I've let too much time pass between playing this and writing my review, and I'm horrible about taking notes on my experience, so I won't try to articulate at any length something in depth. So in short:
It's a cute game that kind of feels like the generic version of the big studio "polished, well reviewed, might be nominated for but would never with GOTY" but on an indie scale. It offers no surprises whatsoever, is so pick up and play if you're familiar with isometric controls, has basically no difficulty in it at all, and has a few memeable moments of quaintness. It's so easy to consume that Death's Door could be administered via IV.

For me, this was a palate cleanser game, so to really try and consider it as an entity apart from my personal decision to play it as something which isn’t a proper exegesis of its own identity, instead, using it as a functioning way to return to my own personal levelling point, would be dishonest and kind of insincere criticism. So rather than trying to suss out successes and failures, contrasting them inherently with what they saddle up beside in the mix abreast each other, I’ll just write down a few of the things that I liked about Curse Crackers, from my experience and what I’ve got going on, as well as from what is just text within.
- Normally, I hate the “uWu”, anime, naive girl squad as roster for a video game; I think it’s profoundly embarrassing in Nier, grossly exploitative in any the various Gacha games that spend their unscrupulously earned profits on solely advertising and Viagra, and a consistently mild irritation in games like Momodora, Signalis, and Unsighted. Curse Crackers kind of got through my distaste for this character design though, and in a way that I wouldn’t have expected from the promotional material surrounding the game. The banner splash on the store page is exactly the kind of grossly immature and perverse fetishization and objectification expected from a lot of games which opt to use modern anime styling: breasts half hung out, swooping hair used as tentative covering, enormous eyes set into faces untouched by any age or experience; this store page is, however, basically the only place this caricatured imagery will appear. In the game proper, due to the pixelation of the Gameboy borrowed rendering, everything about the characters, both their sprites in play as well as their portraits, are so nebulous in their approximation of human forms that they can’t rely on titillation to be appreciated. So, in place of that overdone farce, the animation is mostly used, with the weird proportions of anime as groundwork, to effect a very silent film era comedy. Instead of telling jokes that cause the character portraits to sweat, drool, and blush (as done in the “jokes'' of some of the ignoble cousins to this aesthetic), the humour in this game comes from the procedural setting up of a situation, with the clarity of the level art also being a high spot for the game, interacting with the character stretching into tableaus from Hellzapoppin, or from goofishly oafing around mundane spaces like The Tramp, or deadpanning to the camera like Buster Keaton. Even the character costumes that one can unlock through play are much more Abbott and Costello than Honey Pop - silly play dress up as one winks at the audience instead of fulfilling a vastness of sexual reduction (it helps that Belle actually wears costumes and not, like, a tie and a hat signifying ‘business’ over pasties).
- Maybe I’m in kind of a low play sort of place, but the fact that this game can be breezed through without worrying about jump precision or frame perfect double jumps or wall clings on pixel exact collisions is so refreshing. I love a maso-core platformer - like, gimme 1001 spikes while recovering from surgery: I’ll feel loved - but I really didn’t need this month a game goading me into deleting it. I know that some people will play this when they are looking to drench themselves in sweat and build up their thumb calluses (and I might have felt the opposite to how I do now were I looking for that kind of game as well), but it felt so good to just talk on the phone with my mom and mindlessly ace these levels.
- Similar to the last point, but I love hit-the-boss-3-times fights right now. A good health bar battle of attrition smackdown has a title for accomplishment that is more difficult to deliver with a simpler design, such as that in Curse Crackers, for achieving victory that pervades this easier route, but I think that when catering to this feeling of overcoming has gone from a design goal that can be nuanced to a routine part of 2020s game design skinner boxing: it’s a part of the loop to feed engagement, not necessarily the peak of coalescing goals which have been weaved throughout other various components of the game. The 3 hit model is more deployed as a little topper - almost superfluous to the actual experience of play. Curse Crackers uses its bosses almost more as showing off the clarity that can be achieved by increasing the allowable maximum size of their model scales, again reinforcing comedy in the possibility afforded by how things are rendered. Something about stomping on a skeleton who has a mohawk growing from the bone of their skull three times (interspersed with an extremely stripped back Guitar Hero) keeps the pace flowing, keeps the joke from growing stale, keeps the mood light, and allows for a little art flex on the dev’s side.
A ton of this game is forgettable: the dialogue is extremely skimmable, the sense of place is pretty nil, the puzzling is non-existent, and any mechanic or system outside of the platform and throwing is tagged on without purpose. But it was so exactly what I needed, I can’t help but be happy with the time I spent in this fun little circus.

I have nothing much to say about the design, history, artistic merit, thematic resonance, or any plumbable topic of depth with which a person trying to conceive of something meritorious inherent to Mario, Bowser’s Fury specifically but the general statement stands, which may be drawn on for fuelant to inspire criticism. 3D Mario games generally, with the elsewise brand expressions being as a whole still encompassed but to a lesser degree, move me not at all to thrill or agonise; they do not deposit me to a prolonged convalescence from rapture nor a disappearing into mist that arises some self doubt; the antics in do not put before me a self which I can see as bettered or worsened. I can think of nothing in myself to pull from play to paper other than surmising that games, with their inset holding of many excellent offerings of Mario, which are so consistently fruitful and nutritious, showing in their prodigious production no sign of overflowing the cellar nor going bad in storage, are still in a period (which they may never leave from either external pressures or internal transfigurations) of such infancy that there manages a dominant hold of an entire orbiting shape of their format, medium, expressionistic vocabulary - however else expressed - which is composed of an idea which is sterile, contained, utterable only in relation to itself, and which controls the traffic of anything which has sprung up in the ecosystem it has hardened to externalities but softened to itself.
In the wake of the Mario movie’s enormous success, dwarfing likely any other single Mario property’s profits by a daily increasing margin, the comparative draw on the dire shape of film audience ability to be met en masse and the enormous accessibility of games to the PC game demographic has, for me, been recast. Whereas The Mario movie has now made more money than the entire filmographies of some of the greatest filmmakers (possibly even more than the entire film industry in some directors’ countries of origin), the film industry, with all its structural and cultural issues, has been able to establish the bedrock for possibility and what contrasting heights and lows are possible outside of any singular name or film; the Mario movie dwarfing in recognition Jonas Mekas by a margin of ∞:1 is not offerable as any miniscule shred of proof as being superior or in anyway equally significant to the artistry possible within the medium. In games, that may never be possible. To talk about the entire etymology of not just the verb titles, but the actions possible in describing those verbs outside of the magic circle, cannot be divorced from the IP which dominates its form’s facade.
Good or bad, Mario is Coca-Cola, Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Kraft Dinner.

Maybe it was incredible 40 years ago, when the idea of computerised representation of the world in abstract form was novel in a way now totally reversed to us, but I couldn't help feeling that I would be having so much more fun reading through a D&D expansion book by myself with a few dice to roll alongside my morning coffee.

I know that many people stare directly into the face of survival game progression systems - passive income systems, market manipulation tactics, little woodchopping/pickaxing/fishing improvements - without flinching, but when I see grossly monolithic games composed of 1000s of intricately laddered scaling ‘hoe the ground faster so you can hoe the ground faster’ mechanics, I go mad. I think what others see as holy and that which I see as damning is a kind of mercurial thing which manifests depending on tolerance, or, maybe more scathingly, depending on whether one can see themselves as the operator of any of the many assembly belts that develop within these games, or as the sorry, oblivious until-too-late, thing being carried into the maws hungry at the end of the line. It may be a patience thing; it may be an attention thing; it may be a matter of whether you fall into the idea of games as a pursuit vs. leisure thing. If I am to diagnosis what it is in myself that retreats from survival automation games or their mechanics in migration, I would say that it falls under the purview, or compulsion, of endstate necessitation specific to my type of gaming psychographic: I need to see a conclusion which satisfies play theses, which fulfils themes offered, which sees the change occurred over the playthrough as something more than pure refinement and process evolution. It’s an embarrassing flaw in my critical ability, but I will never see, adequately, the merits of the design in something like Stardew or Factorio because what I am compelled by internally being intrinsically counter to the preeminent occupation of those games.
Now imagine those mechanics are taken out of their vacuums, allowed the possibility to repeat ad infinitum as is demanded by the genre, only to have them encroach an offer of cessation of play with a thematic completion derived from the greatest, in scope, possible expression of fully consuming oneness? That’s more my speed. Dredge’s scale is the work of balancing uneven juggling - on one hand, the climax of the game eludes to grander things than are possible to render within the scope of representation within play or plot (something which may have even failed to form for Lovecraft when he was pioneering the modern form of cosmic horror, encumbered as he was by human language, narrative, and their dual formulation, as well as the drawing of the horrors represented from petulant and embarrassing human fears rooted in bigotry), and on the other hand, the scale of the game’s economy is minute in comparison to genre stalwarts like Stardew, Terraria, or Don’t Starve, which seek to take up the world entire of their respective zealots. While it is possible in Dredge to endlessly fish, fill out logs, or find ever bigger translucent carps or wider vortices of collapsing squid, there is only, after filling the other human desires on the islands, the Sisyphean reason to do so: as a knowingly meaningless human task that is set before you - one which may or may not be pleasing to enact. Continue on in your little steamer, drop your little lines or nets, even use your little enchantments disdainfully bestowed to grease the works of your plaything tools; the ocean continues on forever and the fish replenish and the mongers of baubles and bass have depthless pockets, but as the smallness of the tasks become obvious, and as the painted picture of futility is realised with the boundaries of the map, the idea of something greater looms. Suddenly each act, acts which in games of pixelated chemistry seek to make the work of intricate paints on a vast canvas operate beauty on the macro and micro, the pigment and the impression, which fail to represent anything at all at their remove, become the little strokes of a paranoiding bedlamite - or should I say, they become the acts of a institutionalised person being shown how increasingly representational their scrawls are.
Fishing amidst the depths is a bit obviously crass, given how the Old Ones are so often made out in their tentacles and lanterned rows of teeth. Of course, cosmic horror is a crass thing told when we realise that, in its fiction, we are the scatological elements that must be cleansed to sanitise the upset order. Such is the obviousness of the metaphor and of the grotesqueries of Dredge, to its benefit: we are tilling the evershifting slosh, uncompromising and capricious, so foreign to our humanity (unlike that stolid earth, so thoroughly tamed), and realising the demands of its creatures and their dealings. Dredge shows the small ways we may transgress - bounties of ripe and succulent meats (nevertheless poisoning and changing the people with even the smallest doses of the ocean), detritus that adorns with broken rules of order by shining clearly, salvage that stupidly convinces some reinforcement despite its being born from pulling apart the already dashed - and makes a masterful journey of little tasks, even small victories against pain, which nonetheless arc towards the impossibility of being one in the monopneuma; the which of things that contains all that can be. It seems, to me, to be a small inkling that can be sewn into the designs of survival/base-building/resource farming games revealing what the actions of these games may be building, what may be behind those cages of chickens or bundles of wood. Were there less here to show the scope of those kinds of systems, it would feel too hollow a representation, something that is a mere fooling at comparative quality; if there were more than there is, it would fail to be dwarfed by the incomprehensible scope of its completion.
I’m trying to be a bit light on the details of play because Dredge gets by on mood as much as play. In the end, the gaminess of it all, which really only takes over the micro narratives and not the overarching plot nor the player actions, can show a few cracks in the facade that may or may not ruin the degree to which you might sympathise with the pathology of the player character’s ending state of mind. That all has to come at the pace of play, which comes with the pace of play elements revealed, which reinforce the obvious enough mood from the bareness of a game named “DREDGE”. If the idea of dredging, in every sense, makes enough hint in your twinging for annihilation, whether it be from you unto the trout population or from the great trout in the sky unto the earth, then hopefully this little creative writing blunder-about can sell you on the idea that the least character invested mechanical genre, a game type whose most beloved entry tries to package factory farming and diamond mining in the adornment of ‘escaping to and connecting with nature’, has managed to eloquently and succinctly package these mechanics into a narrative that demands them.

Finally, games will get the respect they deserve

Every six months or so it feels like we get a new ‘prestige’ roguelike that has aims to set itself amongst the, very heavily and only somewhat arbitrarily, entrenched canon composing the genre’s royalty: Isaac, Spelunky, Darkest Dungeon, etc. Once in a while a game does make it up to the endlessly listed and recommended (less to be admired than to be routinely ripped off and repainted) ‘best roguelikes of all time’, such as the comparatively recent entries Hades or Into The Breach, but on the whole, the rotation is pretty well stuck. So in this bi-annual cycle, we see a game generate initial buzz, show promising art (or more specifically, show highly dynamic sprite effects), enter into a well received period of early access; after some dozen articles heralding aplomb before release roll out the red carpet, the game comes out, gets fully wiki-ed, then dumped into the pool of soon to be Epic giveaways. General reviews are positive of course, and if it’s a real winner of a game, a somewhat active subreddit recycling the same stock image memes (as well as the compulsory poorly done game mascot tattoo) may bubble up with 1000 members, but in comparison to the promise of forever games offered in whole by the rotation of genre bests, the new contender is DOA.
Have a Nice Death is kind of the sugary sweet rush that these games-which-hang-dearly-to-the-2010s usually provide taken to the highest level. It has Dead Cells ‘meta’ progression in its arsenal, FTL style course charting, Gungeon room presetting and environment familiarity, Hades quick combat, and, of course, Isaac-like overpowering. Nearly every moment is ripped straight from the most dopamine saturated seconds of the games which have influenced it: from unlocking new weapons to watching the fantastic enemy animations stretch to opening secret rooms and finding run clinching heals, rarely can a second go by that doesn’t fully captivate the player in a way that overdrives the referenced feeling derived from the best of the genre. So much as a game can be a highlight reel (which hopefully is how I’ll feel come Last Call BBS), HaND plays the hits and plays them loud.
Being that, it coheres into well seasoned mush, going down so smooth that all the texture it borrows from better games feels like grit instead of substance. It’s hard to say if roguelikes are at a point in their period of preeminence that they have any more to comment on the genres which surround them, but so much now are the offerings of devs games which merely have things to say about other roguelikes; the nature of incest and commentary may be intertwined in the genre, I can’t say in this review, but the line is blurring regardless of whether or not it’s a technical architectural boundary or a policed DMZ. I think that there is an actual issue with upholding a canon of games to which all newcomers must compare, as if games must add being made a decade earlier to the things they have to be - beautiful, fun, touching, exciting, endlessly replayable, cheap - but that roguelikes were initially gesturing to the plasticity of systems boundaries in genres which had highly bound possibility spaces was something which those early roguelikes took as given, and which current roguelikes seem to take as poisoned well water.
So completely relieving was the cool air of Spelunky HD back in 2012, or Flash Isaac in 2011, to the tedium of level design which had become a sickening curative to actual mechanics mastery, a blight which saw platformers reduce themselves to being a game composed of knowing which turns to decelerate on, that it had to become an obvious manifesto for how designers could treat gamified spaces (and indeed, Spelunky the book is that manifesto). That all the games which we consider the GOATs of roguery were in some way reinterpreting the syntactical elements of the systems codified in older games is not merely a coincidence of their greatness but a necessary fact to those achievements.
HaND treats the slippery sandstone of roguelike structure as the structure upon which its entire house is built: if Gungeon or FTL are something like Minka built atop a marble foundation, then new roguelikes seem to be constructing Camelots on quicksand. Every enemy in HaND seems to be designed with the quantum reality of necessitating its existence wherever it shouldst be placed by the hand of RNJesus, such that they have no ingratiation to the environment nor to those enemies around them; they must be ready to plant their feet, but never roots, wherever they are so that they may be dispatched and engaged by the wide variety of weapons in the wide variety of rooms open to the player. It’s all jagged edge with no grip. Similarly, the RPG skill trees are all progression with no meaningful choice: one does not so much build a Reaper with an attuned eye to damage types or range preference or synergistic possibility, but instead is sent up a series of exponentially heightened stairways of damage output, defying the base play with continuous upscaling but without actual change in any way to how interaction works. It’s all Diablo numbers but without any representation of those numbers externally. Just the same is the architectural aesthetic; ever-shifting, always surprising, endlessly roiling out - never assuming a nature which is transgressed, inhabited, or repellant. Where we see Hades or Darkest Dungeon play through highly gamified yet enormously revealing spaces, we see HaND reduce itself to 90 degree run offs, damage zones, and absentee character situation.
The comparison to the betters is not to say that HaND does all these things worse than the better games in its genre, because in the second to second play, it holds up just as well in the hands to any of the best in the genre. It is to show that while it draws from the “shifting walls” of roguelikes for purpose in placing assets and mechanics into its works, to the obvious detriment of those elements substance, the previous games of import pulled those elements of meaning and freed them from the constraints of single use potentiality. FTL freed node based travel and weapons trading from min-maxing, allowing the danger of run ruining and steamrolling mechanics to play freely outside of scum-saving and narrative destruction. Hades freed hack and slashing deadly combat and character ingratiation from the dissonance of death and retry seen in straightforward narrative. Spelunky freed inert single use mechanics and level design from bloat in platformers pushed out in their yearly series to run free, anarchically, into total interaction between themselves and the player. HaND sees each of these elements, unrestrained from their inhibitions of origin, and unthinkingly grabs them and smashes them all together into its own highly calcified bounding box: they are all still wonderful in isolation, but in their original sources, they were never isolated.
Have a Nice Death is a fine game if you want to play it as you might a Super Mario 2 or 1001 Spikes. It will fill your few hours needed and wash down whatever leftover twitch reflexes keep rising to the back of your throat when playing untuned games less tightly controlled. But, it won’t enter any canons, change generally in evaluation, or be memorable next year or the year after that. And given that it was seemingly designed to do those three things moreso than it was designed to be a good game which stands on its own, it really can’t be called much more than a tepid failure.

Glad it got remade if not just so that people could play the story through for context, but also so that this could be more singular an experience for those who want to experience vicariously the design decisions of previous eras.

I usually find it quite simple to read out my plaudits and detractions for a game, being that the personal proof of experience, which isn’t to say objective fact but perspective solidified, is able to grasped by something so plain as, “the jumping mechanics feel bad to me because this repetitious action hadst be performed with this infelicitous navigation of physics, physical manipulation, and physical space, which sums herein endlessly to this reified proof.” There are always people who can, by their own personal experience, take those exact parts and make the claim opposite to yours, and sometimes with adequate persuasion and passion in turn reveal an underlying gratification that went uninvestigated in the personal play which led to the negative expression in the first place; I think this is, for many people, the experience of games such as Rain World or Loom (or Bioshock Infinite if one is to look at this process mirrored). This is a foible of design, but it’s quasi-state is part of what makes game design, and games criticism, such a delightful pairing in the medium: the experience is shown to be as interpretable as any classical text, yet has a greater breadth of variation than most static art objects. Sometimes designers produce things which are taken on their face as they are hoped; sometimes they are taken as done poorly the thing which the game rebuked is in itself rebuking; sometimes the game stumbles ass backward into a rebuke that is taken as sincere by players that the developer did poorly: the critical masses will accumulate, discourse, and try to win out all varying ‘proofs’ - and although there will never be a truth utterly determined in it, a great deal of beautiful things will be said, and a great deal of games will have promoted those beauteous statements with obvious stimuli.
The Sexy Brutale seems to me, and being such as it is, makes it difficult for me to read out my feelings with exactitude, a type of game which has that solidified perspective by design of the devs to be creating all components poorly to produce a poor thing so as to rebuke… the idea of logical deduction? Detection as a mechanic? Cohesive level design or play feel? It’s difficult to say; the murky sloppiness all comes across as very intentional, and the intentional outcome seems to be nothing less than arduous gawking at the stupidity of figuration, but that is so counter to the ideals of indie game development that it feels wrong to add it all up to pure pissantery from the devs to the players. Typically, or at least in the games which have come to rest at an upper register of indiedom, these smaller projects interpose a vision of an undug mechanical or thematic interaction that has glinted in the past mass excavations of AAA games, something which has hinted at complex degree but has only been used to forward a bland, unexamined platter of all flavours unsettled by mutual orgy between them. Such is this the tutorialising in Cultist Simulator, the scene to scene editing in 30 Flights, or the ‘difficulty’ in Getting Over It. What completely confuses me in The Sexy Brutale is its seeming garmenting of the syllogisms quietly supposed to systems of inquiry in games like Witcher 3 or L.A. Noire, which will proclaim detectives of the cast and the player but lead unto all discovery the play by way of checkmarks and button prompts. It brings this insulting brand of irrigation towards deductive fruiting, rightfully pointing out that for detection to be a game model, the player must be able to detect that which does not control their FOV, and instead of implementing a model of true P.I. playing, says “fuck it! why should any deduction be a trail of clues leading unto a discovery?” None of the murders solved herein are in any way characterised by intentions, by predilections of the character, nor by circumstances which they implicate themselves in unintentionally: they are instead rube goldberg contraptions that an askew painting starts and a rogue skewering magic routine ends. It has long been said that a good mystery will have its pieces laid out for the audience, and instead of assuming that those pieces should fit together into a picture of what occurred, the devs of Brutale thought they could just scatter those pieces across a mansion so that they might be assembled into a vorticist portrait of Sherlock’s member.
My other complaints are those which are obvious and presumably not contentious: the movement speed of the player is far too slow, the time travel mechanic is ridiculous and poorly implemented given how the devs lay out their world, the UI is counterintuitive to both typical conventions and the game’s own accommodations, and the horrible parody of cabaret from the 1920s is sickeningly uninvestigated (which I suppose reinforces the thumb up ass method of digging around) and kind of insulting in how its pastiche pays no homage whatsoever to the roots of how those aesthetics came to be, and how they ended up being ushered out by right wing populisms across the globe in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Thought I should give the series a chance after hearing nothing but praise for these games over the last few years; I understand why so many people love them, but yeah, not for me! The weirdness is not my kind of weird, and the seriousness isn't my kind of serious. Don't love combo based combat, kind of hate non-expressive roleplaying RPG mechanics, and the length of put down the controller cutscenes just kind of had me at an arm's length. Maybe it's great later on, but I know what isn't gonna go down smooth these days.

Unfortunately, Season does little to emphasise the nature of journeys outside of animating vast beautiful landscapes that conform to meanings that impress, homogeneously, the overwritten narrative laboriously pounded into your ears. The talkiness of the story, dully delivered by some sleepy performances that suffer from totally absent direction (or convincing character motivation), completely eats up any sense of player empathy with the characters; the vistas become postcards with absent scrawl on the back, written by a backpacker convinced of the cosmic significance of staying in hostels and eating "local cuisine" served out of tourist traps.
Normally I say, "verbs, not vibes" for designing the delivery of how a game should feel in conveying its tonality, but the aggressive nature with which Season commodifies its world through the gathering purpose (poorly framed as archival bedrocking, something which totally goes against the current efforts of archival practices wresting free of the nature of highly authored "cornerstones" of import in many institutions of the past) it builds all interaction around the vague, ethereal nature of journeying - literally, leaving things behind - is wasted on the acknowledgement of the game as a product. It's not the developers fault that game clipping and sharing is now a highly commercial enterprise external to games as art, but given the antiquity of that facet of community nowadays, they should have realised the optics and feel of such a scaffolded feel when moving through their spaces.
Spaces being here a very general term. The game is sidewalks: paths are enclosured, and any trying to feel less like a zoo animal will immediately bring more to mind the feeling of playing Super Mario Bros than Sable. You can follow motion through forward or back, but regardless of what you feel is pushing you in a direction, the developers do not allow the desires of the player nor of a player narrative to create expectation, payoff, or ambiguity of the journey outside of the highly rote, terribly cliched, experience.
And as a capstone, the animatic cutscenes have some of the worst examples of stealing the component parts of comics to "cut costs" I've ever seen in a game. The lettering is atrociously mechanised, creating a horribly ugly script that has no life or wit to its line, yet it draws all attention to it by being placed in awful MS paint ovals that consider not at all the composition of the frame they are put in. The models at rest in each 'frame' are not composed on beats of the scene, but at dim relaxations of muscle, taking all life out of the image, rendering the screen a puppet show lost for a puppeteer.

Sometimes you're depressed and you just need to help someone figure out their own murder, but like, with thirst.

I think I’m done with expecting things from summations, or rather, from explications of quality derived from experientialist assessment, in video games criticism. Time and time again, I hear someone or some article wax languidly on the pertaining of an ur-secret amalgamation to any game’s individual alchemy that renders a feeling of unique golden sublimity within software; washes of copper green roof tiling flaked away on the controller, colonnades, or keyboard - an unstiffening from historical input that has become a coral encrusted cloister of routine, religiously cycling through 1-1s or Dust 2s in place of rapture - that reveal the lithe and heavenly joisted, divinely scaffolded, intelligently designed liquid azure which creates the game of life under the crackling veins of half real, half gone painted cages. I hear this proselytising, from street corners and from the corners of the internet, and I rush to play Control because of The Ashtray Maze, or Titanfall 2 because of Effect and Cause, or Mankind Divided because of Prague. I sit in a pew, plug in for 6 hours to wait for that divine spark to reach me, and then once I pass through the sizzling whizz and shimmer of the Roman Candle’s burst, I am left like Eve and Adam and Michaelangelo: somehow apart, despite appearances, from that touch that seemed prevalent to others and made for us all. Maybe it’s beautiful, or maybe poorly restored, but it’s nevertheless the heavenly host hosted online.
That’s AAA gaming’s trick: made for everybody, delivered to every screen, and connected to the lower level of consciousness while being treated as nutrition came naturally intuited when really it is just ubiquitously conditioned. Nothing is challenging in a way that isn’t minute finger pushups, nor satisfying in a way that isn’t a set of exercises coming to their final repetition and mirror shewn form perfection: the rote exercise of wrapping templated interaction in the sheen of revolutionary systems design or narrative design is as shallow as wearing newly coloured shorts to assume a different degree of squat. And look, that all sounds very negative, but it’s not like this isn’t something which wasn’t built to be as it is: all mass market art has aimed for the middle, and much of the most commonly recognised masterpieces of art are these middle brow, carb and salt heavy, mass product ventures. These are movies like It’s A Wonderful Life or The Godfather, ballets like The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty, musicals like West Side Story and Les Mis, or games like RE4 and The Witcher 3: all are meant to hit low, hit hard, and connect broadly to get through on second base. Sometimes they are surprise home runs or go straight to the pitcher, but they are designed to get on base, that’s all.
The fact that everyone seemingly knows this, that we are being catered to in a way that explicitly shows that publishers (perhaps more so than devs, but probably not always) want to barely hold aloft the vessel of gaming above the watermark, is what brings me to finally recusing myself of any sort of stocking up expectation from the experiential praise AAA games get on release and in summation come December. Journalists and essayists who monthly extoll virtues and vices, cardinal sins and heavenly virtues, about the ur-tentpole delivering on expectations of not even property but on fulfilment of artistic attenuation, on the promise that the foundational inlay of profit generating internal ecology to the game is finally cohabitant, even dominated by, the accessorised partitioning (post the fact) of accessible humanity within the work do so with the knowledge of the vapid state of AAA games; the lack of identity, depth, or of empathy proffered overtly in these games weekly is met with such drastic extensions of one’s own powers of humanity that studios like Blizzard or Bethesda feel confident in offering flavourless mulch with the expectation that all necessary characterisation of their simulation will be filled in by the player. This has occurred for nearly every AAA game, from one source or another, since the turn towards prestige in the late aughts - all assumptions of character, pathos, or wit are now somehow granted to anything with enough fidelity to create a world which may hold its players seat of human courage, but can only, at best, render its own simulacra of such stillborn.
I’m not saying that any significant majority of the critical writing done on games from the AAA sphere of the medium is bad or dishonest, particularly not that writing which is able to articulate the sphere itself and why these highly sucralose rich products both work and appeal to wide demographics (I think William Hughes from the A.V. Club walks this line frequently with great aplomb), but I do think there is something regrettable about taking a primarily kinaesthetic experience like those listed above and transmuting both pathos and one’s seal of quality because the player was able to map on emotional strife and a conquering of such onto that experiential hurdle, all without the extension in return of the mechanics in the game to a actual thematic purpose, a la Spec Ops. Games should be able to render a language and introspection of quality which engages forcefully with the mechanical and interactive qualities inherent to it, not through sidelong implants of emotional turpitude perpendicularly inseminated, but head on and with appropriate function. Because the games listed above are not what we can, comparatively, call good due to their storytelling nor for their pathos, but most executively for their play, they are failing, in their minor ways, because they offer canvases for spreads of emotion and theme as such but ask the player to BYOB instead of providing nourishment on its own wonderful layout. As works in games ‘mature’, comparisons inflected within by AAA games own referential quality to media articles that are meant to inspire maturity and gravitas in comparison (looking at you MGS V with all that Moby Dick shit), the comparative nature of criticism must develop so as to draw out the cumulative quality, not reflect our own natures of complexity onto the games we play.
FINALLY, that brings me to Returnal. Embarrassingly, I’ve just put a good deal of personal opinion into what is supposed to be my overview of a game, mostly in reaction to a select few critics that I read both in anticipation for the game and in afterward help for the locution of my feelings Returnal elicited, but if this seems unsatisfying as appendix to read, let that contribute to my point. Returnal loops back into my point above as this: the game’s poorly mechanised roguelike structure, with the rote and underbaked narrative pinning its death and restart shuttle running, seems to surround a legitimately compelling, but obviously goofy and gamified play (which is to say gamified with hitboxes and gun mods and what else goes into the play, not the metaphorical layer of hell Selene puts over herself to justify the play. I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but when justifying your player character’s constructs of play within a narrative, herein the eternal penitence Selene’s delusions and guilt force on her through the play metaphor, the play metaphor needs to be justified yet again to the player; we engage in the play, not the delusion, so a further layer above needs to be accessible to us and not Selene.), but fails to, except for under highly specific circumstances, draw any useful or poignant meaning from the interactions between action and strictly narrative text.
The roguelike structure itself is probably the most significant issue in creating a playspace which goes through the gestation of a pregnant theme, despite it also being the aspect of Returnal’s design to note on how all the meta systems - gun stats, artefacts, consumables, parasites, etc. - to those most baked into the looping, which is to say the physics of Selene and her basic abilities to point, shoot, run, and jump; without the roguelike structure, the nature of almost everything that serves to progress play becomes utterly useless cruft, as well as functionless as iterating material to reconfigure and force usage. The roguelike structure is a monkey’s paw wish for game devs, one which allows for as broad as can be desired a system space: if a dev wants to add in 80 different interacting possible arms of their game, they can be assured that more, if not all, of those arms will be interacted with more consistently in a roguelike than in a strictly linear or open world game, simply because sometimes that mechanic will be all the player has on a run. The enormous, hugely hindering, flaw to this is that the mechanic, regardless of its name, function, art, or anything else above the game’s spreadsheet, is reduced to its function alone. When death is the truest end state of a mechanics use case, and as death is the functioning, one could argue insoluble, end state of videogame pathos, then all that is baked into giving the mechanics centred in a roguelike is lost. The ur-roguelike, Isaac, is so inculcated with this that oftentimes common parlance in its community denotes an item name in the lingua franca with its description, not its actual item label. Returnal seeks to bake around this nut with the narrative including a death inclusive meaning, as well as later on, the personal hell narrative. But this then doubles down on the foibles of roguelike structure. Not only is the genre so cemented with its expectations now, but if the player never or infrequently dies, as was my experience, then not only is the value of the typified roguelike mechanical arm stripped of its narrative weight due to the lack of death repetition (something which doesn’t happen so much with a game like Isaac, given that that game draws its narrative weight and iconography from emotions and recognition excited external to play), but also its mechanical weight as well. I never got to experiment with the roguelike possibilities, nor feel the true hell of unstable and chaotic ground, because I died to Phrike once, then steam rolled through the game with only two more deaths total, rendering both sources to possibly draw meaning from inert and barren.
There is also the general issue with the design of the consistent mechanics as well, not just in their nebulously justifiable narrative utility as Selene’s specific hell that is traumatically brought into being, but more specifically herein with how they mesh in the second to second play. There’s no getting past the readability of the levels, which inexplicably were seemingly designed to match the appearances of enemies in such a way as to give them complete camouflage in whatever environment they spawn in (enemies with tendrils are surrounded by anemone like plants, square and concrete enemies are ensconced in a brutalist architecture, etc.). This is an issue which feels like it shouldn’t have gotten past testing both for failing its lack of functioning for immediate play but also for the aggressiveness with which so many lit and moving textures tank performance, but also feels like it should have failed at the start of the project for how generally plain and common the designs are. Nothing really feels, in Returnal, like a unique and specific design, which if it were a pure narrative-free experience wouldn’t be anywhere near the issue it is, but for a highly localised and psychologically terrifying experience, one would hope that the tribulations faced would themselves reveal more about Selene as a character (and yes, they do later on, but in as equally a basic and unthought out way as the generic designs of the earlier, more rote sci-fi, way). The arena rooms themselves are frankly underbaked as well, not just in the too lacking of variety inset within the rotation of them to each zone - maybe 10-15 total per environment - but in how little they seem to complicate and excite possibilities of the mechanical base that is available to an everyday version of Selene in the game. Selene is, in fact, a very fun character to move around and shoot with. Actually, a brief slew of praise for Returnal, because I had a lot of fun playing through it, despite all that I’ve said above
- The amount of interesting cost/benefit choices offered up is incredible: on a minute to minute basis, the player is getting consistent possibilities for pain and pleasure that could knock the run into next gear (although if we’re being honest, unless you’re upping protection or damage, it isn’t usually worth any downside) or knock Selene on her ass. The pain/pleasure dichotomy is so powerful that it feels more of a promise on the Cenobites in Hellraiser than any of those movies ever did.
- Jane Elizabeth Perry’s VO for Selene, almost totally done in isolation of any other characters to draw reaction from, impresses more than any other AAA game’s performances from the last few years. It is a treat, and despite the bungling of the system narrative in my playthrough, carries weight across the entire play as something with genuine pathos.
- As above stated, the movement and shooting never feels anything less than incredible. So much weight is included and accounted for in every action - the shotgun nearly rips its barrel apart with every blast, the pylons screech with searing wounds, and Selene lands so coolly with earth shattering descents that I felt my knees give out with every impact. Kinaesthetic masterclass.
Anyways, all this praise is situated in rooms that don’t really need you to engage with any of the excellent bits, because tight concentric circle strafes will get the job done every time.
To bring this back to the beginning, I am nothing if not disappointed by Returnal. It’s not a bad game but it was talked about badly; the praise for its themes are dependent on highly specific play experiences, as well as on bringing an enormous amount of self implication to any given read that comes across as highly thought of the game. The trials of its design were underlaid in the frenzy that came in discussing the polish a AAA game brought to the already highly tuned roguelike formula, a formula which more suits the indie sphere which honed it to shining. This unfortunate discussion cycle damned my experience with the game, which I suppose was burdened in the concert I played it with my own naivete in expecting depth from a game released for $80. Really, you get what you pay for.

When all else failed, when the ability to craft narrative worth sleeping through, when the will to design enemy encounters didn't expand beyond funnelling idiotic soldiers through ugly bits of over modeled chain link fence and shrubbery, when the beauty of possibility in Cryengine found nothing worth representing than what had been more lushly shown in 8-bit and chunky polygons, why not simply lean on the fact that most computers can't run the game as your stand out achievement of gaming.
Crysis is the epitome of the grossly unpleasant and profoundly unthinking horde of shooters that represented the mass of late 00s gaming. I think it stands worse than any of its type that I have played, and would think it more poor still if it had anything within it capable of grasping onto that didn't fizzle and disappear the moment it is touched.

Software by and for idiot savants