Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 review — Kill Screen

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is as grotesque as it aims to be

I reviewed Lords of Shadow 2 for Kill Screen. I had a fair bit of fun with it, but there’s no question that it’s a significant step down from its predecessor. You should go read my review, and then instead of playing the game, you should go and watch Ravenous. It has Robert Carlyle; it’s about eating people; it’s just generally an excellent time.

Ravenous. Seriously.

Castlevania and obsessive series completion syndrome

I continue to have a problem.

I’ve written about the Castlevania games in the context of compulsive completionism before, but in the intervening months I’ve found that my desire for achievements has all but vanished–a fact that can be explained mostly by the construction of a new PC (the first I’ve ever built myself, and the only one I’ve ever had remotely capable of playing new games!). When one’s “permanent record” is distributed over more than one system of merit badges (in my case now, XBox achievements AND Steam achievements), the weight that either one carries is dramatically reduced.

Whereas before, I could feasibly delude myself into thinking my XBox history to be a complete record of my interaction with modern games (I was somehow able to rationalize away all of the handheld games I’ve consumed), now this conceit is too far-fetched for even me to consider.

So! Cured, right? No more compulsive need to play everything!

I played this last week:

castlevaniagbbox…and this:

belmontsrevengeboxThese are… objectively terrible games. Really, plainly unfit for consideration on anyone’s “to-play” list. Aside from their wickedly awesome early-90’s box art, they’re not good for much at all.

And yet I didn’t just sample them– I played them to completion. It took me approximately ninety tries to beat Dracula in Castlevania: The Adventure.

What excuse do I have for myself? I guess I don’t. Like I said, I think I have a problem.

My real mistake, from the outset, was creating a Google Doc titled “Castlevania games I have played” and compiling a list of the entire series (including the Game Boy spin-off Kid Dracula, because, let’s remember, I have a problem). I bolded the games I’d beaten and italicized the games I’d sampled but never played to completion.

And then I looked at all the titles left and said, “yeah, I could probably manage those.”

Why?! Why would I do such a thing? The truth of the matter is that all the list told me, at the outset, is that I’d beaten pretty much all of the good Castlevania games. I’ve beaten Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow and Dracula’s Curse. I’ve beaten Portrait of Ruin and Circle of the Moon and the original Castlevania. I’ve even beaten my fair share of the mediocre games, like Lament of Innocence and Harmony of Dissonance and Stampede of Elephants. (Okay, I made that last one up. But if it existed, I probably would have beaten it.)

When I looked at that list, the first thing that I should have seen was the good Castlevanias that I haven’t yet played. I should have said to myself, “Self, you haven’t yet sampled Order of Ecclesia, which is supposed to be pretty great. Nor have you played Curse of Darkness, which is supposed to be the best of the 3D lot before MercurySteam came along and really got it right with Lords of Shadow. Why don’t you track down one of those?”

But instead, what I did was look at the list and think: “Hey, those Game Boy Castlevanias are probably pretty short. I bet I could knock a couple of those out real quick and be that much closer to having played them all.” Then, I invested multiple hours in doing so. Those are hours I’m not going to get back.

Castlevania games are not Pokemon. There is no reward for catching them all.

Actually, is there a reward for catching all of the Pokemon, besides bragging rights? Maybe it’s better to say that Castlevania games aren’t Stars of Destiny.

And the worst part of all of this is that I know I have wasted my time, I know I should have done something else. And yet I still feel a twinge of pride at having bolded those two bullet points on my list. Congratulations, Nate. You’ve invested the time to beat two terrible games. Achievement unlocked!

Possibly the only thing I can say in my defense is that the remorse at having wasted my time compelled me to drop a couple bucks on Rondo of Blood for the Wii Virtual Console, which is an objectively awesome game and well worth my time (and yours).

I tell myself that my desire to play as many games as possible comes from a place of wanting to be “well played,” of wanting to foster an intimate understanding of the medium by attempting to expose myself to as much of it as possible, but I’m not entirely sure that I’ve furthered that ambition by playing these two mediocre platformers from the early 90’s. Maybe it’s possible that we can talk intelligently about games we haven’t played.

Maybe I shouldn’t have spent that dollar on Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night for iOS.

 

 

 

Colossatron: Massive World Threat review

Colossatron just wants to watch the world burn”

I reviewed Halfbrick’s newest trinket, Colossatron: Massive World Threat for Kill Screen. It’s a whole lot of fun for not very much money! You should probably steer clear of the microtransactions, though. Yikes.

The Backlog — 2013

I played a lot of games this year– a fair number of new ones, and a fair number of games from the backlog. Briefly, here are some thoughts on the most important games I played this year that weren’t actually released this year:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Yes, I held out against my friends’ constant barrage of recommendations for nearly a year, but I did finally get around to starting XCOM, and yes, it is amazing and compelling and heartbreaking. I hope to be through the game within the month, and then again on Classic Ironman, and then I will probably buy Enemy Within when it goes on sale on Steam and oh dear do we see now why I held out for so long?

Spec Ops: The Line

After reading Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless, I knew I had to play Spec Ops. And boy, was that a good decision. What a dark, unsettling, and yet deeply enjoyable game. It doesn’t quite succeed at being the “Apocalypse Now of videogames,” but it certainly asks some great questions about a player’s participation in violence. I don’t even know if it purports to have answers–but oof, those endings. Yikes.

Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracles

It’s a shame that the Professor Layton games will never get traction with those who don’t dig their primary mechanic, because it’s a continual delight to me how much they invest in their characters (and their melodrama). Each new entry manages to offer some real, personal stakes to the Professor and his apprentices, and to help them grapple with each new puzzle is a charm unlike most everything else gaming has to offer.

The Walking Dead, Season One

Oh man. Oh man. *sigh* Wow. How about that finale, huh?

The World Ends With You

Why in Heaven’s name isn’t Square Enix giving us more new IP? Bravely Default excepted. (On that note, I’m very excited for Bravely Default.)

 

There have been others, I think, but those five are the ones that really left their mark on me this year. I missed enough of the best games of 2013 that I imagine my backlog will be quite full for the year to come!

 

 

Interview with Jordan Fehr and Rich Vreeland

Personal FX: The Benefits of Being an Indie Sound Designer

Hey, I interviewed Jordan Fehr (sound designer for Super Meat Boy, among others) and Rich Vreeland (composer for Fez, among others) to see what life is like as an indie sound designer. It just went up at The Escapist.

 

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Hey! Apologies for the hiatus. I have been writing for other places.

My newest article went up at Kill Screen yesterday. It’s about Mario, his legacy as “Jumpman,” and how he’s been at the center of defining what it means to jump in a videogame. Go check it out!

 

Grand Theft Auto V as grotesquerie

 

Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.

I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.

I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.

The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.

Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.

In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.

In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.

It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.

Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)

These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).

But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.

As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)

GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.

Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.