vs. "unhinged asshole."

Though some have observed it’s more “reasonable person” vs. “unhinged asshole.”

In many dialogue scenes, Shepard has Paragon, Renegade and neutral responses to choose from; they aren’t clearly outlined, but on the dialogue wheel where responses are selected, Paragon options are at the top, Renegade at the bottom, and neutral in between. They’re also usually fairly obvious from the response summary provided to the player (although there are a few that are misleading and may catch you off guard). Unless the options have earth-shaking consequences, typically choosing a response will only net you a few points on the Paragon or Renegade scale.

The big bumps come from actions taken during missions. Do you spare the last member of a formerly hostile species, or destroy it? Do you attempt to save the homicidally brainwashed colonists trying to kill you, or shoot them all and let God sort it out? Decisions like this will invariably result in large numbers of Paragon or Renegade points, and will also have consequences later in the game, as well as in future Mass Effect games.

One interesting facet of the Paragon/Renegade system is that it’s not a zero-sum game; accumulating Paragon points doesn’t wipe out accumulated Renegade points, and vice-versa. The game tracks them separately. And while I don’t think it’s possible to accumulate enough points in one playthrough to achieve both full Paragon and Renegade status, you can gain a fair amount of one and max out the other if you choose. As I said earlier, Charm and Intimidate are paired with Paragon and Renegade scores, respectively. If you don’t have a high enough Paragon score, you can only purchase so many ranks of Charm, which won’t be enough to pass more difficult Charm checks later in the game, and vice-versa for Intimidate and Renegade.

But other than that, and the consequences coming from your actions, your alignment on the Paragon/Renegade scale doesn’t impact your ability to complete the game, and it doesn’t affect your relationship with your squad mates or drive them away. Certain characters clearly fall more on either the Paragon or Renegade side of things, and corresponding responses will please them or upset them, but it doesn’t impact them too much in the long run, so no need to worry about driving your friends into a homicidal rage…with one key exception, that can be bypassed with a Charm or Intimidate check.

Picture unrelated.

Picture unrelated.

Mass Effect has an impressive and colorful cast of characters. The galaxy is populated by a large number of characters who Shepard can interact with and do jobs for; as a Spectre, Shepard can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, so a lot of people want him to help sort out their problems, usually in exchange for a few credits. Many of these characters will make appearances in subsequent games, and they’ll remember what Shepard did, and didn’t, do for them, which can come back to hinder Shepard or help him in the future. Standouts include Shepard’s superior, Captain Anderson (voiced by the always-awesome Keith David), the Machiavellian Ambassador Udina, Normandy pilot Jeff “Joker” Moreau (voiced by Seth Green), and medical officer Dr. Chakwas.

But of course, the majority of the spotlight is reserved for Shepard and the members of his squad, all of whom have well-crafted backstories and sharp dialogue to tell them with. There’s Garrus Vakerian, a Turian officer in the Citadel Security force, frustrated by the red tape of being a cop, who joins Shepard to pursue Saren (a fellow Turian) against his superiors’ orders: Urdnot Wrex, a Krogan mercenary weary and frustrated by his failed attempts to help his doomed race save itself from extinction: Dr. Liara T’Soni, a scientist of the mono-gendered Asari race who is both an expert on the Protheans and the daughter of Saren’s right-hand woman, the Matriarch Benezia: Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a member of the Quarian race, the creators of the Geth who were driven from their homeworld when the machines rebelled and now travel the galaxy in a fleet of ships, isolated in quarantine suits because of their weakened immune systems: Ashley Williams, a soldier from a military family with a love of classical Earth poetry, the lone survivor of her platoon after Saren’s attack on Eden Prime, who joins Shepard to face the galactic threat: Kaiden Alenko, a Biotic soldier under Shepard’s command who still suffers from the side effects of early, crude attempts to harness Biotic power in humans.

These squad mates become a continuing presence in subsequent games, and their journey at Shepard’s side weaves an impressive epic that rises from the attachment the player will form with these characters, and from the experiences of fighting at their side, and occasionally, deciding who lives and who dies.

Visually, the game is impressive, given that it was originally an early Xbox 360 title. The look of the game is well-designed, and rides a nice line between that squeaky-clean futuristic look of Star Trek and the utilitarian, lived-in quality of Star Wars and Aliens. The only real complaint I have on the design front is that many of the buildings and structures in on the non-colonized worlds, where side missions take place, have the same layout and look nearly identical. I suppose one could make the argument that such structures would be prefabricated and shipped to the planet, and thus would be very cookie-cutter, but in practice it feels like the designers recycled set pieces to save themselves time. Still, it’s a fairly minor flaw.

A slice of galactic civilization.

A slice of galactic civilization.

The design and concepts of the various alien races are another high point of the game.Mass Effect subscribes more to the Star Wars school of alien design, where species depart from a humanoid appearance as often as they adhere to it. The blue-skinned, tentacle-headed Asari are easily the most humanoid of the sentient races in the game, and they only get more exotic from there. The Turians, Krogan and Salarians are all bipedal, but their appearances lean toward the bird-like, reptilian and amphibian respectively, and could never be mistaken for human. The Quarians and the Volus, while generally humanoid in shape, are only seen in environment suits (the Quarians due to their poor immune system, the Volus due to the need to be in a high-pressure environment, breathing ammonia), giving both species an air of mystery and a distinctive identity at the same time. And the Elcor and Hanar don’t have the slightest semblance of humanity, appearing more closely related to elephants and jellyfish, respectively, than anything else. I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi where the alien species differ wildly from humanity, so the design and lore behind the aliens in Mass Effect really clicked with me.

From a technical standpoint, the game was at least partially made using the Unreal engine, which I’ve previously expressed my distaste for, and it has many of the attendant flaws of a game built with that engine—large amounts of texture pop-in when a level loads, dodgy frame rates during cutscenes, and the occasional geometry clipping error. The game is also somewhat crash-prone; I had to reset my PS3 from a hard-lock at least six times during the course of completing Mass Effect, so save early and often.

Sound in the game is strong; the effects all sound appropriate and are well-chosen, and the music is atmospheric and contributes well to the mood of the game. It’s nothing you’ll be humming years down the line, but it has its moments. And of course, the voice acting is excellent. Both the more well-known stars like Keith David, Seth Green and Lance Henriksen and the lesser-known voice actors all nail their performances and contribute to the feeling of authenticity and immersion the game drives home. It helps that they have some very well-written dialogue to work with, too.

At the end of the day, Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game; it definitely has a few issues. But none of those issues are enough to overpower a package that is clearly more than the sum of its parts. The lore, the design, the story and the characters all create a sense of immersion that even the occasional technical glitch can’t destroy. Mass Effect weaves a world around the player, a world where their actions have consequence, and their decisions have meaning, creating a kind of sci-fi epic that simply can’t be replicated in any other medium.

Join me next time as I continue my journey with the crew of the Normandy and fight against the Reaper menace in Mass Effect 2. Until then, when you find yourself in times of trouble, just ask yourself “What would Paragon Shepard do?

Fashionably Late: Doom 3


Regardless of the medium, sequels tend to put a creator between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, going back to the well on an established concept is less effort than starting over from scratch, and it’s also more lucrative from a commercial standpoint. 

On the other hand, a creator making a sequel has to walk a very thin line between iteration and innovation. If they don’t change enough between installments, fans and critics will bemoan the fact that the sequel is just more of the same, and wonder why the creator bothered. But if they change too much, then the fanbase will inevitably be divided, with some liking the new direction and others absolutely hating it.

This is more true in video games than perhaps in any other medium. Gamers, particularly today, are highly sensitive to rehashes, since several publishers (*coughEAcough*) have gotten into the habit of releasing annual installments of franchises with only a bare minimum of changes in between games, just enough so they can justify charging fans another $60. By the same token, there’s nothing fans of a game franchise hate more than a game that completely breaks with tradition, especially if it does so in a way that runs contrary to what came before.

So it’s not hard for me to appreciate the position that id Software found themselves in when it came time to make Doom 3. The first two Doom games were mega-hits that established an entire genre of games, and id had taken that ball and run with it when they made the Quake series, fleshing out gameplay mechanics and improving online multiplayer. Finally, ten years after the fact, id decided to make a third game in their most storied franchise.

However, a lot had changed in the course of a decade. John Romero, one of the lead designers of Doom, Doom II, Quake and Quake II had left id due to creative differences, and gone on to incinerate his career in the spectacular failure that was Daikatana. And the FPS genre itself had changed a great deal since the last Doom game. Series like System Shock, Half Life and Deus Ex had redefined the importance of plot to shooters, and System Shock and Half Life had been game-changers for how shooters handled horror elements. If Doom 3 were to remain completely faithful to the games that had come before, it would be viewed as dated and poorly-designed.

Yep, that sure was a good idea...

Yep, that sure was a good idea…

And moreover, this is Doom we’re talking about, the first new installment in the granddaddy of FPS franchises. If a new Doom game was coming down the pipe, it had to be revolutionary and show all these upstart whippersnappers how it was done…again.

So, id had a lot of people to please with this new game; they had to please fans of the original games, please people who had come to like a good story with their FPS, and show fans of both that they could make a game that scared them just as much as the original had back in 1993. And what they delivered was a game that tried to do all of that at once…but didn’t quite succeed at any of it.

Anyway, first things first; the version of the game I reviewed is Doom 3: BFG Edition for the PS3. BFG Edition is the not-quite-20th anniversary collection of the Doom franchise, and contains full versions of Doom (which I’ve already reviewed), Doom II, and remastered versions of Doom 3, its expansion Resurrection of Evil, and a new mini-campaign called The Lost Mission. The remaster features some gameplay and graphical tweaks that I’ll cover when I get to those segments, but is otherwise the same as the original game.

Despite being titled as a sequel, Doom 3 is actually a re-make of the original Doom, in the sense that it starts the series story over from the beginning. The premise is essentially the same; the player takes control of a nameless marine (“Doomguy”) as he arrives at the Mars station run by UAC, the Union Aerospace Corporation, for his first day on the job. All hell quickly (and literally) breaks loose while Doomguy is on a security assignment to a remote part of the base, and demons, pouring through a rift between dimensions caused by UAC’s teleportation experiments, begin killing everyone in sight and tearing the base apart. The player must fight his way through the station and ultimately try to stop the invasion at its source.

It's all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars...

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars…

The main difference here is that while in the original Doom the story existed purely as set-up for hours of blasting demons in the face, in Doom 3 the story takes center-stage, with cutscenes and voice-over advancing the plot in-game, and audio logs and e-mails found in PDAs scattered throughout the game environment that flesh out the backstory. While at first blush this seems like a good idea, the fact of the matter is Doom’s premise was always paper-thin, far too much so to support a full narrative, and it shows here. 

Doom 3’s plot revolves around weak, stock characters, plot “twists” so predictable they could be used to signal traffic, and dialogue so riddled with cliches I could, ironically, write it in my sleep. Normally I love stories in my games, but this is one of the few titles I’ve played where I’ve longed for the ability skip past the cutscenes on the first viewing (a feature disabled in the BFG Edition, for some inscrutable reason).

Even more problematic is the fact that, for much of the narrative, Doomguy really isn’t central to these proceedings. Much of Doom 3’s story unfolds through cutscenes for which Doomguy isn’t even present; the bulk of the plot revolves around a conflict between the demonically-possessed head of research, Dr. Malcolm Betruger, and a UAC troubleshooter named Swann and his bodyguard Campbell.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Both sides are blissfully unaware of Doomguy’s existence for the first act of the game until, at the behest of his C.O., Sgt. Kelly (who acts as the “disembodied radio voice who gives you orders” first popularized by System Shock 2), Doomguy either radios the UAC fleet for help or doesn’t (a “but thou must” false choice that makes no difference at all to the plot), at which point, both sides get pissy at him. This plot point doesn’t hold up on many levels, since:

  1. The game establishes that it takes a month to get from Earth to Mars and vice versa. While this is clearly much faster than what we can currently manage, unless the fleet is already hanging out in Mars orbit, they would never arrive in time to make a difference, so it makes no sense for Kelly to tell Doomguy to truck it all the way across the Mars station to make the call.
  2. Swann gets mad at Doomguy because he says that the fleet will provide an opportunity for the demons to get off Mars. This is a pretty strange assumption, since the demons have demonstrated they can teleport anywhere they please. Granted, Betruger confirms that Swann is right, but Swann had no way of knowing that when he went out of his way to stop the call from going out.
  3. Betruger, who is the one sending waves of demons out, obstructs Doomguy from making the call and from preventing the base’s reactor from blowing up (after it’s damaged during a firefight in a sequence directly stolen from Aliens), even though stopping these events runs directly counter to his stated interests.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m going out of my way to berate and nitpick the story of Doom 3 when I hand-waved it in Doom. If id had been content to make Doom 3 another pure action title, I probably wouldn’t. 

But the fact of the matter is, id themselves made the story a primary focus of the game. They were damned proud of this little tale they concocted. They even hired a professional sci-fi writer to help punch it up for them. I have rarely seen so much effort put into telling a story this poorly constructed and unnecessary.

I said "rarely," not "never."

I said “rarely,” not “never.”

But what about the gameplay? Well, here again the split focus of Doom 3 really hurts it. The design tries to incorporate both the run-and-gun action that Doom was beloved for, coupled with modern features like vertical aim, jumping, crouching, magazines, etc., and the claustrophobic, dark environs of a more horror-focused game. This results in a system that seems to want to encourage gunplay and fast-paced action, but has an environment too restrictive to do it in. 

The corridors are frequently too narrow to sidestep in, and the game lacks a proper cover system, so combat with monsters frequently devolves into trading shots with them until they die, gathering some of the abundant armor and health power-ups to mend your wounds, and moving on. This is in stark contrast with the original Doom, where the player had to be constantly moving and trying to dodge enemy attacks; enemies were far too strong to simply trade shots with them, especially in later levels. Doom 3’s pattern of trading blows is almost more reminiscent of a turn-based RPG than a pulse-pounding FPS.

As for the horror aspect, well, Doom 3 was apparently designed with the same concept of “horror” as most modern “scary” movies. Much of the Mars base (even before the demon invasion) is poorly lit, sometimes pitch black, to the point where the player can’t see much of anything without a flashlight. Basically, this design serves two purposes: to show off Doom 3’s then-cutting-edge lighting engine, and to set up jump scares.

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary...Am I doing it right?

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary…Am I doing it right?

Almost every monster encounter in Doom 3 is a jump scare. They teleport into an empty room to attack, come creeping out of crawlspaces, run out of hiding to shoot you or, most annoyingly, hide in closets near items, waiting for the player to come along and pick up ammo, body armor or a medkit, then pounce. It’s these last encounters that become really annoying, and the “monster closets” are a common complaint about the game. Granted, Doom and Doom II also had monster closets; I talked about them in my review of Doom. However, those were more forgivable, for a few reasons.

For one thing, the monster closets in Doom are much less frequent. They appear in a few locations in most levels of the game (I don’t think the first few levels have any, but my memory could be faulty). In Doom 3, monster closets comprise probably a third or a quarter of all monster encounters. 

Any time you go a little off the beaten path and find an item, it’s almost a guarantee that you will also find a monster closet. The frequency and predictability makes these jump scares lose their potency in record time, and exploring levels quickly becomes an exercise in frustrating tedium.

The other problem lies in Doom 3’s greater realism. Because of its simplistic design, it’s a lot easier for me to forgive a game like Doom for using such transparently game-like mechanics, because it’s obviously not trying to be even remotely realistic. Doom 3’s design becomes a victim of its own aspirations at seriousness and realism. When I encounter a monster closet in Doom 3, my thought process immediately tries to break the situation down logically:

Totally how it went down.

Totally how it went down.

Ooh, sweet, more body armor! Just what I needed! Let me just grab it and…OW! Eat lead, you cheap, backstabbing hellspawn!

Wait, where did that imp come from? I didn’t hear him teleport in…wait, that closet wasn’t open before. Was he just…hiding there in a broom closet? Waiting for someone to come along and pick up that armor so he could jump them? Why would he do that instead of running around the station killing everybody like all the other demons? Seems pretty inefficient. Wait, was this like some kind of demonic practical joke? Is there a camera? Have I been Punk’d?

That still doesn’t make any sense, though. Because this place is pretty isolated. I had to sneak through a crawlspace and past flaming gas pipes to reach it. It’s not exactly on the main drag. Just how long was he waiting here for some schmuck to truck it all the way here in search of body armor? It must have been a couple of hours, at least. Wouldn’t he get bored? What if he had to take a shit? Do demons even have to shit? I mean, they seem to eat people, so that has to come out somehow…

And thus I have gone from playing an exciting shooter to contemplating demonic gastroenterology. Somehow, I doubt that’s what the design team behind Doom 3 had in mind.

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

This emphasis on jump scare encounters and teleporting monsters also destroys any chance the game might have offered for players to make tactical decisions. You see, unlike in the original two Doom games, where the enemies loaded with the level itself and were present from the start, Doom 3’s greater emphasis on graphical fidelity means that the monsters don’t load in advance of you entering a room to conserve system resources.

In fact, even monsters that don’t teleport in and pop out of closets or behind doors apparently spawn in the dark, out of the player’s view, a fact I discovered for myself when I witnessed a demon materialize out of nowhere less than a foot away from me while going slightly off the game’s beaten path. And no, this was not a teleporting monster; there was none of the light and sound fanfare that accompanies demonic teleportation in this game. I just stepped behind a stack of crates into the shadows, and abruptly there was a Maggot sitting there two feet in front of me where before there had only been empty space. I wish I had been recording it, because words don’t do it justice. It was disappointing on every conceivable level, and smashed immersion in the face with an aluminum bat.

Because the monsters aren’t pre-loaded, the player can’t take any kind of pre-emptive action in the game. Want to throw a grenade into the room to clear out any monsters you think might be lying in wait? Too bad, they’re not there yet! Want to be smart and clear the corners of the room like you would in any other shooter? Too bad, the enemies won’t be there until you turn your back on them, making the whole exercise of proceeding with caution entirely pointless! Unlike the fast-paced strategizing demanded by the original games, Doom 3 values a player’s twitch reflexes and nothing else.

Additionally, the level maps in Doom 3 are all painfully linear. Unlike the enormous, sprawling non-linear mazes full of secrets and side-paths found in Doom 1 and 2, the levels in Doom 3 are almost universally a straight shot down a dark hallway to the end of the level. Oh sure, there’s the occasional side-path that’ll lead to items before it dead-ends and you have to return to the main corridor, and sometimes the game will make you backtrack slightly from the end of the path to reach the actual exit, but these diversions don’t change the fact that there is exactly one way to proceed through these stages, and one way to approach any enemy encounter; enter a room, wait for the monsters to spawn, shoot them fast, mend your wounds and armor, and move on.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn’t invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

The monsters themselves are also pitifully stupid; they’ll either stand in one place and fire projectiles at you, or they charge in and attack you, making no effort to flank the player or take advantage of cover. It feels like they used the same monster AI from the original games without any sort of update over the intervening decade. 

The only reason enemy encounters are even slightly challenging is due their tendency to spawn behind the player and the confining corridors that keep the player from moving freely. A lack of situational awareness on the part of the player is a bigger threat than any demon in Doom 3.

One thing that hasn’t changed much since the original games is the array of weapons. The player has almost the exact same line-up of guns that were present in the previous two games. There are only three new additions (aside from the flashlight); the machine gun, the grenades, and the Soul Cube. 

The machine gun replaces the chain gun as the weak, rapid-fire gun of the game, and the chain gun instead becomes a heavy damage weapon; it’s fine, and you’ll use it a lot on weaker enemies in the first half of the game, but it’s nothing to write home about. The grenades are pretty much worthless; you have to equip them as a weapon, meaning you can’t mix it up with gun-and-grenade play, they bounce all over the place, and as I said before, you can’t throw them into a room to clear it, because the rooms will always be devoid of enemies until you enter them. I tried to use the grenades exactly once before I gave it up and stuck to regular firearms instead

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

The Soul Cube is actually kind of an interesting weapon; it’s new ultimate WMD of Doom 3, even trumping the returning BFG. It charges up as the player kills enemies, and once fired, it will seek out the most powerful enemy in the area and obliterate it, as well as doing massive splash damage to any nearby foes. It’s cool, but you also get it just before final level, so you have very few opportunities to play with it. 

This is depressing, since the player is forced to go through the first few hours of the game with no weapons available but the pistol, shotgun, machine gun and grenades (which, again, are useless). It’s incredibly tedious switching back and forth between the shotgun and machine gun over and over for the duration of these early segments; when the game actually relents and starts doling out new weapons on a fairly regular basis, it’s almost enough to make you forget how bland and brainless the combat actually is.

For the successor to the Granddaddy of the FPS, it’s hard to believe just how vanilla the combat in Doom 3 is. It feels so uninspired and incomplete. As much as id needed to come up with cool new ideas here, it also feels like they could have benefited from taking lessons from some of the other games that came since Doom 2

Alternate fire modes would have benefited the weapon variety immensely, and taking a page from Halo and giving the player melee and grenade attacks as standard actions would have helped with the pacing of combat. These weren’t new, revolutionary ideas by the time Doom 3 was in development; there was no good reason for the developers not to take advantage of them.

Ugh, I can't believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and "victory crouch" on somebody...

Ugh, I can’t believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and “victory crouch” on somebody…

So the game is a dud as far as action goes; what about horror? Well, monster closets are one of just three elements that Doom 3 has in its repertoire of scares. The others are darkness and spooky noises. The spooky noises are your typical creepy whispers, demonic snarls and banging that you might find in any moderately competent Halloween spook house. 

It’s fine, but there’s nothing here that I really haven’t seen before. As someone who has played games with genuinely creepy sound design (Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Eternal Darkness all come to mind), Doom 3 is very “meh” on this front.

Even ignoring the fact that the sound design just isn’t very scary, it’s also just disappointing in general. Music is practically non-existent in the game, in favor of ambient “spooky” noises, a major disappointment when Doom’s soundtrack was so memorable and exciting. Even the sound effects for weapons are underwhelming in comparison to the first game; the guns make little “pew” and “pop” noises compared with the electronic snarls and subwoofer roars of the original game. It’s underwhelming, to say the least.

The darkness is a whole other ball of wax. From the minute Doomguy sets foot on the Mars base, the lights are malfunctioning. The audio logs and e-mails you find make it clear that this has been going on for a while as a result of the teleportation experiments, and the electrical systems of pretty much every section of the base are knocked offline when demons start teleporting in. Mostly, though, this is an excuse to plunge the base into darkness to give the developers the opportunity to set up jump-scares, and to introduce the flashlight mechanic.

Now, the flashlight mechanic comes in two flavors, depending on which version of the game you’re playing. In vanilla Doom 3, Doomguy only has a handheld flashlight, and the game treats the flashlight as a weapon, meaning that Doomguy can either have his flashlight out and see in front of him, or he can have his gun out and shoot things. He can’t do both at once. This is an incredibly frustrating mechanic on many levels (not to mention illogical and stupid on multiple levels), especially in a game that’s meant to be a fairly fast-paced shooter. The flashlight is one of the most polarizing aspects of Doom 3, and it’s why many people dislike the game, understandably so; other people defend this mechanic, saying it makes the game “scary.” If by “scary” they mean “annoying and frustrating,” then I agree with them.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Having heard all the criticism about the flashlight mechanic, the developers decided to fix it in Doom 3: BFG Edition…after a sense. Instead of the handheld flashlight, the developers gave Doomguy an armor-mounted, off-the-shoulder flashlight that can be used at the same time as the weapons. However, this poses a balance problem, seeing as the game was designed around the original flashlight mechanic, and the challenge of combat is dependent on the player not being able to shoot their gun at an enemy at the same time that they can see it. This helps compensate for the game’s limited and rather pitiful enemy AI; with an always-on light, the combat is broken in the player’s favor.

So the developers attempted to compromise by giving the player a flashlight that can be used at the same time as the game’s weapons…but only has about 30 seconds of battery life. Once the batteries are drained, the flashlight cuts out, and the battery has to automatically recharge. From a gameplay standpoint, this does help balance the flashlight out…but it makes even less sense than the notion that Doomguy can’t figure out how to tape a flashlight to his gun. What dumbass engineer decided that what the world needed was a flashlight that burns out every 30 seconds? What corporation decided to mass-produce it? Who at UAC decided to buy it and outfit all their marines with it? The longer I play Doom 3, the more it finds new ways to insult my intelligence.

Visually, Doom 3 is a hard game to judge. At the time, its graphics were revolutionary, and were definitely the first thing reviewers and players talked about with regards to the game. And for the most part its visuals hold up well in the BFG Edition; the textures are occasionally blurry, but the lighting is still impressive and the game runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS, so even though the action is dull, at least it’s fluid. 

The demon models still look rather good as well, though I miss the colorful demons of the original games, far preferring them to the beige and gray monstrosities of this title. Time has not been as kind to the human character models, with their blocky builds and lumpy, polyhedral heads, but it feels unfair for me to pick on them since they were products of their time.

Roll Swann's head to see if you save versus boredom!

Roll Swann’s head to see if you save versus boredom!

As I’ve mentioned in my previous review of Doom, Doom 3’s online community is basically extinct as of the time of this writing. Over the course of several attempts, I only ever managed to find one match, and it was a team match where two far more experienced players ganged up on my and killed me almost instantly every time I spawned. And Doom 3 does not have a local multiplayer component, so I can’t give an honest opinion of the quality of the multiplayer mode. Suffice to say that, if you’re looking to slake your thirst for some intense deathmatch action, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

If it seems like I’m being abnormally vicious with this review, I can honestly say I didn’t go into this one with the intent of ripping Doom 3 a new one. I mean, who would? It’s a sequel in a beloved, storied franchise that left a huge impact on the games industry and the community of players. It has an average of over 80 points on Metacritic, for crying out loud! 

Who would expect that the game would turn out to be a tedious, bloated, overly linear slog with dull gameplay, an insultingly bad story, world-building elements that make no sense, inferior sound design and music to its predecessors, and an emphasis on graphics over game quality?

Wait…why does that sound so familiar?

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Oh yes, I’m going there.

I didn’t just make that FFXIII reference earlier as a gag; I feel that Doom 3 and Final Fantasy XIII have a lot in common. They’re both sequels in a venerated franchise that went through tumultuous development cycles, underwent drastic changes over the course of their creation, and wound up as mediocre products in pretty wrapping that were overly lauded by the “professional” critics for said wrapping. And both are games so tedious, dull and insipid that I couldn’t be bothered to finish them.

Yes, you read that right. Doom 3 marks a first for Fashionably Late; it’s the first game I’ve written a review for that I did not finish. Or rather, I should say I didn’t complete the game; I’m certainly finished with it. I thought about forcing myself to complete the campaign and the expansions, reluctant to give up on the game and leave it uncompleted. I was unwilling to let the game “beat” me.

But then I really thought about it. The reason I started Fashionably Late was not only to create content for my website, and complete video games in my back log, it was to have fun. And I realized that, 7 hours into the campaign of Doom 3, I wasn’t having fun, and I hadn’t been since I started playing. 

The main campaign of Doom 3 is roughly 20 hours long, and that’s not including Resurrection of Evil or The Lost Mission. That’s a long time to do any activity, especially one you don’t enjoy. Supposedly the game gets better in a few more hours, but…well, I’ve heard that one before. It wasn’t enough to keep me playing FFXIII, and it’s not enough to keep me playing Doom 3.

Well, I definitely got enough out of my time playing Doom 3 to write a review and create some content for my site. And I’m not having fun with this game. So I’m going to call it quits. And I’m going to mark another first for Fashionably Late by telling you not to listen to the critics. Doom 3 is a bad game. 

More specifically, it’s the worst kind of bad game; it commits the ultimate sin that any piece of entertainment can. It’s boring. Don’t play it. Do get Doom and Doom II, and thankfully the recent, fourth Doom game brought the series back to its exciting roots, so check that one out, but skip this. Sartre once wrote that Hell is other people. I disagree; I think Hell is boredom. And if that’s true, then Doom 3 managed to get at least one thing right.

Fashionably Late: Donkey Kong Country

DKC 1Video games, as a medium, have undergone a kind of paradoxical evolution over the years. Back in the 80s and 90s, when games tended to be more cute and simplistic in appearance, they also tended to be sadistically hard, almost like they were developed with the intent of drawing children in, lulling them into a false sense of security, then crushing them with brutal difficulty for the amusement of developers. It was as though your average game studio during the salad days of the Super Nintendo and Genesis was staffed exclusively by villains escaped from a Roald Dahl novel.

Now, almost the exact opposite is true; games with complex, serious, grim and violent tones dominate the market, but most them are almost insultingly easy by comparison to the titles of yesteryear. It’s a noticeable contrast for someone who cut his teeth on those older titles; I can beat most modern games in a week or two of free time, but my childhood memories are full of brutally hard games that would keep me occupied for a year or more as I applied myself to the Sysyphean task of trying trying to complete them, only to be crushed, go back to the beginning and start all over again.

One game in particular that sticks in my mind, both because it was so hard I never finished it as a child and because I still loved it, was Donkey Kong Country. Recently, I threw myself back into this monkey fracas, and avenged my nine-year-old self’s honor by finally beating it.

I've seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

I’ve seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

Back during the height of competition between Nintendo and Sega, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were neck-and-neck in their struggle to dominate the console market. Sega had gained a lot of ground due to its attempts to wow kids with the “cool factor” of its titles in comparison to Nintendo’s more family-friendly image, and their 90s-tastic ultra-rad Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in particular had won them a lot of supporters. Nintendo decided that they needed a new platformer series to compete.

Enter Rare, a small British development house that had made a name for themselves developing titles like Wizards and Warriors, Battletoads and R.C. Pro Am for the NES (they also developed a number of terrible licensed games for third party publishers at that time, but we don’t talk about them).

Rare, in a rather brilliant reinvestment strategy, had taken the massive profits they’d made on the NES and purchased some then-cutting-edge Silicon Graphics workstations, the same computers used to design the ground-breaking digital effects used in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. They were experimenting with using these computers to make pre-rendered graphics that they could compress and use in place of sprite art to make video games with.

"Yeah, that's cool and all, but I've got a better idea: Monkeys."

“Yeah, that’s cool and all, but I’ve got a better idea: Monkeys.”

Nintendo took notice of Rare’s work in the field and bought a 49% stake in the company. They offered them a number of Nintendo properties to make a game using this new CGI technology, and Rare opted for Donkey Kong. And thus Donkey Kong Country was born; a game with enough “rad” factor to compete with Sonic, eye-catching graphics, amazing level design and a marketing campaign most Presidential candidates would envy. It took the market by storm, became the second-best selling game on the SNES (second only to Super Mario World, which was an early pack-in title), and helped ensure the system’s dominance over the Genesis.

DKC is a pretty radical re-envisioning of the Donkey Kong franchise; the original DK games were arcade-style platformers, in which the player fought (or in tried to rescue, in Donkey Kong Jr.) the titular ape on single-screen levels. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, casts players in the role of Donkey Kong, traversing a series of lengthy platformer levels, spread across a Super Mario-esque world map. It’s a very different game, to say the least; probably the biggest change to a Nintendo IP until 2012’s Kid Icarus Uprising.

The story, like most games of the time, is pretty basic. A horde of crocodile-like Kremlings, led by their overlord, King K. Rool, invade Donkey Kong Island and steal Donkey Kong’s treasure stash of bananas. Donkey Kong, along with his nephew, a spider monkey named Diddy Kong, (the Kong “family” is apparently more of a clan where membership can be earned, rather than a blood-relation-only outfit) set out on an adventure to recover their bananas and kick the Kremlings out.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

The bulk of the gameplay should be familiar to anybody who’s played a 2D platformer before; the player takes control of Donkey or Diddy and maneuvers them through the level, jumping over pits and other obstacles, defeating enemies, and making their way to the exit. However, there are a few key differences that set DKC apart from the competition.

First, the game lacks “power-ups” in the conventional sense of the word. Whereas Mario and Sonic games have always been driven by the acquisition of items that give the player a temporary edge, most of Donkey and Diddy’s abilities are innate.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of items to get and use; there are extra life balloons that give the player 1, 2, or 3 extra lives, depending on the color, there are four golden letters that spell out KONG in every level that, when collected, will give the player a 1-up, and golden animal tokens that allow access to bonus levels. There are also barrels that can be picked up and thrown at enemies and one-off gimmick items that will appear in a handful of levels, like tires that can be used like springboards, or drums of fuel for a moving platform.

In DKC, tires are apparently  made of Flubber.

In DKC, tires are apparently made of Flubber.

The way Donkey and Diddy themselves are handled in terms of gameplay is also a bit different. Rather than making you choose a character and stick with them the way most platformers with multiple playable characters did at the time, Donkey and Diddy travel through the game as a pair. The player can switch between which Kong they’re controlling manually, or if they take a hit from an enemy or obstacle, the Kong that took the blow will run off (they can be recovered later by finding and breaking a DK Barrel) and the game will pause briefly while the player is given control of the other character. As such, the second character acts like an in-level “extra life” rather than an invincible sidekick like Tails was in Sonic 2 and 3.

Donkey and Diddy each have strengths and weaknesses, making them best suited for different situations. Donkey is the larger, slower and stronger of the pair. In addition to jumping on enemies to defeat them, Mario style, Donkey can do a “barrel roll” on the ground that can take out several enemies before the animation ends. His greater heft allows him to defeat the game’s tougher enemies without the aid of barrels, and he can pound the ground to reveal hidden objects in certain places. He also lifts barrels over his head when he picks them up, and throws them in an arc before they hit the ground and start rolling.

Diddy is smaller, more agile, runs faster and jumps higher. He has a cartwheel which functions a lot like Donkey’s barrel roll, but Diddy is too light to take out some of the game’s stronger enemies with his cartwheel or with a jumping attack. He’s best suited for the game’s tough platforming sections, and he has much easier time with these than Donkey does. Diddy can throw barrels, too, but because he’s weaker he holds them in front of his chest, rather than over his head, and tosses them directly in front of him. This can actually allow Diddy to use barrels like a shield, which is useful against certain enemies and bosses.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

The way the characters are differentiated makes it important to try and keep both Kongs together, and hinders the player for failing to do so. That’s not to say there are sections where it’s impossible to proceed if you don’t have one particular Kong, but some of them are much more difficult without both. It’s a very old-school risk/reward system, and one that works well.

Donkey and Diddy have their work cut out for them, too. In addition to avoiding pitfalls, launching through barrel cannon obstacle courses and navigating underwater mazes, they have a slew of baddies between them and their prize.

The Kremlings are humanoid crocodiles that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from spindly leaping crocs to hulking brutes or invincible rock-like beasts. Additionally, Donkey and Diddy have to contend with a whole host of hostile wildlife, including sharks and piranha, nut-throwing vultures, gigantic wasps and some very angry beavers.

Even angrier than these guys.

Even angrier than these guys.

Additionally, each world culminates in a boss battle, usually against a super-sized version of one of the above-named critters, and finally in a battle against the lord of the Kremlings, King K. Rool himself. This last fight is one of the more challenging ones I’ve come across in a video game, and it’s the one that kept me from finishing Donkey Kong Country until now. If you give this game a shot, you’re going to burn through a lot of lives getting K. Rool’s pattern down.

Luckily for Donkey and Diddy, not everything on the island is out to kill them. They have some help from other members of the Kong family. Candy Kong, a female gorilla, runs the game’s save points; (one per world) Funky Kong, a surfer dude gorilla, runs an airline service that can fly you to any world you’ve been to previously; and Cranky Kong, an old gorilla who is both Donkey’s grandfather and the original Donkey Kong (guess it’s a title?) dispenses helpful hints and verbal abuse from the comfort of his rocking chair.

Help also comes in the form of animal buddies whom the Kongs can ride (similar to Mario’s Yoshi) and who have special abilities to help them make it through the game’s challenges: Rambi, a rhino, can ram enemies with his horn and can knock down some walls to find hidden rooms; Expresso the ostrich runs quickly and can flap his wings to glide, extending the length of his jumps; Winky the poison-dart frog can jump high and can safely kill any enemy with a jump, even the wasp-like Zingers; and Enguarde the swordfish can swim quickly, and his charge attack is the only way to defeat underwater foes.The animal buddies are infrequently found throughout the game (except for Enguarde, who almost always appears in the underwater levels), but they make for an interesting change to the level dynamic when they do make an appearance.

The level design, as I mentioned before, is one of DKC’s strongest points. Between clever arrangement of platforming elements and environmental items, introducing new enemies and scattering hidden rooms and mini-games throughout, DKC’s levels rarely feel alike. Really, the only levels that tend to feel very same-y are the underwater ones, (there’s only so much you can do with the concept of monkeys swimming, I guess) but they’re few and far in between, so they don’t really grate too much.

The aforementioned secret rooms are also a fairly big part of the gameplay; throughout the levels, there are secret exits and mini-games (usually offering extra lives as a reward) that can be found, usually through some fairly obscure means like smashing a wall with a barrel, or climbing to the top of a tree and jumping into a barrel cannon that’s just out of view.

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

One level, Stop and Go Station, actually has a shortcut where, if you walk back through the level’s entrance, it’ll warp you right to the exit. These hidden paths were a big focus in advertising the game, and at the end of the game, Cranky grades you on how many of them you found. Of course, the game isn’t very transparent in tallying which secret rooms you’ve been to, so it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to extending the game’s life or adding replayability. It feels more like a novelty than a real challenge.

The other heavily advertised draw of the time was the game’s visuals, and those hold up remarkably well. The amount of detail put into the character models and their animations gives them a ton of personality, and the game is still a wonder to behold, even though the fairly low number of frames of animation and pixelation do date it some.

Honestly, I still prefer this pre-rendered look to the real-time polygonal look that dominates modern 2D platformers, and it makes me sad that, despite the success of DKC and its sequels, this style of animation never really caught on outside of a few other games like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddyssey and Sega’s own attempt to cash in on it, Vectorman.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

The music is equally spectacular, synth tunes ranging in style from jazz to orchestral to rock and ambient, Ecco the Dolphin-esque new age tracks. DKC was one of the first games I’m aware of to have a soundtrack album released for it (titled, in true 90s fashion, DK Jamz) and it’s not hard to see why. The score is one of the most well-loved of its era, and it’s a great example of how chip tunes can still make for great music.

Well, this stopover on Donkey Kong Island has been fun, but it’s time to head back to civilization for a more urban adventure. A trip to Amami City sounds about right…

Fashionably Late: E3 2015


Hey, true-believers, long time no see! Prepping the print run of The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship has been eating up much my time lately, but I’m still alive and kicking! I decided to publish this E3 writeup under the Fashionably Late header, since it’s now more than a week behind.

In my continuing efforts to keep these writeups to a sightly less Melvillian length, I’m going to try a new format this year; instead of recapping all the major conferences, I’m going to talk about my top ten and bottom ten news items from this year’s E3. Most of these items will be games, but some of them will just be events that happened around the conference. So without further ado, let’s dive in. In the interest of positivity, I’m going to lead with the best of the show:

Top 10

10. Nindies@Home: Nintendo’s decision to experiment with their E3 presentations has led to a lot of cool stuff in recent years, like the Best Buy E3 demos and the return of the Nintendo World Championships, but none of what they’ve done has surprised me as much as this move here. During the week of E3, Nintendo released the floor demos for several indie games on the eShop, with the promise of a 15% discount on those games once they’ve released for everyone who downloaded the demos and tried them out. This is a great move to raise hype for games that might otherwise go unnoticed; I know that of the 9 games demoed, I plan to buy at least half of them, possibly more if the developers work out some of the kinks before they’re released. It was a really neat surprise, and I’d love to see Nintendo do more promotions like this going forward.

9. Dishonored 2: This one would have ranked higher, but Bethesda only showed a CGI teaser for the game, so I can’t in good conscience let myself get too hyped about this reveal. Still, the mere fact that they’ve announced a sequel to one of my favorite games of the last hardware generation was enough to put a grin on my face…and admittedly, the trailer did look pretty badass. The few details Bethesda has revealed, like the fact that they’re moving away from the Unreal Engine for development and the ability to play as either returning protagonist Corvo or the newly-playable Emily Caldwin, have me excited to learn more. And speaking of Emily…

8. More Female Protagonists: Remember last year’s E3, when one of the big stories on gaming sites was that Assassin’s Creed: Unity wouldn’t have playable female characters because they were “too hard to animate?” Well, it seems that the developers and publishers in attendance were listening to the backlash that hit Ubisoft, because a whole slew of games were shown featuring protagonists of the be-ovaried variety, including two new exclusive IPs from Sony and Microsoft (Horizon: Zero Dawn and ReCore, respectively), new installments in series with female protagonists (Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge), several games with fully customizable protagonists and even the first FIFA game to include female teams. Not a bad turn-around, all things considered.

7. DOOM: Regular readers will know that this year I played through Doom for the first time. This playthrough left me really excited to try Doom 3…an excitement that was rather short-lived. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself since I have actually started a writeup for Doom 3 and plan to post it once I’ve finished the game (…eventually…) but suffice to say that their attempt to turn Doom 3 into a horror-focused title over an action-focused one left me cold after the high-octane thrill ride of the original Doom. Well, from the looks of what we were shown at this year’s E3, id Software has learned their lesson, because Doom 4 (confusingly re-titled DOOM) looks like fast-paced, gory, crazy demon-fighting action. When I get my gaming PC, I’ll be making sure it’s built to run this game, and I’m not sure there’s higher praise I could give to this reveal. As for Doom 3, I’m going to finish it and its expansions out before posting my review. I’m told that the game starts to get good not long after the point I’m currently at (…please get better…). On the subject of demons, though…

6. Genei Ibun Roku #FE: Formerly (tentatively) titled Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, this game is the announced collaboration between Atlus and Intelligent Systems. E3 2015 is not the first time this game has been shown, but the previous trailers were…confusingly saccharine, to be blunt, and didn’t really feel like either SMT or Fire Emblem, something that was very off-putting to me as a recent convert to both series. However, after watching the Nintendo Treehouse footage of the actual gameplay, I feel like I finally get where the designers are coming from on this one…and I like it. GIR#FE (or whatever they ultimately call it for the American release) went from being one of my least anticipated titles of the show to one of my most anticipated, and I can’t wait to play it on my Wii U.

5. Persona 5: Speaking of Atlus, while Persona 5 technically didn’t make an appearance at this year’s E3, a new trailer for the game did leak shortly after the conference, and it looks pretty damn awesome. I haven’t really gotten into the Persona sub-series of SMT yet, but Persona 5 looks like it might be the jumping-on point I’ve been waiting for. My only real gripe (if you can call it that) is that, from what was shown, the game doesn’t look like anything that the PS3 couldn’t handle…which just makes me wonder what the big deal with the PS4 version of the game is supposed to be?

4. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water: This is another long-running series that I’ve never really gotten into, but ever since MoBW was confirmed for a North American release a few months ago, I’ve been curious about this one, and the trailer that was shown at E3 cemented my excitement. The game looks suitably creepy and off-beat, and the use of the Gamepad as the ghost-fighting Camera Obscura is exactly the sort of inspired Gamepad implementation we haven’t been seeing for the past three years of the Wii U’s life. As such, I’m definitely buying this one…even if I ultimately prove to be too much of a chicken to finish it (Rikes, Raggy!).

3. Super Mario Maker: This is another title, much like GIR#FE, where my hype for this game was pretty low going in, but the footage shown by Nintendo really grabbed my interest. While I found the concept of a Mario level editor interesting in the abstract, seeing the possibilities for level creation, hearing about the online sharing and Amiibo options and seeing Miyamoto and Tezuka talk about level design and their vision for the came (screw the haters, it was charming) really got me pumped for this one. I think SMM just became a day-one purchase for me, and it’s one Wii U title I can see myself playing for a loooong time.

2. Star Fox Zero: This was easily one of my most anticipated titles of the show going in, and what was shown did nothing but increase my excitement. The announcement of the collaboration with Platinum Games, the smoother-than-12-year-Scotch gameplay footage, the neat vehicles and transformation modes, and that wonderfully cheesy vibe all have me excited to play my first Star Fox title since Star Fox 64. This is going to be another day-one purchase for me, and I can’t wait.

1. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, alongside Dishonored, was one of the best titles I’ve played in the last few years, so when I heard a sequel was coming down the pipe, I was pretty excited. The gameplay trailer that Square-Enix showed at this year’s E3 took me from “excited” to “grinning like an overly sugared 10-year-old.” This game looks even more amazing than its predecessor, which is quite an accomplishment. My only regret is that it won’t be on the Wii U, because I loved the Gamepad implementation in the Wii U version of DE:HR so much. This is definitely another “make sure my PC can handle this game” title, and is my personal pick for best game of the show.

Well, that’s enough gushing and positivity. We’ve sampled the cream; let’s shovel the crap:

Bottom 10

10. “Fem Freak”: Gamergate is like the herpes simplex of gaming fandom; just when you start to forget it exists, another outbreak of ugliness erupts. This time it came in the form of some obnoxiously stupid posters plastered around the perimeter of the E3 convention hall, bashing popular Gamergate punching-bag Anita Sarkeesian. Between the ugly hatefulness and the awful “All your Base” reference, this one would rank higher on my list, but thankfully it was kept out of the convention itself, and like most Gamergate activities, it did more to hurt their cause than help it. Still, it was a canker sore on an otherwise pretty decent conference.

9. Sony’s Backwards Compatibility Response: One of the high points of Microsoft’s conference was the announcement that they would be finally be implementing backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 titles on the Xbox One. Sure, it’s a piecemeal software emulation solution and it’ll never capture every game that was released on the 360, but the fact that Microsoft’s even trying this gives them a leg-up on their nearest competition. Sony’s response? “Eh, people don’t really want BC anyway.” Sure, Sony. Whatever you say. Just don’t count on getting a PS4 sale from me until I’ve finished my non-compatible PS3 titles then. So, I’ll see you about…never, then?

8. Vita?: On the subject of arrogant missteps by Sony, what the hell happened with the Vita? Sony basically sent the damn thing out to die from its first year onward, and aside from cross-play titles, they’re not even making a token effort to continue to feed games to their poor beleaguered handheld, and this year’s E3 was no exception.

7. NX Tease: While I like my Wii U, one of the reasons that many people criticized this year’s Nintendo conference is that they seem to be treading water with the platform, biding their time until their next system comes out…and that’s something I have a hard time disagreeing with. This was especially driven home by Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime’s announcement that Nintendo would…make an announcement about the next Nintendo system, code-named the NX, at next year’s E3. While there are still several games coming down the pipe for the Wii U that I’m looking forward to, the way Nintendo is already trying to drum up hype for their next system only half-way through the Wii U’s life-cycle doesn’t make me overly confident that we can expect an abundance of new content in the Wii U’s final days.

6. VR Hype-splosion: Listening to this year’s E3 coverage made me feel like I’d stepped into a time machine that couldn’t decide whether it was traveling back to 1995 or 2010. Every company seemed to be plugging some form of VR tech, whether it was Oculus Rift, Morpheus or Hololens, and it all reminded me both of that mid-90’s optimism that VR was the next big thing in gaming, and of that all-encompassing overconfidence that 3D TV would soon dominate the entertainment world. Call me a cynic, but I can’t see a gaming public that rejected both 3D TV and motion-control gaming embracing a technology that encompasses the worst aspects of both.

5. Remasters upon remasters…: This isn’t exactly a problem that’s only come up this E3, but it’s worth bringing up. A not-insignificant portion of both the Xbox One’s and PS4’s line-ups already consist of up-ports of games that are less than 5 years old, and it looks like we’re going to be getting even more of them, with remasters of the first three Uncharted games, God of War III and Devil May Cry 4. None of these are announcements that make me want to run out and spend $400 on a console so I can re-play games I played during Obama’s first term. Sony, Microsoft, it’s time to put up or shut up; for the love of Nolan Bushnell, make some new games, please. And on the subject of remakes, it’s time to talk about…

4. Final Fantasy VII Remake: I was amazed at the reaction to this announcement, I really was. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people get excited over two minutes of CGI footage of vague narration and the main characters’ backs. I’ve said before that Final Fantasy VII is one of my favorite video games ever. I’ve also said that the modern incarnation of Square-Enix wouldn’t know a good Final Fantasy game if it dropped from a skylight and rammed a Masamune through their collective chest. Combining these two facts ain’t exactly mixing peanut butter and chocolate. I have zero confidence in SE’s ability to not retroactively ruin the crown jewel of their premier franchise; after all, what do you think they’ve been trying to do for the last 10 years with the glorified fan-fiction known as the Compilation? With director Tetsuya Nomura already talking about making changes from the original story, I’m fully expecting a train wreck of epic proportions. I’m staying far, far away from this remake, and if you’re smart, you will too.

3. RIP Konami: Earlier this year, following rumors that their lead talent and auteur Hideo Kojima was leaving over creative differences, Konami announced that they would be shifting their focus to mobile game development and canning many of their ongoing projects, including a new Silent Hill game that looked pretty damn scary. Sure enough, Konami showed off Metal Gear Solid 5 at E3…and that was about it. Anybody hoping for a surprise announcement indicating a change of course was sorely disappointed, and I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that yet another amazing developer from my childhood is going the way of the dodo. Man, I’m feeling old. And I need a drink. What do old dudes drink, Highballs? Yeah bring me one of those. And get off my lawn when you’re done.

2. Petition to cancel Metroid Prime: Federation Force: Change.org is a great website that’s been used to organize petitions to affect social change on important issues such as discrimination, animal abuse, pollution and video games you don’t like…what’s that? You say that last item isn’t important? You say that using Change.org to request that a developer cancel a video game you decided you didn’t like from a two-minute trailer is infantile and a waste of important time and resources? Congratulations, you’re a functional human being! This is easily the worst, most embarrassing example of gamer entitlement I’ve ever seen, and frankly I’m more than a little ashamed to be linked to this fanbase, even by association. You hear that, Metroid fans? You are now the worst fanbase out there. Worse than the Sonic fans. Sonic fans. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

1. Sony Shenmue 3 Kickstarter: Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not upset that Shenmue 3 is finally getting made. What I’m upset about is Sony using Kickstarter as a testing ground to justify funding Shenmue 3. The entire idea of Kickstarter was that independent artists and creators of all stripes could crowd-fund work that otherwise would never see the light of day. Sony using it as a means of testing the waters for a game they’re thinking of funding is a perversion of that original mission, and it sets a dangerous precedent. If this works, and Shenmue 3 is a success, who’s to say that other game publishers won’t try the same thing? What about record companies or book publishers? Sony is mucking about in territory where they don’t belong here, and they are doing it with very unclear outcomes as to how much they’re going to do to actually back the project to fruition. This could be to crowdfunding what SuperPACS are to politics, and if you care one bit about independent art, that should terrify you.

Well, that wraps up my take on E3 2015. Keep an eye on the site; we’ve got more Astonishing Bobcat news coming your way soon, along with new blog posts from Okcate, reviews for Donkey Kong Country, SMT: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and Doom 3. Till next time!

Fashionably Late: Doom

Doom 1

I’ve never been a very big fan of first-person shooters. The genre was one I never really got into when I was young, mostly because the vast majority of them could only be played on high-spec Windows PCs, which my family never owned.

Eventually FPS games did expand to consoles in a big way, but by that point a player culture had grown up around them that I found particularly repellent. With online multiplayer becoming an increasingly important part of any FPS, I wasn’t really inclined to put in the hours necessary to get good at games like Halo 2 when doing so meant enduring an equal number of hours of prepubescent boys screeching homosexual slurs at me through a headset.

And as the descendant of veterans who fought (and came down with PTSD) for their country, I find the “realistic” military shooters that dominate the genre today to be tasteless and offensive, so you’re not likely to find me online playing the latest Call of Duty, either.

However, there have been FPS titles that have endeared me to the genre over the past console generation. Games like BioShock 1 and 2, Portal 1 and 2, and Left 4 Dead all helped change my opinion, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored were two of the best games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Suffice to say, FPS games have grown on me. And as such, I decided to try my hand in earnest at the granddaddy of the genre, Doom.

And I got such a warm welcome!

And I got such a warm welcome!

There are a handful of games in the history of the medium that have been massively influential, hugely commercially successful, and have inspired so many imitators they kick-started an entire genre of games. Titles everybody knows. Titles everybody seems to have played at least once: Tetris, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II. Doom is one of those games.

Originally released as shareware for MS-DOS in 1993 (which makes it the second-oldest title I’ve reviewed for Fashionably Late, after Ecco the Dolphin), Doom was hugely successful, selling 1 million copies back when that was something to brag about, and has now seen releases on just about every piece of hardware capable of running it, including the iPhone.

Though it wasn’t the first FPS ever made (technically, that distinction goes to a title called Maze War), it popularized the genre and introduced most of the conceits and qualities we now associate with it, to the point where for a long time, first-person shooters were more commonly referred to as “Doom clones.”

Part of Doom’s notoriety comes from the controversy that surrounded it following its release. Doom, along with Mortal Kombat and (for some bizarre reason) Night Trap, was a favorite punching bag of congresscritters who picked up violent video games as their issue of the moment during the early 90’s. The game, unlike Bayonetta, also caught a lot of flack for featuring demons and demonic imagery, and was accused of promoting Satanism by some…even though you spend the whole game killing demons. Go figure.

Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies...

A scene from Night Trap. Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies…

Anyway, the plot of the game is as bog-simple as it is ridiculous; the player takes the role of a nameless Space Marine, affectionately dubbed “Doomguy” by fans. When his superior officer orders him to gun down innocent civilians, Doomguy punches him out instead, which curiously leads to Doomguy getting assigned to a crappy posting on Mars rather than getting him thrown in the brig for a crime he didn’t commit and later joining the A-Team.

However, before he can begin to drown his sorrows in (and lose his eyesight to) fine Martian moonshine, Doomguy’s marine unit gets called from the surface of Mars to the scientific base on one of its moons, Phobos.

Apparently Doom’s resident megacorporation, UAC, owns stations on Phobos and Deimos, and rather than getting up to typical video game corporation shenanigans like making a zombie virus or syphoning the Lifestream, they’ve actually been doing something productive by trying to develop a working teleporter and sending things between the two moons.

But apparently something went wrong (my money’s on a tech spilling Space Frappuccino on the control console), and the teleporter, rather than mutating Jeff Goldblum or, y’know, teleporting things, opened a portal to Hell instead.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a sinister star probably wasn't a great call , either.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a creepy star probably wasn’t a great call , either.

The demons quickly overtake Deimos, which gets pulled into Hell and disappears from the Martian sky, and Mars loses contact with the Phobos station as well. When Doomguy’s platoon goes to investigate, they leave him outside on guard duty armed only with a pistol and some brass knuckles and go in without him, promptly getting themselves slaughtered and turned into zombies.

On an interesting side-note, apparently Doom was originally going to be a licensed Aliens game before negotiations between id Software and Fox fell through. Apparently the competency level of the film’s Marines was one of the elements they decided to keep in the final product.

Doomguy, deciding that taking on the armies of Hell singlehandedly is much easier than the prospect of piloting the shuttle back to Mars himself or just radioing for help, fights his way through the Phobos station in hopes of finding a way out. His journey takes through Phobos, Deimos, and finally into Hell itself, where he must defeat the mastermind behind the invasion…who is apparently Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy...

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy…

Not that you’d know any of this if you didn’t read the manual. Aside from some very brief text crawls at the end of each of the game’s four episodes, Doom and its story are not on speaking terms. The minute you start a game, it dumps you right into the first level with a pistol and 50 bullets and expects you to shoot your way out. Like many games of its era, the plot of Doom simply exists to provide an excuse for the next several hours of carnage.

And truthfully, that’s just fine; so many game developers have gotten it into their heads that every game has to have hours of cutscenes that they seem to have forgotten to ask themselves whether the story they’re trying to tell is really worth all that effort. When “cinematic” snore-fests like The Order: 1886 and Ryse: Son of Rome are rapidly becoming the norm in modern “AAA” gaming, it’s nice to play a game like Doom and be reminded of an era where stories in games were a rarity and typically worth telling when the developer bothered to include them, and not a perfunctory feature on a checklist of expected elements of game design.

The meat of Doom is its gameplay, and that’s exactly as it should be.

If you're interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You're welcome.

If you’re interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You’re welcome.

And what a game it is. Doom consists of 36 levels (including 4 secret levels) spread out over 4 episodes. Each level is a maze of varying difficulty, populated by enemies, items and hazards. The player must navigate the level, fighting the demons that bar their progress and try to kill them, and find their way to the exit. It sounds simple, and it is at first, but the level designs rapidly become more complex as the game progresses, and the exits are soon shut behind layers of locked doors, hidden passages and switches, most of which are well-guarded by the aforementioned armies of Hell. Needless to say, Doomguy has his work cut out for him.

Luckily, the game offers quite an arsenal of weapons to deal with these devils, and Doomguy has the uncanny ability to carry several hundred pounds’ worth of firearms at once without so much as breathing heavy. Though the game starts you off with a wimpy pistol, you’ll quickly find much better weapons for slaughtering the demon hordes. Most of them are on the mundane side, including a shotgun, a chaingun, a rocket launcher and a chainsaw (on Mars…for some reason). But wait, you might say; this is the future. Where are all the phaser guns?

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

Well, Doom has you covered on that front as well. The game also features a Plasma Gun, which rapidly shoots glowing blue energy at your foes, and the notorious BFG-9000, an energy cannon capable of destroying almost anything in a single shot…as well as anything next to it. All of the weapons in Doomguy’s arsenal have different properties that make them suited for different situations (except the Pistol, which I don’t know why the game doesn’t just drop from your inventory once you get the Chaingun).

For example, the Shotgun is powerful and fires a spread of shots, but has a slow rate of fire because it needs to be cocked after every shot, while the Chaingun’s shots are individually weak, but it has a high rate of fire and can cause enemies to flinch when they’re caught in a stream of bullets, preventing them from fighting back. These tactical choices are also important because certain weapons share ammo; when each BFG shot is worth 40 Plasma Rifle shots, you need to carefully consider your choices when using either weapon.

There are also items located throughout the game’s levels to help the player. There are health and armor power-ups to replenish lost health and reduce damage, respectively. And one unique aspect to Doom is the ability of the player to increase his health and armor levels above 100%, with the correct items, which makes the game’s harder levels more survivable. There are also temporary power-ups such as partial invisibility (causes enemy shots to miss the player), radiation suits (protects from damaging floor hazards), berserk packs (increases the damage of the player’s punches) and invulnerability (duh).

And you’ll need every bit of help you can get to deal with the hordes of hellspawn, ranging from zombified marines and fire-ball chucking Imps to hulking “pinky” Demons (and their invisible brothers, the Specters), to flying Cacodemons and the minotaur-like Barons of Hell. Additionally, each of the game’s four episodes is capped off by a boss fight against an extremely powerful demon, like the rocket-launching Cyberdemon, or the aforementioned Krang-like Spiderdemon.

Try typing “demon” that many times in a row. It’s fun.



Doom has something of a reputation for being the quintessential brainless action game, but frankly, that’s doing it a disservice. While it’s true that few of the game’s puzzles are likely to break your brain (the most challenging among them generally involve finding a well-hidden switch or key), Doom doesn’t reward players who go in guns blazing. While the game doesn’t starve players of ammunition, anybody who doesn’t place their shots carefully and use the right tool for the job will quickly find themselves running from a huge horde of demons and scrambling for any ammo they can find.

Tactical decision-making is a huge part of the game, and those decisions frequently need to be made in a hurry. One of Doom’s favorite tricks to pull is to place a vital objective like a switch or a key in an unpopulated room…only to open several well-hidden compartments and fill the area with demons once the player makes a grab for said object, throwing the player into a fight where they must act quickly and correctly, or die just as fast.

While Doom isn’t a horror game in the strictest of senses, it’s honestly pretty frightening the first time you run and grab a key, only to hear several doors that you didn’t open slide up right behind you, followed by the roars of a dozen pissed-off monsters. As the game continues and you get used to these tricks, you’ll often learn to see these ambushes coming, and the fear and surprise is replaced by a feeling of tension and dread as you steel yourself to spring a trap, and try to pick the best weapon to deal with what you think lies on the other side.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

Sometimes the game will throw other curveballs as well, such as forcing the player to make a run across a hazardous floor without a suit to a vital objective while contending with demons, or to go into a poorly lit room and fight the monsters inside by the intermittent flashes of light. Doom is an intense, harrowing experience, even today and even for veteran gamers.

Admittedly, some of the game’s difficulty is artificial due to its episodic structure, a holdover from its days as shareware. You see, once you’ve completed an episode and start the next one, the game treats it as though you’re starting over fresh (in fact, it’s entirely possible to play the episodes out of order, if you so choose). This means that you don’t carry over any of your equipment or ammo from episode to episode; each time you start a new one, you do so with a pistol and 50 bullets, and that’s it.

This makes Episodes 3 and 4 extremely challenging, due to the difficulty of facing the early levels with limited resources. In fact, I couldn’t even clear Episode 4 on anything but the lowest difficulty due to this early-level resource starvation, and I’m not entirely sure how the designers expected anybody to be able to clear the first level with starting equipment on the higher difficulties (for the record, I did beat episodes 1-3 on “Hurt Me Plenty,” the normal difficulty). If you’ve managed it, you’re clearly a better Doom player than I.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy's pet bunny. Seriously.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy’s pet bunny, Daisy.

The game also forces you to start a level from the beginning if you die, with only the starting pistol and ammo; there are no checkpoints. Luckily, the game does allow you to save anywhere and at any time, so as long as you’re judicious about saving early and often, this won’t pose too much of a problem, though it does make me wish the game (I played the version included in the PS3 version of Doom 3: BFG Edition) had a quick-save feature.

On the subject of gameplay features, it’s interesting to look back at Doom and see how many features that we currently associate with FPS titles that it doesn’t have. Due to the way the engine is designed, treating the entire vertical axis as being part of the same plane, Doom has no vertical aiming or jumping; the game auto-aims at enemies that are higher up or lower than the player. This mostly works…although the game can be finicky when it decides whether or not you’re aiming at an enemy over long distances when they’re on another level, which makes sniping difficult.

Also, there are no magazines for the guns; each weapon fires from its pool of ammo with no need to ever reload. Apparently Doomguy’s guns operate on 80’s action hero rules.

Although the visuals are primitive by today’s standards, I find they have a certain charm that helps them hold up well today. Sure, the characters and effects are all heavily pixelated sprites with few frames of animation, and the levels all look like what you might get if you had H.R. Giger and Heironymus Bosch build you a movie set out of Legos, but there’s a coherency of design that manages to transcend the technical limitations of the time.

Satan's got one hell of an interior decorator.

Satan’s got one hell of an interior decorator.

The environments make sense and are easy to interpret, and the strong aesthetic, particularly as you progress through the game and the space-age technological environments gradually give way to the gothic look of Hell, really draws the player in. Additionally, I think the simplicity of the visuals helps make the “gamey” elements easier to swallow, like the open pools of toxic waste in a science facility and the abundance of shotgun shells and rockets in Hell.

The game’s violence, which was once the cause of much harrumphing, is actually pretty quaint by today’s standards. Dead enemies just turn into a pile of bloody pixels. Compared to the last two games I’ve reviewed, Doom is almost an exceptionally violent Looney Tune. Honestly, the part of the game that still comes off as kind of shocking to me is some of the scenery that you begin to see as you approach Hell. Objects like still-beating hearts atop altars, impaled (and writhing) zombies, piles of skulls topped with candles and flayed torsos hanging from chains begin to populate the environments, and those did give me pause.

The sound design is very good; the demons all have unique identifying cries, allowing you to easily tell what kind of demon is approaching you and from what side. The gun effects are loud and viscerally satisfying, and the music is excellent, starting off with a catchy heavy metal style, and gradually giving way to gothic, atmospheric pieces as the game goes on. When the topic of classic games with great soundtracks comes up, few people mention Doom, and I think that’s doing the game’s score a major disservice. For me, it passes the “hum test,” and that’s the highest praise I can give it.

The last aspect to discuss, and perhaps the most important, as it’s one of the elements of the modern FPS that Doom helped firmly establish, is the multiplayer. Now unfortunately, the online scene for Doom 3: BFG Edition and all its included games is completely dead at the time of this writing; I waited 30 minutes to find a match without ever locating a single partner. Luckily, though, Doom allows for split-screen multiplayer, so I was able to play a few deathmatches against my brother.

So much carnage in such a tiny space...

So much carnage in such a tiny space…

Doom’s multiplayer holds up remarkably well. The action is fast-paced and satisfying, the catchy soundtrack puts you in the mood, and there’s a manic energy to it that modern shooters seem to lack. The session was punctuated by some truly memorable, crazy moments, like our protracted rocket launcher duel in the Tower of Babel, or me fighting to remove him from the BFG spawn point after he was stranded there by lava, or him sneaking past my line of fire and smearing me with a single berserker punch.

The game also allows you to play multiplayer on every single-player map (there are no multiplayer-only stages) which, while it can lead to some incredibly unbalanced moments and some primo camping opportunities, allows for a ton of variety. I suspect Doom (and Doom II, in all likelihood) will become prime choices for game nights at my house from now on.

All in all, Doom is a great game. It’s a tightly-designed, well-thought-out experience through and through. The designers knew what they wanted it to be and went for it, honing it until they got it just right, and it shows. It’s not hard at all to see why Doom became one of the most influential games of all time. If you haven’t played it, I’d definitely suggest picking it up in one of its many forms and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Now, I mentioned that I also have Doom II, and I plan to play it as well, but I doubt I’ll review it for the simple reason that very little has changed from the original. It uses the same engine, and aside from a few additional items and enemies, and some larger levels, it’s basically an expansion on the original game. It should be a blast and I look forward to playing it, but a review would basically boil down to me saying “This is just like Doom, which is awesome” over and over again.

Now Doom 3, on the other hand, is a Cyberdemon of a different color…but for now, I have other business to attend to. Monkey business, that is…

Be well!

Can’t Stop the Signal

North Korea is scared of these guys, apparently.

North Korea is scared of these guys, apparently.

Recently, I sat down with some friends to watch The Interview, now that it’s made its debut on Netflix. It was surprisingly funny and much better than I had expected, and a great time was had by all, but I’m actually not writing this to review the film. The next day, reflecting on the experience, I realized that, if it hadn’t been for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and the threats and controversy surrounding the film’s release, there’s an excellent chance I never would have heard of The Interview, much less watched it.

The Interview had virtually no buzz or advertising that I was aware of leading up to its release. If it hadn’t been for the controversy and outrage surrounding the suppression of the film, I almost certainly would have remained blissfully unaware, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of people who have now seen the film are in the same boat.

The film’s meteoric rise into public awareness was so impressive, I’d almost be tempted to accuse Sony of faking the hack to generate publicity, if the leaked documents didn’t serve to make Sony look so terrible.

The attack, allegedly perpetrated by North Korean agents (“allegedly” only because there isn’t ironclad proof that they did it, but really, who do they think they’re kidding?) was purportedly done to prevent The Interview’s release, and initially it looked like they had been successful in that goal. Sony caved and cancelled the film’s theatrical release, to the disbelief of just about everyone. For lack of a better expression, it looked like the terrorists had won.

But they didn’t. The outrage to Sony’s surrender was so palpable that on December 23rd, Sony caved again and released The Interview digitally. And the film went on to become Sony’s most successful digital release to date.

Ultimately, more people have seen The Interview than likely would have if these hackers did nothing at all, and North Korea, far from being seen as a world power to be feared, is being ridiculed for its Supreme Leader’s inability to take a damn joke. If the hackers’ goal was to prevent people from seeing Seth Rogen and James Franco besmirch the glorious name of Kim Jong Un, it’s hard to see how they could have failed much harder than they have.

Less than a month later, terrorists attacked the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, wounding 11 and killing 11 more, in retaliation for its irreverent depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.

While I’m not about to compare Sony having embarrassing e-mails and early script drafts leaked to the deaths of 11 innocent civilians, again we have a group using brute force to silence comedians whose message they don’t like. And in the Charlie Hebdo case, the outcome is nearly identical.

Far from being cowed, the staff of Charlie Hebdo defiantly, triumphantly, returned to work, and their next issue sold seven million copies in six languages. People who had never even heard of Charlie Hebdo before (which I’m guessing is the majority of the non-French-speaking world) were buying copies.

The newspaper had become a household name world-wide. And far from being praised by fundamentalist Muslims for their actions, the attackers were condemned by the Ayatollah Khatami himself. Again, I’m pretty sure that’s about as far from success as these terrorists could get.

Time and again throughout human history, thugs who lack the wit or intelligence to retort when they’ve been mocked try to crush their detractors through force. And time and again, they have failed. Because their methods not only failed to refute what their detractors were saying, they became proof positive that everything that had been said about them was true.

It’s a lesson these particular thugs might have learned, if they had watched The Interview.

Fashionably Late: Bayonetta

Bayonetta 1

Technically, reviewing this game is almost a cheat on my part, since I’ve actually beaten Bayonetta before. Well, I’ve beaten one version of the game before; namely, the PS3 version.

Some of you just spontaneously groaned and facepalmed on reading that sentence. For the rest of you, a bit of explanation is in order.

You see, at the start of the 7th console generation, Sony bragged that the PS3’s Cell processor made it the most powerful console on the market. And on paper, this was true; the Cell was a beastly chip at the time it was released, and Sony achieved some impressive results with it in their first-party titles.

However, harnessing the Cell’s potential took a lot of time, effort, and coding wizardry, and on top of that, Sony’s documentation for the processor was apparently both badly translated and massive. By comparison, the Xbox 360’s Xenon processor, while ostensibly less powerful, was much easier to fully utilize.

Xenon was a pretty typical PowerPC chip, an architecture most developers were familiar with by that point. This meant that not only was the Xbox 360 easier to program for, it meant that programming for the PS3 and fully utilizing the Cell meant practically reprogramming the game from scratch, or the next best thing.

Third party developers releasing multi-platform titles had a decision to make. They could effectively build two completely different versions of the same game, using two different teams, when building one version that already cost millions of dollars. Or they could build their game for the Xbox 360 and brute-force code the game to run on the PS3 with minor modifications, albeit looking and performing noticeably worse than its 360 counterpart.

Another factor to be taken into account was that there were more 360s in peoples’ homes for most of the 7th generation than there were PS3s.

So guess which option third-party developers and publishers chose?

No worries. It's not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

No worries. It’s not like we paid a lot of money for the system or anything.

Yep, brute force coding…

Platinum Games didn’t even work on the PS3 version. That was handled by a B-team at the game’s publisher, Sega, who had never worked on a PS3 game before. Even before the PS3 version released, it was apparently clear that there were problems since Sega requested (and received) staff from Sony to help finish the port.

The resulting port was a mess, with frame rates that frequently dropped well below 30 fps (I’ll explain why this is such an issue later), worse textures, even more screen-tearing than the 360 version (which has plenty to go around), and horrendous load times due to the PS3’s sluggish Blu-ray drive. This issue was resolved with a patch that installed large portions of the game to the PS3’s hard drive, an exploit that a lot of PS3 titles used to get load times under control. And because I only owned a PS3 when the game came out, this was the version I got.

In spite of all the technical issues, Bayonetta’s quality shined through, and it quickly became one of my favorite titles of the last generation. So, when the long-delayed, recently-resurrected sequel was released on the Wii U, along with a port of the original that promised to be the definitive version of the game, I jumped at the chance to play Bayonetta the way it was meant to be experienced. And I was not disappointed.

Bayonetta is a third-person action brawler developed by Platinum Games. Platinum, made up mostly of refugees from Clover Studio after Capcom bought them up and subsequently shut them down, have since made a name for themselves releasing frequently violent, over-the-top stylized action titles, not unlike Grasshopper Manufacture. And Bayonetta played a big part in cementing that reputation.

Oh, and like the last game I reviewed, Bayonetta is an M-rated title that makes the most of its rating. So, you know, be warned.



Bayonetta is, appropriately enough, about Bayonetta, a witch who is a survivor of a long-extinct clan called the Umbra. Bayonetta was sealed in a coffin, sunk at the bottom of a lake, and awoke prior to the events of the game with barely any memory of her past. All she remembers is that she’s a witch, she needs to kill angels on a regular basis to satisfy the various demons she has contracts with, and the secrets to her past involve a pair of gems called the Eyes of the World.

When one of her business contacts, a Mafia stooge named Enzo, gives her a tip that one of the Eyes is located in the isolationist, theocratic city of Vigrid, Bayonetta travels there in search of the truth, leaving a trail of maimed angels in her wake. Along the way, she must contend with Jeanne, another witch with ties to Bayonetta’s past; Luka, a journalist who blames Bayonetta for the murder of his father; and a little girl named Cereza who claims to be Bayonetta’s daughter.

Bayonetta’s world revolves around a Trinity of Realities–the Human World, our world; Paradiso, realm of the angels; and Inferno, realm of the demons. In between lies Purgatorio, a sort of parallel dimension to the Human World where the denizens of the three realities can mingle if they have the magic to do so.

Ages ago, two clans of magic-users oversaw the Trinity and maintained balance among the worlds; the Lumen Sages, aligned with the Light and the angels; and the Umbra Witches, aligned with the Dark and the demons. However, war broke out between the two sides and the Umbra were driven almost to extinction by witch hunts, orchestrated behind the scenes by the Sages, leaving Bayonetta as one of the few surviving Umbra.

If this description makes the game sound over-wrought and melodramatic, it’s really not. From start to finish, Bayonetta has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, with hilariously over-the-top moments throughout the game, a wicked sense of humor and more references to other games than I can count. Hell, the game quite literally opens on one of the minor characters pissing on a gravestone bearing the name of the director, Hideki Kamiya. If that doesn’t tell you how seriously Bayonetta takes itself, I don’t know what will.

Bayonetta 10

Thought I was kidding? You should really know better by now.

That’s not to say the game is shallow; while the prospect of a game where a demonically-aligned witch butchers angels may sound like a high school goth’s fantasy, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Thematically, Bayonetta makes it clear that Light isn’t necessarily the same as good, and Darkness isn’t necessarily evil.

The angels of Bayonetta aren’t the beautiful creatures of Renaissance art; they’re much closer to how angels are actually described in the Bible: monstrous, inhuman creatures that look like something out of a nightmare. They come in a variety of forms, from eagle-headed winged humanoids to gryphon-like beasts to flaming wheels and cherub-faced giants. And they’re as prone to cruelty and violence as they are to benevolence; in short, they’re not creatures that you’ll feel bad for beating up, but rather monsters wearing a guise of holiness. Given the dark turns religion has taken throughout history, even modern history, I think that’s an idea that’s eminently relatable for most people.

Funny enough, for such a potentially controversial theme, the nature of Bayonetta and her antagonists hasn’t really drawn any controversy that I’m aware of. Rather, there’s another elephant in the room that I should probably address before continuing with the review–the game’s extremely overt sexuality.

Bayonetta is represented as an openly sexual character; she’s got a very dominatrix-like personality, using sexuality as a lure and a weapon, and gleefully tormenting and torturing her enemies in combat. She wears a skin-tight bodysuit which is made of her hair, the same hair she uses as a magical medium to summon demons from Inferno to attack her enemies. As a result, Bayonetta becomes partially or fully nude as she summons these attacks, though the more “explicit” regions of her anatomy are always obscured through camera tricks and carefully-placed swirls of spiraling hair.

Like so.

Like so.

This overt sexuality may make some players uncomfortable, and I can understand that. I think it’s important to be aware of this aspect of the game going in, and I’m not going to call anybody a prude for refusing to play it on those grounds. But what does bug me some is the controversy that’s come to surround the game and the character in recent years, namely the accusations that the game is exploitative and anti-feminist, and that Bayonetta is objectified.

This debate is interesting to me, because I don’t remember hearing much of this talk five years ago when Bayonetta was originally released, but it seemed to swirl around quite a bit with the recent release of the new edition and Bayonetta 2.

My personal theory is that ideas of feminism and sexual exploitation and objectification in games have come much more to the forefront of our minds. Recent ugly incidents like the #GamerGate affair and harassment of female game developers, feminists, and critics like Anita Sarkeesian have brought the issue more to the fore. People are now talking about these ideas with regard to gaming much more than they were before.

And don’t misunderstand me, I think that’s a very good thing. I think video games as a medium and the games industry both have serious, deep-seated issues with women and female characters that need to be addressed if we’re ever going to go forward as a medium, an industry and a fandom.

However, I do think that the sudden surge of reflection, introspection and examination has prompted overreaction on the part of a number of people. Rather than examining how a game portrays its female characters from a sexual standpoint, they take the position that any confluence of female characters and sexuality is a bad thing, and that’s simply not the case.

Female characters are sexually exploited and objectified when they are portrayed in a sexual manner that has nothing to do with who they are as characters. These are the characters whose sexuality is never addressed, but nevertheless are running around a battlefield in outfits that would make a stripper blush, or who pose provocatively apropos of nothing, or whose anatomy the camera visually fondles completely out of context with anything else that’s going on.

Like so.

Like so.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is open, aware, and in charge of her sexuality. Any time she’s on display, fires off an innuendo-laden quip, or gets naked, it’s entirely of her own volition. She makes it clear that this is the case, and she’s clearly enjoying herself.

In short, Bayonetta is empowered by her sexuality as she’s portrayed in the games, not reduced by it, and is in fact elevated above other characters by it, including every single male character in the game. Nor is her sexuality her only character trait, or even her defining character trait. And her design, which has often been mistakenly identified as a male fantasy, was in fact created by a woman.

In short, Bayonetta is a female empowerment fantasy. I’m not saying that the solution to poor representation of women in video games is to make every character like Bayonetta  (that presents problems of its own), but she certainly isn’t an anti-feminist character.

In fact, I’m of the opinion that she’s one of the most pro-feminist characters in gaming to date, and the game is one of the few I’ve ever played that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Now, whether you’re comfortable with the sexual focus of the game is another matter, but accusing it of being anti-feminist is just plain inaccurate.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk a bit more about the game itself.

Bayonetta, as I’ve mentioned, is an action brawler, so the gameplay revolves primarily around melee combat with groups of enemies. Each level in the game consists of a series of encounters with foes who must be defeated to advance. This could result in a very dull game if handled incorrectly, but Bayonetta’s combat gameplay is complex, rewarding, and punctuated by moments of sheer, awesome insanity.

Bayonetta has three primary means of fighting her enemies; punches, kicks, and guns. She can string chains of punches and kicks together to create combos, which not only do more damage than individual attacks, but also stagger enemies and keep them from recovering in between blows (though tougher enemies are much harder to stun). These combos can also culminate in Wicked Weaves, attacks where Bayonetta will conjure demonic fists, kicks and weapons to smash her foes for huge amounts of damage (and which result in the aforementioned partial nudity).

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn't they?

Of course demons wear stilettos. Why wouldn’t they?

By default, Bayonetta is armed with her bare hands and feet, as well as four pistols called the Scarborough Fair. She wields a gun in either hand, and two guns strapped to each shoe, which enables her to extend any punch or kick by holding down the attack button, resulting in a burst of gunfire (no idea how she pulls the trigger on a pistol strapped to a high heel, though). As the game progresses, Bayonetta can also recover Golden Angelic Hymn LPs, which she can trade with the game’s shopkeeper, Rodin, for a variety of new weapons, ranging from the fairly ordinary (katanas, whips and shotguns) to the downright bizarre (magical ice skates and grenade launcher tonfas).

These weapons, when equipped, will alter the properties of Bayonetta’s attacks in a number of ways, but most of her combos and the dynamics of extending attacks will remain the same. And whatever weapon she has equipped, Bayonetta can always shoot at her opponents with the press of a button; gunfire doesn’t do much damage on its own, but it’s great for extending combos and hitting foes that are just slightly out of reach until you can close the distance with them.

On the defensive, Bayonetta has a lot of movement options; she can lock the camera onto a foe and guard against their attacks, she can run around the battlefield freely, she can jump and double-jump to evade or follow an opponent into the air to continue an attack. But her single best defensive strategy, and probably the core defining mechanic of Bayonetta, is her ability to dodge.

With the press of a button, Bayonetta will somersault out of the way of an enemy attack, avoiding damage. It’s not difficult to dodge most attacks, but the real trick is waiting to dodge until the last possible instant before Bayonetta is hit by an attack. If you can manage that, Bayonetta will enter a state called Witch Time, where her enemies are either stopped in their tracks entirely or dramatically slowed down for several seconds. The opening provided by Witch Time allows Bayonetta to deliver some truly punishing combos to her helpless foes, and a feature called Dodge Offset allows Bayonetta to continue a combo she started prior to a successful dodge, enabling her to dish out even more pain.

Bayonetta, being a witch, also has other magical powers at her disposal. As she attacks her foes, her magic gauge will fill with power. Once full, Bayonetta can execute a Torture Attack on her opponents, an unblockable attack that will either kill an enemy outright, or deal massive damage to it. These Torture Attacks involve Bayonetta conjuring some sort of instrument of torture out of the blue and using it to savagely maim her foes, from Iron Maidens to guillotines to serrated pommel horses, and the attack animations include a mini-game that asks the player to hit a button as quickly as possible, awarding them with a bonus of Halos, the game’s currency, for a good performance.

This angel's about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

This angel’s about to have a very bad day. And several new holes.

There are other uses for accumulated magic, mainly in the form of effects granted by magical talismans available for purchase from Rodin, but these items cost so many Halos it’s unlikely a player will be able to access them on their first playthrough of the game. Also, just as Bayonetta’s magic meter grows by hitting enemies, it depletes whenever she takes damage. Combined with the Witch Time mechanic, this results in a game that greatly rewards players for avoiding damage, and punishes them severely for getting hit, even beyond the risk of death (despite being a pretty tough lady, Bayonetta can’t actually take that many hits before it’s Game Over). Thus, having the game run at a high framerate isn’t merely a cosmetic concern, it’s a major factor in how well the game plays.

The rest of the gameplay mostly consists of moving from the stage of one enemy encounter to the next, but that’s not to say it’s filler. There are often branching paths and hidden areas in the environments that conceal items, upgrades and challenge rooms called “Alfheims,” where the player must defeat enemies under certain conditions (i.e., within a time limit, using only a certain number of punches or kicks, taking no damage) to win a prize.

The path is also sometimes obstructed by a platforming segment, or a basic puzzle that needs to be solved (such as assembling the pieces of a key to open a door, or using Witch Time to move through a gate before it closes), but the bread and butter of Bayonetta is the combat, and that’s as it should be. There are a few other level types to break up the variety, including a motorcycle chase with the theme from Afterburner in the background (why they didn’t use music from Outrun or Hang-On is beyond me), and a flying shooter level that’s one giant homage to Space Harrier. For the most part, however, Bayonetta sticks to what it’s good at; fast-paced, brutal combat.

On the subject of items, in addition to equipment, there are a number of consumable items that Bayonetta can acquire in her quest, either by finding them in the environment, purchasing them from Rodin, making them by combining Concoction ingredients (also found in the environment), or winning them in the shooting gallery-style “Angel Attack” mini-game that occurs after each level. These items can heal Bayonetta, restore her Magic,  temporarily boost her attack power, make her momentarily invincible, resurrect her from death, or deal damage to enemies. There are also permanent health and magic upgrades in the form of Witch Hearts and Moon Pearls, which can either be bought whole from Rodin, or assembled from pieces found in the environment or won in the Alfheims.

The game grades players on their performance, awarding them a medal after each encounter, ranging from Bronze to Platinum or Pure Platinum depending on how much damage they took, how many combos they performed, and how long the battle took. Each level is also given a grade, based on the player’s performance in each encounter, as well as how many times they died and were forced to continue, and how many items they used (each consumable item is worth half a death); the player’s overall grade drops one whole level per death, which not only affects the award they get, but also the bonus in Halos that is paid out at the end of the level, so if you’re a player wanting to unlock those expensive items in Rodin’s shop, you’ll have to learn the game’s mechanics inside and out to get those high scores.

You want statues like these, you gotta work for them.

You want statues like this, you gotta work for ’em.

The normal levels are also punctuated by levels consisting of boss fights with massive angels, the Cardinal Virtues. These battles are massive, multi-stage fights that will put a player’s skills to the test and featuring some spectacular moves and finishes that would put God of War to shame. Though ironically, these boss fights are often very easy to get good scores on, since much of the challenge of Bayonetta’s levels comes from running the gauntlet of multiple enemy encounters while avoiding damage. The bosses don’t provide nearly as much of an endurance test, with the exception of some of the later battles, which can be absolutely grueling.

On the subject of Bayonetta’s spectacle, many of the coolest things in the game happen in cutscenes and usually involve Bayonetta absolutely wrecking an enemy in some completely improbable and hilarious manner–or avoiding certain death with style. Many of these scenes are included as the capstone to a fight with a particularly difficult enemy, where Bayonetta initiates a “Climax” and summons a gigantic demon (one of the instances where she will be fully nude) in a manner that plays out similarly to a Torture Attack writ large (including the button-mashing mini-game).

However, this brings me to one of the few truly annoying parts of the game; the quick-time events. Many cutscenes in Bayonetta feature quick-time events, where the player must press a particular button at a particular time to avoid instant death. Quick-time events have a bad reputation among most gamers as being needlessly frustrating and unfair, and I have to say that, in most cases, Bayonetta’s QTEs fit this description to a T, especially since few of them utilize the controls in the same intuitive fashion as the rest of the game.

To the game’s credit, if you fail a QTE and die, the game will let you continue right before the event happens, so you can try as many times as you need to pass it. Unfortunately, the deaths suffered during QTEs count against your score at the end of the level, which is very, very frustrating when you’re trying for a high score, especially when you’ve been doing well at the actual gameplay.

Thankfully, Platinum seems to have learned from player feedback, and though QTEs do show up in subsequent games of theirs, they usually control in the same fashion that such an action would in the main gameplay (i.e., the button to punch punches, the jump button jumps, etc.), but it’s still an issue in this title.

There’s plenty of content to experience here, with several levels of difficulty, and much of the equipment only available to unlock after the first playthrough. If you enjoy Bayonetta, there’s certainly a lot for you to do beyond simply beating the game (which takes roughly 10 hours from start to finish, not counting re-tries from dying), though the challenge of the game might prevent a lot of people from reaching 100% completion.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Expect to see this screen. A lot.

Visually, the game is a treat to behold. As I’ve mentioned, the game’s cinematics are absolutely bonkers and perfectly encapsulate the over-the-top aesthetic behind the design. The characters are all well-designed and visually striking, as are the various monsters. The levels are all well laid-out and make for great environments to run around in; with a wide variety of settings ranging from old-world cities, to craggy mountains, to modern skyscrapers and even Heaven, you’ll rarely if ever get that “been there, done that” feeling.

I will say that, in terms of the environments, the game’s color palette is a little muted; funny enough, I never really realized this until playing the sequel, but the world of Bayonetta has a washed-out, sepia feel to it. This just makes the colorful cast and monsters stand out even more, so I’m inclined to think the designers did this on purpose, rather than simply copying the “brown is real” trend of early HD games. Still, it’s one of the biggest things that changed from Bayonetta to Bayonetta 2, so it’s worth pointing out.

The sound design is equally strong and eclectic. The music is an odd mix of J-Pop/Techno, slow jazz and very grandiose orchestral pieces (complete with God Choir) that somehow fits the game’s oddball tone perfectly. The game also has a kind of musical theme going on; Bayonetta’s signature guns are called the Scarborough Fair, after the folk ballad of the same name, and the flowers named in the song’s refrain (each gun being named after one of the four) all have thematic significance to Bayonetta’s character as the story progresses.

Also, the song “Fly Me To The Moon” is a recurring motif, with a J-Pop cover being used in many scenes, Bayonetta herself singing the song at points, and an early recording of the song (sung by Brenda Lee) that plays over the game’s credits. I’m not sure why this song was tapped, other than the fact that it seems to have some pop culture cachet in Japan (it was used as a closing theme for Neon Genesis Evangelion), but it does work rather well here…though if they wanted to use a tune popularized by Sinatra, I can’t believe they missed the opportunity to go with “Witchcraft.”

The sound effects and foley work are spot on, even for the most esoteric things (it can’t be easy to decide what the sound of an angel being crushed and impaled by an Iron Maiden must sound like), and the voice work is spectacular. The game’s cast of characters is fairly small (Bayonetta spends most of the game “between worlds” in Purgatorio, so she doesn’t encounter many people in person), but each one is perfectly cast and each performance makes the character memorable and props up the story, which might be a little weak otherwise.

The stand-out performance is definitely Hellena Taylor as Bayonetta. She carries the game with easy grace and really helps cement Bayonetta as a rounded character. Whether she’s purring a line like the cat that ate the canary, or displaying genuine shock, sadness or anger with surprising understated weight, it’s her show from start to finish and she makes the most of it. Other notables include veteran Grey DeLislie as rival witch Jeanne, Dave Fennoy as Rodin, and Yuri Lowenthal as intrepid journalist/wannabe ladies’ man Luka (in a rare instance of Lowenthal not playing a supremely punchable asshole).

Case in point.

Case in point.

The Wii U version also has a few additional features that weren’t available in the original game, aside from the improved graphics. There’s an optional touch and motion-based control scheme utilizing the Gamepad’s touchscreen and gyroscope for those who want it, but I haven’t yet tried it out, so I can’t speak to its quality.

Additionally, there are several included Nintendo-themed costumes that players can dress Bayonetta up in that alter the game in minor ways; they’re not game-changers, but they’re certainly fun extras. Also there’s an added Japanese language track (kind of an odd choice, given that the English vocal track predates the Japanese), but when the English vocals are this good, why bother?

Bayonetta is easily one of the best action titles released in the last 10 years. If you can get into the game’s over-the-top, graphic sense of style, there’s a great experience to be had, with tons of humor and challenging gameplay.

It’s not difficult to track down a used copy for the PS3 or 360 for relatively cheap (though again, I do not recommend the PS3 version). If you buy the Wii U version, you will get Bayonetta bundled for free with Bayonetta 2, and you can play both games for the price of one. It’s easily one of the best values in retail games right now, so if you have a Wii U (and if you don’t by this point, you should strongly consider it), this is definitely the option to take.

Well, I’ve been playing a lot of modern titles for a while, so I think it’s time I stepped back and went retro for my next review. Let’s go for a demonic trifecta…

Status Update


The rumors of my abduction by the Mole Men have been greatly exaggerated.

I realize it’s been a while since my last update on this blog, so I thought I’d take some time to update you all on things that have been going on and the current status of my various projects.

First, my team and I had our very first panel appearance at a con at the first annual Wizard World Tulsa Comic Con! We had a great turn-out for a first-time group and had a lot of fun waxing philosophical about superhero fiction and talking about the writing and independent publishing process.

Many thanks to Brittany Walloch and all the great staff at Wizard World for working with us and helping to make the panel possible, as well as Nate and Lacey for helping run the panel.

As for the status of upcoming projects, those of you who have been following my Facebook page are probably aware by now that we are planning to release a print version of The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship in the near future. This has proven to be a bit more involved than previously anticipated, as my wife/manager/ombudsman and I have had to start up our own LLC for tax reasons prior to publication.

While this isn’t as complicated as one might fear, it’s definitely time-consuming, especially with my new, more rigid daytime work schedule, so the process is going a bit slower than anticipated. We still plan to have the print edition out in time for Christmas, so for those who have been waiting on a physical copy before taking the plunge, keep checking back here and on my Facebook page for a firm release date.

The next Bobcat adventure is still in progress; my work on writing it has been slowed down over the past few months by adjustments to a new job schedule, preparation for Wizard World and some minor health issues.

Still, the new book is underway, and we plan to release it sometime next year, as well as a new Bobcat short story. Keep an eye on this blog and on the Facebook page for more details, which will be announced as they’re available.

Finally, with regards to Fashionably Late, I know that I teased that Silent Hill 2 would be my next review, but unfortunately, I won’t be reviewing that game next. The simple reason for this is that Silent Hill 2 is an emotionally demanding, stressful game (intentionally, and in a good way), and with everything that’s been going on in my life lately, I simply don’t have much energy to spare on the completion of such a game.

I am continuing to progress and have actually made it further in the game than any previous playthrough attempt yet (I’m about to enter the Otherworld Hospital, for those who are curious), and I will do a write up once I’ve finished it, but for now I’m going to focus on other titles.

I actually have another game lined up already, and it’s one that, thematically at least, is probably a more fitting follow-up to Shadows of the Damned than SH2 would have been, anyway. Keep an eye out for that review in the next week.

Thank you very much for your readership and support, and I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your loved ones. I’ll see you soon with another update!

Fashionably Late: Shadows of the Damned

SotD 1

Just so you know: Shadows of the Damned marks the first M-rated title I’ve reviewed on Fashionably Late, and it makes the most of that rating. SotD isn’t an “oh, those aliens squirt a little too much blue blood when the space marine shoots them with his assault rifle” kind of “M”–it’s packed full of graphic violence, profanity, disturbing imagery, nudity, sexual humor and lots of alcohol (ab)use. It’s so over-the-top with its adult content that I’m simply not going to be able to describe the game to you without a fair amount (possibly) offensive content, so be warned.

I briefly talked about Suda51 in my last E3 writeup, but I don’t think my brief mention of the man and his work, and that of his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, quite conveyed the sheer insanity of their catalog of games. Therefore, to properly do them justice, I’ve provided a list of a few of their key games below, along with a brief summary of each one. Please note, all of the descriptions below are accurate, and in no way exaggerated:

  • Killer7: A wheelchair-bound assassin uses his seven split-personalities, including a gangster, a barefoot woman and a luchador, to fight an evil bio-terrorist and his minions on behalf of the U.S. government, all while receiving advice from a man in a red gimp suit suspended from the ceiling who speaks like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon.
  • No More Heroes: A nerd named Travis Touchdown buys a lightsaber off of eBay and fights in a death-match tournament to become the best assassin in the world…when he isn’t shopping for new outfits, training with his ghostly sensei, recovering hidden red balls for a drunk Russian, playing with his kitten, renting VHS tapes to learn wrestling moves, or saving his game by using the toilet.
  • Lollipop Chainsaw: A zombie-hunting cheerleader fights an evil goth mastermind and his army of musically-themed super-zombies with cheerleading moves, a sparkling, rainbow chainsaw and the still-living severed head of her boyfriend, who hangs from her belt like a fanny-pack.
  • Liberation Maiden: The President of Japan (who is a teenage girl) fights an invading empire seeking to plunder Japan’s natural resources from the back of a giant flying robot, all while receiving updates on her approval rating in real-time.

So when I tell you that Shadows of the Damned is about a Mexican demon-hunter named Garcia Hotspur who, aided by a perverted, flying British skull named Johnson (who can transform into guns and motorcycles), travels to Hell, heals his wounds by drinking absinthe and feeds brains to baby-faced door knockers, all to rescue his girlfriend from the Lord of the Underworld (named Fleming), you know that the preceding sentence was not a joke.

Oh so much graphic violence...

Oh so much graphic violence…

SotD kind of feels like a movie Robert Rodriguez might make if he teamed up with Guillermo Del Toro and the two of them spent the pre-production phase playing Super Mario Bros. and dropping mescaline. And comparing the game to an R-rated Mario is neither inaccurate nor a disservice.

The story revolves around the protagonist, the aforementioned Garcia Hotspur (whose middle name may or may not actually be “Fucking”– it’s hard to tell), a Mexican demon hunter who manages to kill so many demons that the Lord of the Underworld, a gargantuan six-eyed demon named Fleming, kidnaps Garcia’s girlfriend Paula and drags her down to hell, where he plans to torture, maim and kill her for all eternity as retribution for Garcia’s interference.

Garcia (who at one point actually does borrow Rodriguez’s “I’m a MexiCAN, not a MexiCAN’T” line) is having none of it, and travels to Hell with his partner, the reformed demon Johnson, as his guide, fighting his way through legions of demons to defeat Fleming and save the woman he loves. The plot seems like a pretty straight-forward retelling of the “knight saves princess from dragon” story, but it’s actually more of a subversion, as the game builds up to a nice and well-earned twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you here. The game’s ending didn’t blow my mind, but it did leave me thinking, “OK, well-played.”

The characters themselves aren’t very fleshed-out, since most of the game’s running time is devoted to Garcia and Johnson’s trek through the underworld. Nevertheless, they certainly are memorable, in large part thanks to some dynamite voice acting and funny writing. Garcia and Johnson’s buddy-cop-esque relationship forms the cornerstone of the game, and it works fantastically.

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Garcia is a pretty typical Suda51 protagonist; he’s an awesome, tough, over-the-top and occasionally comical action hero, but is given moments of genuine pathos where the fate of Paula is concerned. He’s helped a lot by an excellent vocal performance from Steve Blum, whom most people will know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but I remember most fondly as Jamie from the too-good-for-this-cruel-world series Megas XLR. It’s kind of odd to realize that’s the same guy putting on a heavy Mexican accent, but he does it well and the character definitely isn’t an offensive stereotype, so it doesn’t really bother me.

Johnson, on the other hand, is almost a carbon copy of Bob from The Dresden Files…which is fine by me, because Bob is freaking hilarious. Johnson’s a little less lecherous than Bob, but he has the same dry British wit and the same know-it-all function in the plot as he guides Garcia through the underworld and its bizarre twists and turns.

Johnson has a leg up (so to speak–he’s just a talking skull, after all) in that beyond simply dispensing advice, Johnson acts as Garcia’s partner in battle, transforming into a torch, various guns, and even a motorcycle. As Garcia puts it, Johnson is the right tool for every job, which cements his position as one of my favorite sidekicks in video game history.

The villains of the piece don’t get much characterization, but they’re so ridiculous they’re memorable regardless; from the foul-mouthed flying demon Stinky Crow (whose only line of dialogue is screeching “FUCK YOU!” at the top of his lungs) to opera singer Justine to Fleming himself; they all stand out as worthy, memorable antagonists through style and presentation alone.

The only real problem member of the cast is Paula herself, who is the definition of objectified in this game. She’s reduced to a plaything for the demons (being graphically murdered on screen more times than I care to count), and a trophy for Garcia to rescue, though it’s clear Garcia genuinely does love her.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? 'Cause she does.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? ‘Cause she does.

Still, I have to think that Grasshopper knew exactly what they were doing with their portrayal of Paula, given that they flipped the gender roles in their next game, Lollipop Chainsaw, by having protagonist Juliet using her helpless boyfriend Nick as a literal object for solving puzzles. It feels more like Grasshopper is deliberately playing with tropes here, rather than playing into them.

This notion is cemented later on in SotD when Paula becomes homicidally furious at Garcia, both for his failure to save her from being butchered over and over and for putting her in such a horrific position in the first place. As such, it almost feels like a deconstruction and commentary on gender relations in video games…once you look past the weirdness, psychological horror and lewd jokes, anyway.

Shadows of the Damned is a really interesting game from a design standpoint, in that it’s the brainchild of three prominent developers with their own unique styles. On the one hand, you’ve got Suda51, but on the other hand, you have Shinji Mikami, best known for his work on the Resident Evil games, and on a third, mutant hand, you’ve got Akira Yamaoka (most famous for his work on Silent Hill) doing the sound design.

So here you have a developer known for zany action games working with two of the biggest icons of horror gaming on a single project. You’d expect the result to be a disjointed mess, but oddly enough, SotD may be the most cohesive, polished title Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture have produced.

"Polished" here being a relative term.

“Polished” here being a relative term.

The core gameplay borrows very heavily from one of Mikami’s most beloved games, Resident Evil 4, copying its third-person over-the-shoulder camera view and shooting mechanics very closely. Like RE4, SotD has the player moving Garcia with the left analog stick, moving the camera and aiming with the right stick, readying his gun with one shoulder trigger and firing with another. It even uses the sprint button, dodge roll and melee mechanics popularized by RE4.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying I do not like the Resident Evil series, for a variety of reasons. And yet, even though the controls are virtually identical, I like the control scheme so much better in SotD than I do in its predecessor. I think it works much better here; SotD isn’t nearly as stingy with ammunition as RE4 (the only times I ever ran out were during a few protracted boss fights) and the aiming is much more accurate (it helps that Johnson projects a laser sight in all of his gun forms).

Combat in SotD is based almost entirely on gunplay; Garcia does have a melee attack where he can use Johnson (in his torch form) to bash enemies if they get too close, but it does no real damage. Demons need to be dispatched using Johnson’s gun forms, either by riddling them with ammunition (which comes in the form of demon bones, teeth and skulls, rather than bullets), dropping them to the ground by shooting their limbs off and then finishing them off with a stomp attack, or by shooting them in the head. The melee attack is only used for pushing enemies back if they get too close (it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot the demons at point-blank range), or to rid them of a protective coating of Darkness.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

Similar to Allen Wake and a few other games, SotD has a Light and Darkness mechanic, where demons will sometimes be coated in the Darkness of the Underworld. Demons coated in Darkness are invincible, and their protective shield must be stripped before they can be damaged. This is accomplished in one of two ways, either by hitting the enemies with Johnson, or by shooting them with a Light Shot from Johnson’s gun forms.

There are also times when an area will be flooded with Darkness, which not only makes the demons invincible, but also will begin to drain Garcia’s life after a short time. Sometimes Garcia simply has to run through a Darkness-filled corridor before it kills him, but other times he’ll have to dispel the Darkness by using his Light Shot to shoot a mounted goat head (per Johnson, goats are a natural source of Light).

Of course, demons don’t like Light very much even when they’re not coated in Darkness; a Light Shot will stun them temporarily for easy dispatch (some enemies can only be killed this way), and demons will often store Light in conveniently placed, highly unstable barrels, which will explode and severely damage nearby demons when shot. The Light Shot can also activate lanterns to improve visibility, and prompt land-bound angler fish to guide Garcia through darkened areas.

Again, I am so not kidding.

Again, I am so not kidding.

As previously mentioned, Garcia only has Johnson and his own wits at his disposal to fight the hordes of the underworld, but luckily, that’s all he needs. Johnson has three gun forms he can take, a pistol that fires demon bones (called, appropriately enough, the Boner), a shotgun-like form that fires demon skulls, and a machine gun form that fires demon teeth. The guns and their respective boxes of ammo are color coded (red for pistol, green for shotgun and blue for machine gun), allowing the player to easily tell what gun they have equipped and what ammo just dropped in a hectic firefight. It’s a bit “gamey,” but it works well.

Johnson’s gun forms can be upgraded as the game goes on by acquiring blue gems from boss demons, with each upgrade unlocking new functions and increasing firepower (the Boner upgrades to a Hot Boner, and subsequently, a Big Boner), and the guns’ parameters, as well as Garcia’s health, can be upgraded with red gems (“Performance enhancers! Very illegal!”) found in the environment or purchased from the game’s half-demon merchant, Christopher, using the game’s currency of white gems. Christopher also sells ammunition and drinks, the health recovery items of the game, though you can also find booze in the environment or purchase it from vending machines.

SotD settles into a pretty comfortable rhythm of moving from fight to fight while solving any puzzles that get in the way, though it’ll occasionally throw the player a curve in the form of a side-scrolling shooter level, turret level (shooting at giant demons with the aforementioned Big Boner), or demon bowling or pachinko, which are pretty typical of Suda51 titles.

Grasshopper tends to have an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to game design, where if they have a cool idea for a level or a sequence, they’ll stick it in regardless of how well it meshes with the game overall. Sometimes this can lead to a disjointed (if fun) experience, but in SotD it feels very cohesive and fits well in the game’s oddball vision of Hell.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

This is still a game about Hell, though, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs. In between the zany non-sequiturs, dirty jokes and references to movies like Evil Dead and Ghostbusters, there’s some genuinely unsettling imagery and horror to be found, usually in the form of something gruesome happening to Paula, who is repeatedly killed off in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The violence, gore, and dark, cloying atmosphere serve to make SotD as effective at horror as it is at humor.

From a visual standpoint the game is dark, gothic, and makes effective use of the light and shadow motifs. The character and monster designs are all visually interesting and well-rendered. It’s worth mentioning that the game was made using Unreal Engine 3, which is the kind of thing that ordinarily makes me roll my eyes–UE3 was a plague on the last console generation, giving us a ton of games full of texture pop-in, dodgy framerates, physics glitches and screen-tearing. But Shadows of the Damned lacks most of the hallmarks of a UE3 game; in fact, I dare say it’s probably the best-looking UE3 title I’ve seen on the PS3. So I really have to give Grasshopper props for using the engine well when so many other studios didn’t.

I’ve already touched on the voice acting, but the rest of the sound design is equally impressive. The score by Akira Yamaoka is haunting and evocative, blending a wide range of styles and genres that seem like they shouldn’t belong together but somehow fit the game perfectly. The sound effects are top notch, and the whole arrangement works wonderfully on a surround sound system, enabling you to hear demons sneaking up from behind or objects like goats or baby locks needed for solving puzzles. It’s extremely immersive and really helps tie the game together.

Though it's not recommended as a feeding "how to" for new parents.

Though it’s not recommended as a feeding “how to” for new parents.

In summary, Shadows of the Damned is a truly unique game. In a crowded field of same-y shooters and zombie games, it brings some unique, polished gameplay, fun and horrifying writing and a truly memorable game world to the table. I can honestly say I’ve never played anything quite like it, and that’s not something I get the chance to say very often (unless I’m reviewing a game about dolphins).

Well, October’s not even halfway over yet, and I’ve already gone through Hell. I guess next I’ll have to go somewhere even worse. Join me next time as I take a trip to a little resort town on Toluca Lake…