The Witcher 3 is Kind of Trash

Back in mid-2019 I wrote an article about how I thought that Death Note, popularly considered one of the best anime out there, was kind of trash. It was disappointing – I love the premise but after the first few episodes it drops off a cliff and becomes a slog. Well, back then I wasn’t really expecting this to turn into a new series for the blog but I spent 2020 slogging through another piece of wildly popular media and I’ve got to say… The Witcher 3 is kind of trash. I happen to be writing this while Cyberpunk 2077 backlash is in full swing and I often hear the refrain “Someday Cyberpunk will be as good as The Witcher 3!”… which makes me not want to play it at all. There’s so much stuff that I low-key hate about this game which I really need to get off my chest, because I don’t understand why people are so enamoured with it.

The Open World

First off, the big new feature for The Witcher 3 was its open world and I have to admit that it truly is massive, sporting one enormous map for Novigrad, Oxenfurt and Velen, separate open maps for the Skellige Isles and Kaer Morhen (and Toussaint in the DLC), plus a couple smaller maps for White Orchard and Vizima. It’s an overwhelming amount of ground to cover and while I can understand why someone would be excited by this, it’s where some of my first issues with the came come in. First of all, open world fatigue has well and truly set in in the past few years, but I had already gotten sick of most open worlds by the start of 2011 with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. That’s the game that made me realize that, in most games, open world traversal sucks. Spending most of your playtime just trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible is such a boring gameplay loop and it was bad enough that I dropped Brotherhood (which I was otherwise enjoying) entirely. Since then I’ve often found myself getting tired of open world games with sluggish, restrictive and downright boring traversal options, to the point where I tend to avoid the genre entirely since you’re spending at least half your playtime just putting yourself through tedium in order to get to something interesting. Fallout 4, Far Cry Primal, even Metal Gear Solid V (which I loved at the time, but having to sneak past the same two or three boring outposts to get to any objective was frustrating) have left me tired by the end with me just begging to be able to reach my objectives and end the damn game already without dealing with endless open world bullshit. Compare this to Gravity Rush, a game where the act of moving from place to place is, in itself, a total joy. I hear that Spider-man captures a similar experience with its web-slinging mechanics – I haven’t played it so I can’t confirm, but I just offer these as examples of how getting from place to place can be fun in itself in an open world game rather than a constant, frustrating obstacle.

…which brings me to The Witcher 3. After the first couple hours soaking in the beauty of new location have worn out their welcome, traversal becomes boring at best and infuriating at worst. Need to get to an objective directly on the other side of a mountain range? Better hope you have found a fast-travel point that’s only, like, 600m away from the objective or you’re going to be stuck with two unappealing options – either ride your horse around the mountains or cross your fingers and hope that the game will allow you to climb over the mountain. Of course, if you choose to climb then the game will also force you do to this at walking speed and if you fall off the mountain you’ll die and have to do the whole thing over again after a lengthy loading screen. How fun! Sailing is also painfully slow, but nowhere near as slow as trying to swim from place to place. Better hope your boat doesn’t get sunk in the middle of the seas around Skellige!

To make matters worse, you’re likely to come across some manner of annoying enemy on your way from point A to point B. Random attacks by bandits, wolf packs, sirens, etc can make the world feel a bit more alive, but good God they quickly become a waste of time to encounter. I usually just moan and run away from wolves as fast as possible, but enemies like the sirens basically have to be fought because otherwise they’ll sink your boat and cause you even more wasted time. It can be thrilling if you come across a monster several levels stronger than you are since at least they’ll offer some challenge, but these are rare occurrences (unless you’re going out of your way to punish yourself).

On top of that, the open world in this game is loaded with points of interest marked on the map with a “?”. These things are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can be enjoyable and satisfying tracking these all down and filling up your map. Some of them are even super useful, such as the Place of Power spots. Unfortunately, most of these are open world busywork at best, or useless bullshit at worst. The majority of the points of interest are monster dens, bandit camps, hidden treasure and the like, which require you to hunt down a nearby cache or slay some bandits or monsters in order to get some rewards. Unfortunately, these rewards lose any sort of value within a few hours of gameplay. They don’t scale with your level so you’re going to be pocketing hundreds upon hundreds of useless weapons and armour which exist only to be broken down into parts or sold to merchants in order to get yourself a bunch of gold (which is, in itself, pretty useless as well once you’ve stocked up a few thousand crowns). Maybe the intent is that players aren’t supposed to try to complete all these points of interest and I’d even recommend looking up the Places of Power and skipping the rest, but I cannot stop going to them. I just have this obsessive compulsion to uncover every point of interest on my map and I don’t know which are useful and which aren’t so I don’t want to miss any. Skellige was the point where this hit its absolute worst, as there are dozens of identical smugglers’ caches hidden in the water, meaning that you have to sail for literal hours around the islands, killing sirens over and over again just to get a bunch of useless items that you’re just going to sell anyway. CD Projekt RED, sometimes less is more – cut the useless bullshit out, please. I get that this is partly my problem, but I really can’t help it and if CD Projekt RED are going to put such worthless content into their game then they deserve to take shit for it.

Inventory Management

Like I just said, 99.9% of the loot you get in this game is worthless crap. I mean, sure, you can sell it for coin that you have no practical use for after a few hours or break it down into crafting components which you’ll quickly be drowning in. It also doesn’t help that the vast majority of the loot you find in the world is clearly procedurally generated, uninteresting guff that exists just to fill out the world. Beyond this, the overabundance of loot leads to two big issues. First, it makes acquiring loot at the end of a quest or out in the open world feel unrewarding and nothing more than a boring chore. If I complete a quest and get a cool sword, I’d like to be able to use it, not go “oh, this is way weaker than the sword I crafted 10 hours ago”. Secondly, this contributes to this game’s frustrating inventory management. Most of this stems from the restrictive encumbrance mechanic. Like many annoying RPGs, a good chunk of your playtime in The Witcher 3 is going to be spent running back and forth to merchants because the loot you picked up put you one point over your encumbrance threshold and now you suddenly have to walk slowly across the world map. This just makes the traversal issues and unrewarding loot that much more frustrating, and this is compounded even more when you consider that encumbrance is totally arbitrary. Sure, some people may say “it’s more realistic!” or “it’s for immersion!” but both of those arguments are shot right out the window when Geralt can comfortably run around with dozens of swords, armour sets and saddles but then that one last flower pushes him over the edge. That doesn’t even take into account that several items don’t even have an effect on encumbrance, such as the hundreds of pieces of food that Geralt can carry at once.

To make matters worse, The Witcher 3 also features a weapon degradation system, because you weren’t spending enough time in your inventory already. On the one hand, I could see this being somewhat useful if the game was set up in such a way where degradation would force you to use other weapons until your favourites get repaired, but that just isn’t the case at all. After the first hour you’re almost always going to have a dozen weapon and armour repair kits on hand, not to mention that you can just go to a blacksmith and pay to get your gear fixed – it’s one of the few things actually worth paying gold for. Again, you could argue that this is about realism or immersion, but it’s just not fun. It’s not common enough to actually affect gameplay in any significant manner, which means that it’s nothing more than a pointless chore the game makes you go through. Seriously, just drop it, weapon degradation systems always suck.

Combat

Which brings us to the combat in this game. The Witcher 3 drowns you in options right out the gate. Not only do you have your actual sword fighting skills, but you also have access to five signs (aka, minor spells), a crossbow and an ever-growing collection of potions with varying effects. These are all improved as the game goes on, with you being able to put skill points into new techniques and upgrades for whatever abilities you want to focus on. Me? I put all my points into sword damage buffs and upgrading my favourite signs. These upgrades never felt particularly significant to me – like, sure, 25% more damage from sword attacks is probably making a difference, but I can’t say that I actually feel it. It wasn’t really until I got the charged heavy attack that I really felt like an upgrade was actually changing my playstyle any. It also doesn’t help that some options are just broken. The Quen sign in particular is so OP that it not only makes combat boring but makes me play lazily and treat it like a crutch. The very first upgrade gives you a one-hit shield which blasts back enemies and recharges quickly. This means that every fight I get into starts with me casting Quen, dealing damage and then taking a hit, backing off for two seconds til Quen recharges and then casting again. Rinse and repeat. Sure, there are other options available, such as buffing your potions (and spending even more time on inventory management!), getting limited-use out of new melee techniques, or applying damage buff oils to your weapons but… like, why? Unless you’re stupidly under-levelled against a tough enemy, you can coast by on all the crutches this game gives you – and I call them that because when the game suddenly takes them away from you (such as in fist fights or Ciri segments) you realize you now need to remember how to parry effectively or you’re going to get annihilated.

It’s cool seeing Geralt spin around and decapitate foes for the first couple dozen hours, but the combat in this game is just not good enough to sustain itself over the course of a hundred plus hours. As I said before, I dread coming across packs of weak enemies because they’re such a waste of time to deal with and that’s because most fights are stupidly easy. You either get one- or two-shotted by enemies more than five levels above you or you’re massacring everyone with ease. If you play like I do and try to complete as many side-quests as you can, then you’re going to be insanely over-levelled with very little effort, making most of the game’s quests a slog to get through. Like… could they not have implemented a level-scaling system, or anticipated that players would actually play their content, or something? I’ve read elsewhere that I’m not the only one with this issue, it’s like the game’s difficulty was designed for you to be only playing main quests and doing even a couple side quests throws the difficulty curve out of whack. And note that I’m playing the game on Blood & Broken Bones difficulty, so it’s a step up from the standard difficulty. I haven’t played Death March, but considering how mind-numbingly boring B&BB is I can’t help but think that it won’t make the game much harder.

Writing

For what it’s worth, the writing in The Witcher 3 is by far the best part of the game. Long after I grew bored of the combat and open world, I was still hanging on because I wanted to see what would happen next. There are also some fantastic stories and characters within this game, particularly the “Bloody Baron”, who is a textbook example of how to write a charming, sympathetic monster, and many of the side-quests have fully fleshed out stories that make them worthwhile to grind through. However, even the writing begins to wear thin over time and test my patience.

Sometimes I’ll decide “fine, it’s time to start getting the main quest underway again” and you try to get the story moving… only for some stupid, random bullshit to happen in the plot which halts all momentum and you have to deal with before you can move on, even though it’s less important than several of the side quests in the game. One annoying example of this is on Skellige when the plot has finally moved on and you’re ready to leave the island, all that’s left is that a king needs to get crowned. So you’re ready for that to be decided when, uh… bears attack the kingsmoot. What the fuck? I should mention that this kingsmoot is taking place in a guarded castle atop a seaside spire, so when this army of bears attacks it’s truly baffling. Then you’ve got to solve a mystery about who unleashed the bears at the kingsmoot and the person you decide to support in the search ends up being the king. Man, I was done with Skellige when this happened and was just ready to move on, but then this happened out of nowhere and felt like an annoying, uninteresting shark-jump that the game was dropping in my lap just to make the game that much longer.

The worst example of this narrative padding is definitely what happens after you complete Dandelion’s doppler play. You spend hours getting a play put together so you can put out a message to an ally who has gone into hiding and it all goes off without a hitch, hooray! You find the ally, he gives you info about Ciri and now you’re ready to move on with the plot… except immediately afterward someone randomly attacks Dandelion’s girlfriend Priscilla and leaves her near death! Oh no! So once again you have to solve a mystery that comes out of nowhere and halts the actual progression of the plot, except in this case the writing is utter bullshit. Turns out there’s a serial killer who ritually murders prostitutes and makes a big scene of calling them whores. You have three suspects: a doctor with a history of violence, a shady coroner who the doctor doesn’t like and a fanatical priest of the Eternal Fire. You find clues about who the next victim is and, oh, looks like the killer doesn’t like people working against the church, imagine that. He kills an acquaintance of yours who has renounced the church and then you discover the name of his next victim, a prostitute. So you go to the brothel and, oh my God, it’s the priest there torturing her. You get the option to kill him, spare him or let him continue torturing her (!?!?!!), and obviously I’m going to kill him because he has to be our murderer, right? Wrong, turns out that it was the coroner and he was just masking his crimes by pretending to be a fanatic because he’s actually a vampire feeding on people. Umm, what the hell? I mean, I get that misdirection is difficult in a mystery but how do you make a red herring so bad that they end up being an entirely separate serial killer with an identical modus operandi? There’s no reason to assume that the coroner is responsible given the evidence that the game gives you, other than metagaming when the game allows you to spare the priest’s life because why would they let you do that unless he wasn’t the killer? The worst part is that when you think you completed the quest you’ll later find clues that the killer is still at large and Geralt basically just shrugs his shoulders and lets them keep at it. Like… dude, turns out one suspect was a different serial killer and you had only two other suspects, maybe look into that!? The fact that this doesn’t reopen the quest or open an alternate version of it is legitimately infuriating to me, I get that this game is complex and ambitious enough but this quest just shows weakness within the game’s structure and it would seriously be better off without it.

Bugs

The Witcher 3 was apparently a buggy mess at launch and while I would consider the bugs that remain in the game a fairly minor issue at this point, there are still several that will pop up in every playthrough that range from funny to infuriating when they happen. The worst one I encountered was this weird audio glitch that happens when you encounter the Crones of Crookback Bog, where the dialogue completely cuts out for like ten minutes, while you awkwardly read the text on screen and watch the crones pantomime to you about how evil they are. Worst of all, my PS4 crashed at one point and I had to restart my game from the beginning, so in two separate playthroughs this glitch happened… how is this still unpatched to this day? I also had one bug that happened repeatedly during the horse races – I would win the race quite handily, but when I crossed the finish line the game wouldn’t register it, forcing me to restart the game and redo the entire race six or seven times before it would finally register the win legitimately. I have no idea why this one was happening but it was maddening when it did.

Perhaps the most persistent and irritating bug though is that the swimming controls will randomly crap out at times, not allowing you to dive in the water. This is particularly annoying because if I’m in the water then odds are I’m only there because I’m diving for sunken treasure. When this happens, your only options are to climb back onto your ship and hope that that fixes the issue, fast travel to reload the world map, or just restart the game and cross your fingers. This is so goddamn annoying and just makes the already awful Skellige smugglers’ caches that much more of a slog to get through, because this issue happened to me multiple times in just that one section of the game.

Bloat

You may have noticed that there’s a running theme throughout all my issues with The Witcher 3 and that is simply that the game is bloated beyond belief. The open world is massive, but it seems to prioritize size and pretty vistas over actually being fun to explore over a hundred hour journey. The game showers you with loot, but when 99.9% of it is worthless it becomes nothing more than a chore to deal with. Combat gives you tons of options, but overpowered options make the rest redundant, the combat is ridiculously easy and it just can’t sustain itself over the game’s playtime. The writing has some truly great moments, but it just feels padded for nothing more than making the game even longer. I had a similar issue with Alien: Isolation, where the game felt like it had to force itself to be a bloated, twenty hour game when it would have been perfect as a tight, terrifying eight hour experience. All-in-all, The Witcher 3 is a game in serious need of content trimming and a tighter focus. I shouldn’t have to actively force myself to not engage in most of the content you’ve put into your game in order to find any sort of enjoyment with it.

At this point I’ve dropped The Witcher 3 after slogging through it over the course of a year. I’m only at Kaer Morhen now and I just can’t bring myself to play it again. Instead I’ve played the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 and just started Hitman and the difference in enjoyment is palpable. Knowing that I can finish these games casually in a week or two is exciting in itself, not to mention that these are far better curated experiences that deliver greater levels of enjoyment in each play session. If I can give The Witcher 3 one big prop in spite of all this it’s that the game does offer hundreds of hours of playtime for like $20 – that’s a pretty insane value if you need to stretch your money out, but for my own part I’d like to actually get close to finishing a game I started.

But hey, at least Gwent was fun. If I ever do pick The Witcher 3 back up, it will probably be because I want to take part in the Gwent tournament. So that’s something at least.

This shot from a sex scene is one of the featured media screenshots on The Witcher 3‘s website. Seriously.

So How Would You Fix It, Smart Guy?

First off, if even a couple of my big issues with The Witcher 3 got addressed then it would make the experience much better overall, but we’ll go pie-in-the-sky and try to address them all here. Let’s start with the open world. Just due to the mechanics of the game, traversal is never going to be fun, so let’s at least make it less annoying. To that end, make fast travel points a bit more common and make random packs of enemies only really a concern if you’re going deep into the wilds off the main roads. Maybe make them scale in level as well so that they can be an actual obstacle. Similarly, I’d cut down on the useless “?” spots on the map (ESPECIALLY in Skellige), or just straight-up reveal what type of point of interest each is so you know whether to bother with it or not.

For the loot and inventory management, I’d want to make some sweeping changes. First of all, ditch encumbrance and weapon degredation. They suck and can never not suck until you remove them entirely. Secondly, let’s make the loot you get far more valuable. Cut down on the number of random items you can steal or loot from enemies significantly. Let weapons be upgradeable, with each level requiring you to get upgrade materials which you can craft and get the materials around the world map. This would allow reward weapons to actually be useful and could cut down on the number of useless items the game drowns you in. Plus it also means you don’t have to say goodbye to a favourite weapon when you outpace its damage output. Boom, all of a sudden inventory management is no longer a hassle, you actually can get some sort of satisfaction out of new items and it makes looting itself more rewarding because it’s helping you get something that can make your equipment better.

The combat in this game should be Monster Hunter-lite. I get that, conceptually, this is what the game is going for with its decoctions and oils, but they’re pointless compared to spamming signs. Make monster encounters something you have to actually plan for instead of just rushing headlong in like an idiot and suddenly combat would feel far more rewarding. Most importantly, introduce a level-scaling system to make enemy encounters more interesting.

For the writing, basically all that needs to be done is to trim down the padding in the main quest, or at the very least move these into the side-quests. As far as I’m concerned though, that serial killer quest needs to be completely reworked or cut out entirely. In any case, the sum total of these changes would result in the game’s annoyances being reduced or removed entirely, while its strengths are more up-front. It would also mean that the main game would likely be shorter, but if more side-quests were incentivized for the post-game then this would allow players more time to play the game the way they want without feeling like they have to or are missing anything. Given that the lack of urgency in spite of the game’s actual narrative is one of the main criticisms of The Witcher 3, I feel like it would make it a much better game.

DOA Is The Best Video Game Movie (300th Blog Post Celebration!)

This review has been a long time coming. Like, to put it into perspective, I tend to start drafts on my blog so that I remember ideas and am able to come back to them later. Sometimes they even get completed and get published here! Well, it was around seven years ago when I thought “hey, I love DOA: Dead or Alive and would love to write a review explaining why!” For whatever reason, that idea kept getting shoved back in favour of other ideas, but that draft has been sitting in here for literally years in various iterations, including two serious attempts to complete it that got shelved and the whole blog migration to WordPress. This also means that I have had to rewatch the film on several occasions whenever I planned on sitting down to work on this review.

Well, a few months ago I realized that I was rapidly closing in on my 300th blog post. Considering that I celebrated my 200th blog post with a review of DOAX3, what better time to finally get off my ass and review this movie? DOA: Dead or Alive is the best video game movie of all time and I’m going to explain why (yes, better than Detective Pikachu – no one is more shocked by that statement than me).

I remember seeing this film’s DVD cover in the local movie rental place when I was in high school… it looked identical to the covers of the porn DVDs nearby. That was obviously an intentional choice.

Production

After the box office success of the first two Resident Evil films, the producers of the first film, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt and Bernd Eichinger, were eager to tap into the burgeoning video game adaptation gold rush and searched for the next big hit (funnily enough, of all the video game adaptations listed in production on that link, the only ones that would actually come out were DOA and Resident Evil: Extinction). Perhaps owing to Anderson’s success with the 1995 fighting game adaptation Mortal Kombat, the producers decided to give Dead or Alive a shot – after all, it was all about action sequences and sexy women, so it would surely draw out all the teenage boys, right? Also being brought on to help produce the film was Mark A. Altman, who had previously produced freaking House of the Dead (fighting The Howling 2 for the championship title of most insane film to ever make it into theatres).

Corey Yuen was brought on as the film’s director. Yuen was well-known for his impressive Hong Kong action films and fight choreography, and had just found success with Western audiences with The Transporter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lead actresses were all models: Devon Aoki (of Sin City and 2 Fast 2 Furious fame) was cast as Kasumi, Holly Valance (known for the soap opera Neighbours, Prison Break and… what, she was in Taken!? Oh shit, she was the pop singer Liam Neeson has to protect, of course!) was cast as Christie and Jaime Pressly (probably the biggest name in the main cast, best known for My Name is Earl) was cast as Tina Armstrong. The supporting cast are also filled with plenty of interesting actors. By far the most notable is professional wrestler Kevin Nash as Bass Armstrong. This was an absolutely perfect casting, he steals the show whenever he’s on screen. The film also has several notable character actors and B-movie stars, such as Matthew Marsen (who has been in many films, but was last seen on IC2S in Atlas Shrugged) as Max, Eric Roberts (here playing a discount John Carradine) as Donovan, and Natassia Malthe (a kick-ass Uwe Boll regular) as Ayane. Some relative unknowns were also cast in major roles, such as Sarah Carter as Helena Douglas, Steve Howey as Weatherby and Brian J. White as Zack (who plays the role to perfection). Rounding out the cast were a pair of martial artists, Collin Chou as Hayate and Kane Kosugi as Ryu Hayabusa (he’s fine for the role they wrote for him, but good God do not expect this Ryu to be anything like the demon-slaying badass from Ninja Gaiden or you are going to be disappointed).

Filming took place in various locations in China. Most of the cast had never played a Dead or Alive game before, although most checked it out during production (Matthew Marsden specifically acknowledged that he sucked at it). According to the “Making Of” featurette (which really sucks by the way, nearly half of it is uninterrupted footage from the movie), the cast trained for 3 months with US marines and martial arts experts in order to learn their characters’ fighting styles. According to Sarah Carter, the entire cast performed most of their own stunts and some fight sequences could take up to 7 days to film (such as the impressive Helena vs Christie fight at the mid-point). The film also features a volleyball scene which was 100% pure fan service and which went through a staggering forty pairs of bikinis to complete.

Unfortunately for the producers, DOA: Dead or Alive didn’t light up the box anywhere near as much as Resident Evil had. In fact, while those films had wracked up grosses over $100 million worldwide, DOA brought in a paltry $7.7 million on a $30 million budget. Ouch.

Plot Summary

The film opens at a ninja palace in the mountains where princess Kasumi resolves to find her brother, Hayate, who went missing after being invited to the Dead or Alive martial arts tournament and is presumed dead. However, she is warned by Hayate’s friend, Ryu Hayabusa, that if she abandons the castle then she will be condemned to death by the laws of their people. Unperturbed, Kasumi escapes, pursued by her vengeful half-sister, Ayane, and is invited to participate in Dead of Alive. The film then cuts to Tina Armstrong, a professional wrestler who is trying to prove that her talents aren’t all just showmanship (which she quickly proves to us by beating up a group of pirates who board her boat, securing her invite to Dead or Alive). Finally, we’re introduced to Christie, a criminal who uses her femme fatale wiles to fight her way through a group of Interpol agents who have cornered her in her hotel room, earning herself an invitation to Dead or Alive in the process. With our main cast assembled, the group is flown to the island where Dead or Alive is held, alongside fellow competitors including Zack, Hayabusa (who has entered the tournament to watch over and protect Kasumi), Helena Douglas (daughter of the tournament’s recently-deceased co-founder), Bass Armstrong (Tina’s enthusiastic and laid-back father) and Max Marsh (Christie’s partner in crime, who is joining her to try to steal the company’s fortune). After parachuting to the island and traversing the rugged terrain to reach the tournament grounds, the group is introduced to Dead or Alive’s organizer, Victor Donovan, who explains the rules of the tournament – fighters will be tracked with nano-bots, fights can be called at any time and any place with single-round eliminations determining who will move on to the next round of competition.

As the first rounds of the tournament slowly get underway, the characters begin getting to know each other. Zack spends all his time hitting on a very unreceptive Tina, while a computer technician for the tournament named Weatherby tries to work up the courage to ask out Helena (who, surprisingly, decides to give him a chance). Meanwhile, Kasumi continues her search for Hayate, avoiding attacks from Ayane and the other competitors. She is eventually joined by Hayabusa, but he goes missing while infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters, making Kasumi even more suspicious about what’s going on. Finally, Christie and Max discover the location of Dead or Alive’s vault and try to figure out the password to get inside. Max eventually realizes that the code is tattooed on Helena, a fact which adds additional tension when Helena and Christie are paired off against one another in a quarter finals match. After an intense fight, Christie manages to come out on top while also discovering the tattooed code.

Concerned about Hayabusa, Kasumi convinces Tina and Christie to join her in infiltrating Donovan’s headquarters. They discover Hayabusa unconscious, but are incapacitated and captured by Donovan. Meanwhile, saddened by Helena’s defeat to Christie, Weatherby confesses to Helena that Donovan is working on some sort of secret project and that he believes that her father was murdered to cover it up. Helena decides to stop Donovan, but they are attacked by his cronies. They manage to defeat the mob and then head into the complex to get to the bottom of Donovan’s scheme. Donovan monologues to the captured heroes about his plan – he has been using the nanobots in their bloodstream to collect data on the worlds greatest fighters, which will be fed directly into a pair of computer-enhanced glasses he has developed, allowing him to instantly learn their techniques and counter them all. He plans to sell these glasses to several international criminals to rake in millions of dollars. Donovan then reveals that Hayate is still alive and uses him as a demonstration of the glasses’ power, defeating him in one-on-one combat easily and throwing him through a wall. He is left to die but Ayane saves him, which causes her to finally realize that Kasumi was right all along.

Before Donovan can send the data to his buyers, he is interrupted by Weatherby, who cuts off the upload and alerts the CIA of Donovan’s dealings. Donovan and Helena fight while Weatherby frees Hayabusa, Tina, Kasumi and Christie just before Donovan actives a self-destruct sequence. The fighters all converge on Donovan, with Helena, Kasumi, Ayane, Hayate, Tina and Christie all beating on the old man at once while Weatherby and Hayabusa try to find an escape route. They encounter Max, who has been trying to break into the vault, and help him escape (despite his protestations). Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people attacking him, Donovan’s glasses are knocked off and he is left in a paralytic state by Hayate and Kasumi and watches helplessly as the heroes all escape the island before the base explodes, consuming Donovan in the inferno. The group quickly come across the pirates who Tina had fought earlier and steal their boat as they ride off into the sunset… to a final stinger where our heroines all face off against an army of ninjas at Kasumi’s palace.

Review

The opening of DOA is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this movie work. It starts with a terrible CGI tracking shot through a palace in the sky and then assaults us with stilted acting, bad dialogue and melodrama… and then suddenly Kasumi’s escapes by throwing a sword into the wall, leaps the cross the backs of an entire army, uses the sword as a springboard to launch herself over the walls of the palace and then reveals that she has a freaking hang glider hidden under her clothes to sail away as a robot ninja star just comes out of nowhere and invites her to DOA.

Holy shit, what did I just watch?!

The movie just gets better from there and makes it unmistakable that Corey Yuen and his cast know exactly what kind of film they’re making and then wring every ounce of fun out of the premise that they can with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That’s the thing, DOA has several elements that would tank any other film – paper-thin story, bad acting, a stupid and cheap third act, etc. However, Yuen executes this all in such a manner that they either don’t matter or they even enhance the experience. For example, how many times have I criticized Resident Evil for its crappy stories? The difference here is that the story serves DOA‘s actual strengths – fantastic action sequences and fun characters (and for the record, these are the exact elements that made the two Resident Evil movies I actually like work). There’s very little time wasted on pointless exposition or worldbuilding, the film knows what you’re here for and it will give you enough to make that function and create some stakes in an efficient manner. Again, this would usually sound like a bad thing, but how many action movies have we seen where they put in a forced romance, or set up a long-winded relationship in order to give our character motivation when it’s taken away, or just spent time trying to prove that this is not “just some b-movie”? There’s a reason movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Taken and John Wick are so beloved and that’s because they cut the fat… and it just occurred to me while typing this sentence that I’m unironically going to argue that DOA: Dead or Alive is at least in the same ballpark as those movies.

First off, DOA has some fantastic fight sequences. This should be expected, but you’d be surprised how many video game movies (let alone lower-budget movies in general) that are all about their action sequences fail to even surpass this simple hurdle. Films like The Legend of Chun-Li are supposed to be all about the action but fail to even succeed there. Again, look no further than the most recent Resident Evil, which was basically just an excuse to string together action setpieces but which had the worst directed and edited action sequences in the franchise so far in the process. In this regard, DOA scored a homerun right off the bat by hiring Corey Yuen, whose expertise is clearly reflected in the plethora of fun and exciting fights peppered throughout this film’s runtime.

There are two particular sequences I want to highlight – the showdown between Kasumi and Ayane in the bamboo forest and the rain-soaked, bare-knuckle beatdown between Christie and Helena. The bamboo forest fight is a clear riff on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a sword-wielding Ayane tries to kill an unarmed Kasumi and features all sorts of acrobatics, wire stunts and creative use of the environment to allow Kasumi to survive her half-sister’s furious onslaught. I highlight this particular fight because it’s basically just thrown there for the sake of an action sequence, but it’s so damn cool that it doesn’t matter that it halts the actual story for a couple minutes. On the other hand, the fight between Christie and Helena is not only really cool (shot in slow-motion close-ups during a pouring rain storm), but is also tense because we have no idea who is going to win. We like both characters by this point and don’t want to see either of them lose. Some of the best acting in the film is demonstrated in this sequence, you can really feel that these characters are fighting a desperate battle against one another and doing whatever they can to come out on top. In a movie with tons of great fight sequences, this one really stands out because it makes you realize just how effectively it has gotten you to like these characters.

That’s another big strength of DOA – the characters are all really fun (well, mostly, but we’ll get to that). It helps their personalities and motivations are conveyed perfectly through the action sequences… again, just like Fury Road. I mean, just look at the character introductions for an example. Tina gets introduced complaining that, as a wrestler, she’s not taken seriously before her boat gets boarded by pirates. She takes the opportunity to then beat the crap out of them, proving to the audience that she is indeed a formidable fighter (and even kind-hearted as she allows the last pirate to throw himself off the ship to spare himself a beating). Meanwhile, Christie’s introduction establishes that she’s a charming femme fatale, using her sexuality in order to get the upper hand when she’s ambushed and seemingly cornered by Interpol. Hayate gets one of these introductions in a flashback as well. Need to prove that he’s the best fighter in the world? How about have him chuck a bunch of needles at a group of bandits, snatch these needles out of the air and prick the bandits in their pressure points to paralyze them all? Holy shit, this guy’s amazing! It makes Kasumi’s unrelenting search and Donovan’s later beatdown of Hayate all the more effective.

It’s not just about the fights though, DOA‘s characters are also just fun to watch interacting with each other and have great chemistry. The most obvious example of this is Kevin Nash’s Bass Armstrong and his interactions with Tina. He’s like the ultimate goofy, macho dad and Tina is constantly embarrassed by his inability to take anything seriously. This comes to a head when Tina and Bass get matched against each other and he bursts into her room, only to sheepishly back out when he realizes that he might have just walked in on Tina and Christie in bed together (in reality she was just sharing a bed because Christie’s room got trashed). It’s adorable how supportive he is of his daughter and is obvious that there’s a lot of love between them, even if there appears to be friction most of the time. Weatherby and Helena’s relationship is also quite cute. While Weatherby is a dork and it strains credulity to think that Helena would find him interesting, the fact that she does is adorable and both are kept interesting enough and have enough relevance that it doesn’t feel like either is a dreaded “generic love interest”. Or how about how the film establishes that Kasumi, Christie and Tina are now friends with each other? When the group parachutes onto DOA island together, they have to reach the tournament grounds in time or be disqualified. Initially they’re all looking out for themselves while climbing the temple, but quickly realize that they’re not going to make it unless they work together and are soon a solid team. It’s simple and obvious, but effective visual character building.

Unfortunately, DOA‘s one big stumbling block in terms of its characters is in its lead, Kasumi. Devon Aoki’s performance is extremely flat and I can’t help but feel like this was intentional – Kasumi herself is a bit of a personality-void in the games and I think they were trying to capture the same sort of stoic heroine energy. It’s a shame because Aoki seems very charming and fun in the film’s “Making Of” feature and it would have been nice to see her in a role that didn’t require her to be so serious the whole time. Similarly, Ayane is also very one-note, just pissed off all the time, while Ryu Hayabusa is downgraded from a demon-slaying badass to Kasumi’s generic love interest. Whenever Kasumi’s plot is in control the film loses some of its luster, but thankfully it’s more than made up for with the subplots revolving around Christie and Tina (and eventually Helena).

Another remarkable element of DOA is that the film is one of those weird movies that manages to strike the fine balance between being sexy and empowering at the same time. This is especially surprising given Dead or Alive‘s reputation as a pervy, tit-obsessed series (this certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 released only a month after DOA hit theaters). DOA does a far better job of balancing this out, if only because the cast are real human beings and not a bunch of 36DD teenagers and so they can’t just take the easy route by going with over-the-top eye-candy. Sure, the girls are in bikinis on several occasions and there are lots of shots of cleavage and butts, but it comes across far better than in the games. The games are usually just voyeuristic but when they fetishize the girls it can get straight-up creepy, not to mention that the games try to maintain this weird sort of “innocence” to them all, like they don’t realize that they’re all stupidly-hot. In DOA, the women all own their sexuality – if they’re in bikinis it generally makes sense (it is a tropical island after all and they’re often in down-time between fights) and they’re not treated like these chaste, untouchable angels with no idea of how beautiful they are. Hell, Christie is straight-up sexually active in this movie, well-aware of her wants and desires and not afraid to use her allures to get the upper-hand on an opponent. It’s kind of like Bayonetta in this regard, where the female characters are framed by the male gaze, but they don’t allow it to trap them. Beyond the characters’ sexuality though, the female cast just kick a ton of ass throughout the film. That’s actually a strength inherent to the games themselves, where several women can go toe-to-toe with the best male fighters in the world and play out their interesting storylines, but the focus on tits always drowns this out and drowns out an otherwise empowering premise. Freed from pervy obsessions, DOA shows us just how awesome these women are as they take down an evil conspiracy with their fists. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to declare the film to be outright feminist, but it’s sure as hell a kickass girl power romp.

I also have to mention the third act, which is a potentially make-or-break part of the film. For my part, I think it’s fucking hilarious and the perfect cherry on top of an enjoyable sundae, but I can understand if someone would think that it’s terrible. Basically, as soon as Donovan’s evil plan is revealed, DOA turns into a G.I. Joe-level cartoon. The sets get really cheap looking and the plot goes off the rails because Donovan’s master plan is stupid beyond comprehension. Okay, cool, you’ve scanned all the fighting techniques from the world’s best fighters and downloaded them to a set of smart glasses which show you how to fight and beat any opponent… There’s just so much about this that’s pants-on-head stupid. First of all, how do you react quick enough to the glasses’ prompts to even fight back? Second, boy it sure would suck if your opponent decided to shoot you instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Third, why make the crux of this evil plan revolve around a fashion accessory which is notoriously easy to knock off, especially when you’re doing quick actions like… oh, I don’t know, fighting people? Fourth, why then antagonize the fighters you stole the data from!? If he had just waited til the tournament was over to sell the data to international terrorists (some of which look like random incels wearing sunglasses!) you wouldn’t have gotten defeated like an idiot! It’s so dumb, but given how intentionally tongue-in-cheek the rest of the film has been I can’t help but think that this plan was made so campy on purpose, so I’m more than willing to go along with it, grinning like a madman all the while.

If we’re being entirely honest, DOA isn’t a top-tier movie by any means. The acting is fine at best, the story is clearly bare-bones and the low budget makes it look cheap at times. Films like House of the Dead or Street Fighter: The Movie may be similarly fun and hilarious, but it’s clear that they were not intended to be enjoyed so ironically. On the flip-side, recent acclaimed video game movies like Detective Pikachu and Sonic aim to be taken more seriously, but they’re just ultimately mediocre popcorn films with boring characters, unimpressive action sequences and questionably-structured stories. However, everyone involved knew exactly what sort of film this was and they did away with pretension to maximize its strengths and make it as enjoyable as possible with tongue planted firmly in cheek throughout. That puts it well above every other video game movie out there.

6.5/10

Retrospective: Resident Evil – The Final Chapter (2016)

Welcome back to the Resident Evil retrospective!

…yes, you read that correctly. It’s been more than seven years now since I did my retrospective of the live-action Resident Evil film franchise. However, at that time the final film in the franchise, the aptly-named Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, had not come out yet and so it wasn’t included in the retrospective. I’ve mulled over the idea of doing a “Retrospectives Round-up” for a long time, covering the newest films in franchises that I’ve covered in the past and as we close in on our 300th blog post on IC2S we’re finally getting around to doing it. We’re going to start with Resident Evil today and then over the course of the week we’ll catch up on the new entries in the other retrospective series. Got it? Alright, let’s dive in and see if the Resident Evil franchise could go out on a high note…

This is… actually a pretty cool poster. Colour me surprised, good job Resident Evil marketing team.

Production

After the financial success of Resident Evil: Retribution, it was inevitable that the Resident Evil franchise would continue to shamble on. Early on the producers bandied the idea that there could be two more films in the franchise before it would be rebooted, but by December of 2012 Paul WS Anderson confirmed that the sixth film would be the final one in this continuity. Anderson signed on to direct, committing to the project after he was done work on his historical disaster-epic, Pompeii… and, well, we know how that turned out. Production was continually delayed on this film. Even when it looked like filming was about to begin in August 2014, they had to delay again for another year when it was announced that Milla Jovovich was pregnant with her second daughter.

For the cast, obviously Milla Jovovich returned once again to give Alice her last hurrah. For the other returning cast, Ali Larter reprised her role as Claire Redfield once more, while Shawn Roberts returned as Albert Wesker. Iain Glen was also announced to be returning as Dr. Isaacs, despite being killed off in Extinction. Disappointingly, these are the only characters who make their return. Despite being the grand finale, major characters like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Leon Kennedy, Ada Wong and even freaking Becky (the surrogate daughter Alice was shoe-horned into adopting in the previous film) don’t return and are killed unceremoniously off-screen. I’d say it’s a middle-finger to the fans, but then again it would almost be weird if Resident Evil started caring about narrative continuity at this point. In their place, several new characters were introduced, played by Ruby Rose, Eoin Macken, William Levy, Fraser James, Rola and Lee Joon-gi.

Production was finally able to get underway in earnest in July 2015, with filming beginning in South Africa sometime in August or September. Unlike the previous two films, The Final Chapter was shot in 2D and then converted to 3D in post-production. Filming lasted just over three months and was wracked with disaster. Four crew members were injured during filming, the first being Jovovich’s stunt double, Olivia Jackson, who collided with a camera crane that failed to move during a motorcycle stunt. The accident crushed her face and caused half of it to be torn off, severed an artery in her neck, paralyzed her arm, broke several bones and tore five nerves out of her spinal cord (among many other injuries)! It was so bad that they had to put her into a medically-induced coma for two weeks and amputate her paralyzed arm. Then, near the end of filming, crewmember Ricardo Cornelius was freaking crushed to death by a Hummer, holy shit! Anderson, what the fuck is going on on your set!? Even worse, when Jackson sued the production in 2019 it came out that the producers’ insurance for stunt performers was wholly inadequate, not even providing coverage for medical care! Suffice to say, Jackson accused the producers of “elevating financial considerations over safety” and won the lawsuit. Apparently this isn’t new for the Resident Evil franchise, which has seen the hospitalizations of at least fifteen crew members over the years, a shocking number considering that most major franchises are able to get by with zero injuries, let alone fatalities.

If finances were all the producers cared about though, then The Final Chapter did not disappoint. While it grossed only $26.8 million domestically (significantly less than any previous Resident Evil film), its international haul was much higher, resulting in a worldwide total of $312.2 million, making it the highest-grossing film in the franchise. Of this total, more than half ($160 million) came from the Chinese box office. Also worth noting is that the film’s budget was only $40 million – adjusting for inflation, this is by far the lowest budget for any live-action Resident Evil film.

Plot Synopsis

Like most of these films, The Final Chapter opens with a voice-over exposition dump by Alice, who reveals that the founder of Umbrella had a daughter named Alicia who was dying of progeria, a disease which caused her to age rapidly. He developed the T-virus to try to save her, but it is soon discovered that it has the unexpected side-effect of creating zombies. When the founder tried to shut down production of the virus, he was stopped by Dr. Isaacs, who had Albert Wesker assassinate the founder and performed a hostile takeover of the company.

Cutting back to the present, we find Alice in the ruins of Washington D.C. The heroes were betrayed by Albert Wesker at the end of Retribution (who saw that coming) and everyone except for Alice was killed. She encounters the Red Queen, who tells Alice that she wants to stop Umbrella but her programming prevents her from doing so directly. Therefore, she needs Alice to act on her behalf, as she estimates that there are only 48 hours left until the last pockets of human resistance are wiped out by the zombie hordes. She tells Alice that the only way to do so is to travel back to the Umbrella Hive in the ruins of Racoon City, where an airborne anti-virus has been developed.

Alice fights her way across the country, killing monsters and Umbrella soldiers on the way, until she is captured by Dr. Isaacs and his convoy of Umbrella tanks which are leading the zombies back to Raccoon City. Alice escapes on an Umbrella motorcycle and then makes it back to Racoon City first, where she encounters Claire Redfield and a band of survivors, including Claire’s new boyfriend, Doc. The group defend against the zombie onslaught, burning the zombie hordes and killing most of the Umbrella soldiers (although a wounded Isaacs manages to escape). The group then decide to break into the Hive to save humanity, dealing with more zombies and defenses as they go.

When they finally make it into the Hive, the Red Queen reveals that Isaacs has been planning on using the T-virus to cleanse humanity and create a new world on Umbrella’s own terms. To that end, the airborne anti-virus will be released once the rest of the human resistance is wiped out and the rich and powerful being kept in cryogenic storage in the Hive will be revived to inherit the Earth. She also warns Alice that Umbrella has an agent among the ranks of her companions.

After losing several team members to traps, Alice sets bombs throughout the facility and confronts the real Dr. Isaacs. It is revealed that the other two Isaacs we have encountered so far (as well as basically every other character who has been miraculously resurrected to this point) were actually clones who thought they were the real thing. It is also revealed that Doc is the traitor as Claire and Alice are captured by Wesker. Isaacs then revives Alicia and reveals that Alice is actually her clone (shocker). Before Isaacs can eliminate them, Alicia fires Wesker, which allows the Red Queen to attack and fatally wound him. Claire executes Doc and Alice chases after Isaacs, stealing the anti-virus from him and seemingly killing him by detonating a grenade in his pocket.

Alice escapes from the Hive and tries to release the anti-virus as the clock ticks down, but Isaacs appears out of nowhere and stops her. However, then the clone Isaacs Alice had fought earlier arrives and, believing himself to be the real Isaacs, kills him before being killed by the zombie hoards. In the confusion, Alice unleashes the anti-virus, which immediately spreads out in a cloud and kills all of the zombies. The bombs in the Hive detonate and kill Wesker, Alicia and the rest of Umbrella. Claire wakes Alice sometime later, who is thanked by the Red Queen by uploading Alicia’s childhood memories into Alice’s brain. She then rides out into the wilds, searching for any remaining pockets of survivors or T-virus holdouts.

Review

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from The Final Chapter. It’s by far the highest-reviewed entry in the franchise, up there with the original (which is still, somehow, considered one of the best video game movies of all-time despite being crap). I guess I was hoping that it would be a fun but dumb experience, akin to Extinction or Afterlife, moreso than a mind-numbing ordeal like Retribution. Unfortunately, The Final Chapter is much closer to the mold of Retribution than anything else, providing a particularly loud, dumb and unsatisfying conclusion to the franchise.

The first big issue is that The Final Chapter is what it says – it’s the big finale and therefore it needs to feel suitably climactic. Unfortunately, its obvious that the plots of every single Resident Evil movie were made up on the fly, cockteasing us with amazing cliffhangers at the end of each movie, only to completely retcon everything by the time the next one rolls around. The Final Chapter is pretty bad for this. Oh wow, Retribution ends with a huge siege at the White House with a bunch of iconic Resident Evil characters, good and evil, in the mix? Well I hope you didn’t want to see how that goes, because everyone dies off-screen except for Alice (yes, even Becky, whose shoehorned surrogate daughter storyline was the entire point of Retribution, she gets dropped without a single reference to her). With the slate wiped clean again, Anderson sets about making up entirely new plot developments to bring this whole series to a close. Wow, Game of Thrones really took off, let’s make Dr. Isaacs secretly the main villain all along, even though he died! Oh, and let’s reveal this during a big exposition dump at the start of the film, perfect! Can’t forget to make it so that Alice was actually a clone of the Umbrella founders’ daughter… because reasons! Oh and we’ll bring back Claire Redfield as well, but we can’t let her actually do anything, because then Alice won’t be as special!

The Final Chapter also has the unenviable task of trying to plug holes that the previous’ films created (and even this film in some cases). Foremost amongst this is why the hell Umbrella are so stupid that they managed to wipe out their entire consumer base and yet are still operating all this time. The Final Chapter reveals that this was actually always intended, Umbrella has been trying to wipe out humanity so that their chosen few can repopulate the world and have all the resources to themselves. It’s idiotic, but it almost works… until you remember that the first film is all about Umbrella soldiers trying to contain the outbreak and subsequent sequels have Umbrella still trying to create bio-weapons for use in war (not to mention injecting themselves with the T-virus they’re going to wipe out soon), so it’s obvious that they’re just pulling this out of their ass at the last minute. The Final Chapter also reveals that everyone who has died and been resurrected at this point in the story? Secret clones! Considering what has been established in the franchise to this point, it kind of makes sense, but it just feels so much dumber. Around the mid-point of the film Alice tells Claire that Isaacs is alive, to which Claire says “I thought you killed him?” Alice just replies “I thought so too” and the scene moves on. It made me laugh, but that really should have been as far as they went with it, it’s the only explanation that is needed. Revealing that there are clones means that they actually put a bit of thought into this, but it just begs the question of why they would have a bunch of clones running around in the first place. Just go the route of The Fast & The Furious – with dumb fun you don’t have to dwell on the hows and whys.

Iain Glen stars as Dr. Alexander Isaacs in Screen Gems’ RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER.

Like most Resident Evil movies, the characters are also a big Achilles heel for this film. Alice is… Alice. Whatever you thought about her before, you’ll still feel it after this is over. I don’t care about her character at all, and it’s infuriating how everyone else gets kneecapped to make her seem cool, but six movies in it’s undeniable that Milla Jovovich has mastered the art of playing a badass woman, so it’s nice to see her get to ride into the sunset with her signature character. And as much as I love Ali Larter’s Claire Redfield, she gets nothing to work with here, to the point where she could have easily been written out entirely. Iain Glen’s Dr. Isaacs is also completely different in this film, to the point where I’m convinced they only brought him back because of his newfound popularity in Game of Thrones. He is now suddenly a religious fanatic, a trait which this film clubs us over the head every chance they get. He’s an okay villain I guess, but considering that he was a low-key, one-and-done villain in Extinction, he feels far less impactful than if, say, they had made the more over-the-top and slimy Albert Wesker the villain for this finale. As for the rest of the survivors… meh? They’re a bunch of personality-less nobodies. Hell, I was expecting Ruby Rose to get more of a role so when she gets minced early on in the Hive that was one of the few real surprises in the film, but that wasn’t because I had any sort of attachment to her character.

Being a Resident Evil retrospective, I feel duty-bound to point out some of the most ridiculous parts of this movie’s plot that I haven’t gone over already. First of all, the film’s literal ticking clock is ridiculous. The Red Queen tells Alice that she estimates that the last pockets of humanity will be wiped out in 48 hours by the zombies unless the T-virus can be stopped. So Alice releases the anti-virus but it’s at the last second… sooooo, umm, did the Red Queen get it wrong and everyone had died early? Even if she didn’t, that anti-virus is going to take ages to actually reach any of the disparate bastions of humanity, so odds are that it did jack-shit to save anyone outside of Raccoon City. Oh and what few humans we know for sure were alive died infiltrating the Hive and/or got blown up with the Umbrella executives. Good job, Alice! There’s also a whole action sequence which revolves around Umbrella having GI Joe tanks – Alice punches open an easily-reached emergency hatch on the exterior of the tank, which deploys a motorcycle she uses to outrun the Umbrella forces. Then there’s the scene where Ruby Rose gets sucked into a giant fan blade. This is hilarious because we literally just saw that the fan blades have no suction to them, but Wesker reverses their direction and suddenly they’re sucking harder than Superhead? The funniest sequence though is when Alicia and Dr. Isaacs start debating about who owns Umbrella… like, in this case I get that it’s to establish the twist that Alicia can fire Wesker (which begs its own questions about labour laws, but whatever), but it’s the freaking apocalypse, nearly every human has been wiped out, money doesn’t matter anymore, who cares who owns the damn company!? Seriously, it’s another moment which highlights the stupidity of Umbrella more than anything. And lastly, the movie makes a big deal out of including yet another laser hall sequence. This might have been a cool callback to the original film, especially since this takes place in the same location… if we hadn’t had laser hall call-backs in all but one of the subsequent sequels. Here I just sighed and said “Oh my fucking God, another one?”

Okay fine, the story sucks and I don’t care about the characters. That’s to be expected with a Resident Evil film, I’m just here for the action. Unfortunately, that brings me to the next issue with The Final Chapter, for a film which is almost non-stop action sequences, the action is really underwhelming. This is because the way the action is shot and edited is the worst we’ve seen in the franchise since Apocalypse. As much as I hated it, at least Retribution tried to replicate the gorgeous slow-motion action scenes from Afterlife. The Final Chapter instead feels like it’s trying to emulate freakin’ A Good Day to Die Hard of all things, with constant, rapid-fire editing which makes every action sequence incomprehensible, disorienting, annoying garbage. Seriously, I was watching for this and the average shot length in this film can’t be more than a second at most – the action sequences barely hold for half a second and even dialogue scenes cut constantly. It’s supposed to be exciting and fast-paced, but it’s just exhausting. The action is also let down by the fact that the film does nothing to establish geography and therefore you can’t build up any sort of tension (think Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is fighting his way up the convoy – we know where everyone in the convoy is and where the objectives are, so we can build up tension as Indy fights his way through to the Ark). The Cerberus chase is a good example of this – the heroes try to escape into the Hive while being pursued by zombie dogs. This could have been exciting if we knew how far away from the entrance they were, or what their escape corridor looked like, but instead were get a solid minute of incoherent running and shooting as people we don’t give a shit about die unceremoniously.

The only time that the action feels fine in this movie is during the big siege in the second act (yes, The Final Chapter features yet another skyscraper being overrun by zombies). The Final Chapter fires on all cylinders here, managing to get around several of its other missteps and it’s obvious that a hefty chunk of the budget went towards this one action sequence. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but Anderson does a good job of finding ways to add new dangers to the siege which need to be dealt with so that it’s not just a bunch of mindless bam bam pew pews. It probably would have meant more if we gave a shit about any of the survivors, but it’s cool seeing thousands of zombies get immolated at least.

What else can I say? The Final Chapter is yet another dose of Resident Evil, but it is loooong past the series’ stupid-fun days. Like Retribution before it, The Final Chapter is just loud and dull in addition to being stupid. I kept telling myself the whole time “Well… it’s better than Retribution at least… maybe?”, but the more I think about it, the more certain I am that The Final Chapter really is the worst Resident Evil movie. It takes everything that makes these movies suck and dials it up, while simultaneously knee-capping the action sequences so that you can’t find anything to enjoy. The fact that someone died and another person was maimed to bring this movie to life just makes it even more sickening to me. Resident Evil is finally dead and thank God for that.

3/10

So… where does the series go from here? Well, a more faithful reboot of the series is already well underway and it was recently announced that the cast include such great young actors as Kaya Scodelario and Robbie Amell, which gives me a lot of hope for this attempt. Hopefully they take a cue from the recent Resident Evil video games and make this film less action more horror. I may cover this film sometime in the future and add it to the retrospective, but we will have to see. Right now I’m just burnt out on this franchise and the prospect of even more zombies is depressing, even if I am cautiously optimistic about this reboot.

Love/Hate: Let’s Go, Eevee!

It has been a while since I did a Pokemon Love/Hate and you may notice that there was one glaring, recent omission from my list – where were the Let’s Go games? I have had a half-finished Love/Hate list for these games in my drafts for a while and debated restricting this series to the mainline games only, but recently I decided to give it another shot. Since these game released I’ve had a lot more thoughts about Let’s Go and was surprised at just how many things I liked and disliked about them. So, without further delay, I’ve finally got this list written up for your viewing pleasure!

Love

  • Pokemon Appear in the Overworld! – At the time of release this was a controversial addition, but I have always loved it. Random encounters in Pokemon are a series legacy but they have always been annoying. Let’s Go completely shakes that up by having Pokemon appear in the overworld. This makes the world itself feel far more alive as you have Pokemon going about their business on it, plus it allows you to hunt what you want at your leisure (and if you accidentally encounter one, that’s your own fault). Even better, shiny Pokemon apper on the overworld in this game, so you could be just travelling casually when one pops out at you unexpectedly! It makes simple route traversal exciting since you never know when or if a shiny may appear and is something I wish was retained in Sword and Shield.
  • Riding and Following Pokemon! – Following Pokemon has always been a requested feature in Pokemon games, despite the fact that it doesn’t really add much functionality and is more of a characterful quality of life improvement. Well, Let’s Go goes a step further because not only can you have your Pokemon follow you, but you can freaking ride on top of several of them!!! This replaces the bike feature from the original games and is an absolute joy to experience once you unlock it! Hopping on an Arcanine’s back and bounding across the Kanto region never gets old… and don’t even get me started on soaring in the skies on a Dragonite!
  • Can View PC Boxes in Overworld! – This was a simple but HUGE quality of life improvement, easy to overlook. Being able to manage your party and caught Pokemon while out in the wilds is such a time-saver. No longer do you have to trudge back to a Pokemon center or sit through a lengthy Fly animation and then make your way back to where you were hunting, now you can just take care of this whenever your heart desires. Sure, it does make things a tad bit easier to be able to swap out your party on the fly, but the convenience more than makes up for this. Honestly, of all the features that made their way from Let’s Go to Sword and Shield, this is probably my favourite!
  • Partner Pokemon Interactions are Adorable – Let’s Go takes the Nintendogs-style Pokemon interaction systems introduced in Gen 6 and takes them to the next level. Not only do you get to interact with your partner Pokemon in various ways but you can also dress up your partner in several cosmetic items! It’s one of those additions which doesn’t really have any effect on gameplay but, like, my Eevee’s wearing a hat and a vest, holy shit I want to hug it! The whole point of this game is to grow as attached as possible to your partner Pokemon and all these features go a long way to pulling that off.
  • Single-System Co-Op Mode – Holy shit, a Pokemon game with a built-in two player mode?! The mode itself is very simple, but this was actually an amazing feature for me regardless. My fiancé doesn’t play a lot of games or care all that much for Pokemon, but this simple co-op mode allowed us to share some bonding time together catching Charmanders and hunting for a shiny one. I’d love to see this feature return in the future, especially since I now have my own kid who is getting to the age where he could appreciate joining me in a Pokemon adventure.
  • Streamlining – In addition to the improved access to the PC box, Let’s Go has expected quality of life improvements over the Gen 1 games or their Gen 3 remakes. Most obvious is the removal of HMs, which are now just performed by your partner Pokemon. The most notable example of streamlining though is that the item finder has been removed and repurposed. I always found the item finder to be a pain in the ass, not worth mapping to Select over the bike, but in Let’s Go its functionality built right into your partner Pokemon – when you walk around their tail will start wagging faster as you approach a hidden item! It’s a clever and much better way to handling this function, I love it.

Mixed

  • Pokemon Go Integration – It was believed that the Let’s Go games were created as a way to rope new fans into the franchise who had only played Pokemon Go, and to that end several mechanics from the mobile game carry over to Let’s Go. However, the actual interaction between the two games is seriously lacking. For one thing, Let’s Go only includes the first 151 Pokemon, their Alola variants and the Meltan line, so most of the Pokemon Go Dex can’t even be used at all. Furthermore, transfers only work one-way – you can only transfer compatible Pokemon to Let’s Go and none can be sent to Pokemon Go. This has given me a handy, niche use where I can offload duplicate Pokemon Go shinies and legendaries to send to Pokemon HOME, and it has given me access to the Mystery Box to get several Meltans and Melmetals, so it’s not a complete wash. Still, the interaction between the two games could have been far more ambitious and it feels like they just did the bare minimum to integrate them.
  • Missing Areas – At this point it’s pretty obvious that the Gaming Corner from Gen 1 is never coming back due to its simulated gambling, which sucks but fair enough. They’ve set the precedent and it’s more or less expected that this will be the case, even if it does make the game feel a bit more empty. But why the heck do Game Freak refuse to do a Safari Zone area anymore? The Safari Zone was one of the funnest distractions in the original games, why is it completely gutted here in favour of the Pokemon Go transfer room? Again, there’s kind of a precedent here to take the Safari Zone away so it’s not a complete shock, but it’s disappointing none the less.

Hate

  • XP Gains – Let’s Go completely shifts the focus in Pokemon away from battling to catching, doing away with random battles entirely. As a result, your main source of xp comes from capturing wild Pokemon, supplemented by the occasional trainer or gym battle. In my opinion, this is a more tedious system compared to random battles though – catching a Pokemon takes longer than grinding random battles. Even then, previously oppressive areas like the Rock Tunnel were at least a good way to farm for xp til you were strong enough to get through. In Let’s Go, I just dodged around every Pokemon and didn’t get into any battles I didn’t want to, meaning that I was also missing out on xp I probably needed. In general, this also makes it difficult to measure your relative level, since you can’t use wild Pokemon as a measuring stick for your progress and instead have to commit yourself to a battle not knowing if you’re about to get stomped or not. That said…
  • Partner Pokemon is OP – Oh, you thought that Pokemon X and Y were too easy? Just for fun, I wanted to see if I could solo Let’s Go with only my partner Pokemon, without grinding and by using as few aids as possible (eg, medicine). This is very much doable in Let’s Go, as my partner Eevee went down maybe once or twice (and one of those was to a lucky Horn Drill Seaking) and then my other Pokemon were easily able to clean up afterward. Your partner Pokemon is just plain overpowered in this game, which isn’t helped by the fact that they can learn several insane (and stupidly named) tutor moves for coverage. Oh and Eevee gets several more tutor moves than Pikachu does, because screw you Pikachu.
  • Mew and the Pokeball Plus Are BULLSHIT – The Pokemon Company have really been preying on their fans’ compulsive desire to “catch ’em all” in scummier and scummier ways over the years and the Pokeball Plus was one of the most blatant examples. For $60 you can get a Pokeball motion controller which can only really be used in Let’s Go… wow what a crappy deal. But wait, if you don’t buy it then you can’t get Mew and will therefore never complete your Let’s Go Pokedex! Making matters worse, you have to buy the Pokeball Plus new because the Mew is on a serial code packaged inside, meaning that you can only ever get 1 Mew per Pokeball. Well fine, I’ll just transfer my Mew from Pokemon Go to Let’s Go… lol, no they don’t let you do that for completely arbitrary reasons which definitely aren’t related to making you buy a shitty $60 accessory. Oh and speaking of which…
  • Forced Motion Controls – If there’s anything Nintendo loves more than gimmicky motion controls, it’s making them not optional even when the potential to do so is built right in the game itself. If you play the game in hand-held mode, you have to turn the entire system to line-up your shot and then press a button to throw the ball. This is generally what I prefer, but sometimes I want to detach the joycons and put the system down on a flat surface or dock it. Boy it sure would be nice if I could just press a button to throw, but no – when you switch to the joycons the game forces you to rely on terrible motion controls to aim you throws. You can aim right at a Pokemon and have the ball fly off in the complete opposite direction, which is bad enough since it wastes your resources, but in this game Pokemon run away at a high rate so you could even lose a shiny because of this. Like… you’ve built an alternative into the game already, why force me to deal with the gimmick you came up with to sell Pokeball Pluses? It’s bad enough for me, but I can only imagine it’s even worse for players with motor control issues. And all this just compounds another big issue with the game…
  • Endless Catching Is A Boring Core Mechanic – Let’s Go does away with requiring you to battle and weaken Pokemon in order to catch them. Instead it has you just throw Pokeballs at every Pokemon you encounter, with very little that you can do to swing the odds in your favour (you can throw a berry, land an excellent throw or use a better Pokeball, that’s it). If you want one of your Pokemon to be stronger, you have to grind catching that same Pokemon over and over again to get candies. Let’s Go just demonstrates to me that battling in the mainline Pokemon games is a far more interesting core mechanic, since it makes any Pokemon you want to catch tense as you try to avoid knocking them out, but also manageable as you can stack the odds in your favour.
  • Friendly Rival – I get that Let’s Go is meant to be “baby’s first Pokemon game”, but… like, so were Pokemon Red and Blue and everyone in my school had few issues getting through those games. One of the weirdest changes to me is that they take away Blue, who was famously a dickhead who you wanted to beat in every encounter, and replace him with Trace, who’s just a pleasant nobody. Like… why Game Freak? They seem obsessed with giving us friendly “rivals” for the past several years (in fact Sword and Shield are the first games to reverse this trend in ages), but they make for boring characters to interact with and battle against.
  • Seriously? Another Kanto Remake? – Let’s Go mark the second full remake of the Gen 1 games. Sure, it’s been quite a while since FireRed and LeafGreen, but these games are coming out only two years after the Gen 1 games were re-released on the 3DS virtual console. Furthermore, Gen 1 is so oversaturated and over-represented by The Pokemon Company that it can’t help but make Let’s Go a bit disappointing for long-time fans.
  • Competitive Scene Was Dead on Arrival – As soon as the battling mechanics for this game were revealed it was obvious that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were going to continue to be the main platforms for competitive Pokemon until Gen 8 arrived. Why, you may ask? Well, Let’s Go strips out abilities, held items, several moves, not to mention that it features a greatly scaled-back Pokedex, has no auto-levelling system (meaning you have to get all your Pokemon to level 100 to stand a chance) and there’s no breeding for ideal natures or IVs (although Bottle Caps are still a thing at least). The worst thing though is that Let’s Go ditches the EV system that has been in place since Gen 3 and replaces it with AVs, which are effectively EVs that you can use to max out every single stat. No longer are you forced to specifically decide how you want to build your Pokemon’s stats, now you just max out all your stats because you’re literally handicapping yourself if you don’t. This also means that most Pokemon are straight-up useless because their stats don’t make them good at any one thing when everything’s maxed out. Yeah, it’s no wonder that VGC never even bothered with a Let’s Go league in 2018 and 2019.
  • It’s Not For Me – Some people really enjoyed Let’s Go, and that’s totally fair. I’m not saying that they’re objectively bad games or anything, and as you can probably tell I really loved the characterful additions this game brings. However, I like battling with my Pokemon and Let’s Go does not cater to that side of the fandom at all. Endless catching makes this game so dull for me, to the point where I haven’t even gotten through the entire thing and don’t really plan to. Hell, the only reason I bought it was to try to get a shiny Melmetal and even then I had to wait for a pretty hefty price drop before I could justify it. I think that Let’s Go has its own niche within the Pokemon fandom and I actually do hope that we get Let’s Go sequels in Johto in 2021, but this spin-off just doesn’t do it for me… which is fine, I guess.

Love/Hate: Dead Space Extended Universe

From the very beginning Dead Space was conceived as a multi-media franchise. To that end it managed to build up quite the impressive collection of extended universe material in the five years it was active. Having dabbled in EU material from Star Wars, Halo, Warhammer 40,000 and Splinter Cell (among others), a lot of the time these story extensions are viewed as inessential marketing material. As a result, they typically aren’t very well written, don’t stand on their own merits, or are just “bolter porn” (eg, action fests with little in the way of characters or depth). Luckily, Dead Space has some real gems within its EU, although there is still plenty of material which fit into the latter categories… Sounds ripe for a love/hate breakdown to me!

Also, before we begin, I need to mention that the only piece of Dead Space media I never consumed was the mobile game, due to me not having a smartphone at the time. If I had played it I’d probably include it here and from what I hear it was a fantastic game, but the game is no longer supported on modern Android devices and is unavailable on the Play store. If I can manage to get ahold of it I’ll write a whole entry for it, assuming I have enough thoughts for a post. Anyway, with that aside out of the way, let’s dive in!

Love

  • Dead Space (graphic novel) – EA and Visceral games demonstrated that they were not fucking around with the Dead Space brand as the very first piece of media out of the gate was this six issue comic series and it is easily the best entry in the franchise outside of the actual games. There are a few reasons why this graphic novel is essential reading for horror fans. First of all, the writing is pretty great. Antony Johnston portrays how the entire Aegis VII colony goes to hell in compelling detail, slowly building up the tension to the point of absolute desperation. Secondly, Ben Templesmith’s art is perfect for this kind of story, being very clear but stylized and inked in a manner which gives it this manic, twisted and dark edge. Thirdly, it is the definitive tome about what happened on Aegis VII, which we only get bits and pieces of in Extraction, and therefore is essential for fans. Finally, it’s the perfect entry point to get into the franchise – you don’t need to know the lore to understand it, because everything gets laid out for you organically.
  • Dead Space: Extraction (comic) – Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one-off direct follow-up to the Dead Space comics is just as compelling and essential for fans of the series. Antony Johnston and Ben Templesmith essentially take a victory lap, showing us what Nicole is up to on the Ishimura during the outbreak and gives us more insight into her psychology and personality than any other entry into the franchise. That alone is enough to make Extraction worthwhile reading (especially since Nicole is essentially treated like an objective rather than a person elsewhere), but there’s such a bleak and tragic atmosphere to the whole proceeding that makes it so sad to read, especially since you know how it’s all going to turn out.
  • Dead Space: Martyr – This one really surprised me. Like I said up top, video game extended universe novels have a shaky track record and going through the first chapter of Martyr made me think that my low expectations were going to be met. However, by the time the second chapter starts, Martyr gets enthralling. It works for the same reasons that the Dead Space graphic novel works – it’s all about the build-up. You’re going to notice a trend as this goes along: necromorphs are great video game monsters, but an outbreak is boring in a non-interactive medium. Martyr focuses on the madness that the marker causes and the machinations of the people around it, for good or evil. It also gives fans essential insight into Michael Altman, the “Prophet” of the Church of Unitology, and shows us that he’s not a bad guy as we might have expected. Martyr really surprised me with how good it was and it makes for a chilling read with an ending which is just pitch-black.
  • Samuel Irons – I’ll cover Dead Space: Downfall in its own section later, but the one thing I love in it is Samuel Irons, who I would argue is straight-up the best character in the entire Dead Space franchise. Seriously, he’s a goddamn champ and is literally the only Unitologist we get to see who isn’t portrayed as a fanatic or outright evil. Dude even gets his own badass line before he goes off to face a swarm of necromorphs: “I’m not a hero… just a man”.

Mixed

  • Dead Space: Salvage – In the interstice between Dead Space and Dead Space 2, Ben Templesmith was dropped as the artist on the comic series and was replaced with Christopher Shy. I don’t know if this was for creative or financial reasons, but Shy’s artwork is as gorgeous as it is haunting and very befitting of the Dead Space universe. However, this is ultimately a blessing and a curse for Salvage. On the one hand, it lends the graphic novel a distinct and captivating visual style, making every panel a work of art. However, Shy’s style doesn’t lend itself very well to the story being told here. Salvage follows a team of “Magpies”, illegal salvagers who stumble upon the remains of the Ishimura as Earthgov is seeking it in the aftermath of the first game. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, but Shy’s art style makes it difficult to tell who is who in any given panel, who is saying what and even what is going on at times. Like, you can understand the broad strokes of the story with little issue, but good luck knowing what’s happening panel-to-panel. Hell, about two-thirds of the way through I realized that all the Magpies were on board the Ishimura – I had thought that only a recon team went aboard that whole time! Like I said, the art alone makes slogging through Salvage worthwhile, plus it gives us some really interesting insight into the greater Dead Space universe and the story itself is enjoyable enough when you can understand it, but the unnecessary confusion makes Salvage more difficult to appreciate than it should be.
  • Dead Space: Aftermath – I have a soft spot in my heart for Aftermath which makes me overlook its glaring flaws. First off, it must be said – the CG animation in this movie? DOGSHIT. Seriously, the animation is ReBoot levels of quality (which isn’t a knock on ReBoot, for the record, but you’d think that 17 years of advances in computer technology would raise the minimum threshold). Since almost half the movie is rendered in this machinima-level style, that’s a major issue right off the bat. However, the story structure and characters manage to make Aftermath interesting (for fans of the series at least). Each of the four main characters’ gets a POV section where their part in the story is told via a different anime style flashback. It’s really obvious that this was done so that five different animation studios could be working on the movie simultaneously and for minimal expenditure, but it’s integrated into the narrative itself in an ideal manner. Plus it helps that all of these anime segments are well animated, as opposed to Dead Space: Downfall (which we’ll get to soon enough…). The characters aren’t revolutionary, but they’re interesting enough to carry the proceedings, especially Nolan Stross, whose role in Dead Space 2 is far more interesting when you have this film’s insight into his backstory. Unfortunately, the film suddenly devolves into yet another outbreak story about halfway through, and I really do mean sudden – one minute everything’s fine, the next there’s necromorphs all over the O’Bannon. Aftermath‘s first half does a really good job setting up the madness and expanding the series’ lore, so when it rushes into a half-assed and boring outbreak scenario it’s a real bummer. Like I said, I have a soft spot for Aftermath in spite of its several flaws which would probably throw it right into the “Hate” section for most, but there’s just enough interesting lore and story here that I can’t help but find it interesting.
  • Dead Space: Catalyst – After the surprisingly good Martyr, my excitement for B.K. Evenson’s follow-up novel, Catalyst, couldn’t be higher as the hype train for Dead Space 3 approached. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor was and is arguably the single most inessential piece of media in the Dead Space extended universe. It follows estranged brothers Istvan and Jensi, along with Jensi’s friend Henry. Istvan has some sort of mental illness which makes him psychotic, which eventually leads him to assassinate a political figure and end up in a remote prison facility where a marker research station is housed. Jensi and Henry try to rescue Istvan… but then another outbreak happens. Sigh. Compared to Martyr, Catalyst has far more interesting and compelling characters and the whole setup works really well. Unfortunately, it’s all in service of just giving us yet another necromorph outbreak story and little else beyond that. About the only revelation with potential impact is that Istvan’s mental illness is such that he can change the marker signal, but it is barely developed and Evenson is careful to cut off that source of potential future storytelling. It’s an alright novel, but it didn’t stick with me or demand my attention the way Martyr did.
  • Dead Space: Liberation – Acting as a direct prequel to Dead Space 3, Liberation gives us the backstory for John Carver, showing us the shittiest day of his life. Christopher Shy is back but this time his style has been reined in to be far less ethereal and abstract and instead more moody and realistic. This makes it far easier to follow the story and I can’t say I was ever lost or confused. However, Antony Johnston (writer on the Dead Space comics and games up to this point) was replaced with Ian Edginton (his series Scarlet Traces is well worth checking out!) and the difference in style between the two is night-and-day. Like Dead Space 3, Liberation is a fast-paced, high-stakes action story, where necromorph outbreaks are so inconsequential that we get two of them! Liberation really suffers from being a prequel – there’s no conclusion and all the major plot beats are basically just to set up stuff that will happen in Dead Space 3. Of all the Dead Space extended universe media, Liberation may just be the most obvious marketing ploy of them all. That said, the only things making it worthwhile at all are getting insight into John Carver’s character and Shy’s continued exceptional artwork.

Hate

  • Dead Space: Downfall – I rewatched this movie for this article and good God I still dislike it. The first big issue? The awful, bargain-basement animation. Just look at that screenshot above – it lacks any sort of detail and is meant to be as simple as possible. As bad as it looks in screenshots, it looks even more terrible in motion, with choppy animation demonstrating that they couldn’t afford/be bothered to key in enough frames to make it look smooth. I don’t know if the studio just got overwhelmed with the work they had to do, but it makes me glad that Aftermath took the approach of farming out work to several studios as its animated segments look leagues better (y’know, aside from the awful CG parts). The second big issue is that the main character, Alissa Vincent, sucks. She’s your generic take-no-nonsense head of security and spends the whole movie being insubordinate, hot-headed and doing random acrobatics in the middle of gun fights. She feels like a lame RPG character rather than someone who belongs in the more grounded Dead Space universe. The third big issue is that the story kind of sucks. There’s some enjoyment to be had in seeing the Ishimura plunge into chaos, especially Captain Matthius’ growing paranoia and delusion, but when the film turns into a montage of Vincent and her Dungeons & Dragons party getting into several shootouts with necromorphs it’s just plain dull. Sure, Downfall has Samuel Irons, but he’s the only thing about this movie that I actually love. Dead Space: Extraction covers the fall of the Ishimura as well, so as far as I’m concerned Downfall can be straight-up ignored in the continuity of the franchise.
  • Dead Space: Ignition – Soooooo, I know for a fact I’ve never played this game, but checking through my PlayStation account reveals that at some point I bought it and then never played it… So, um, I want my $5 back, EA. That said, I’m probably better off for never having played Ignition because it’s apparently the crappiest entry in the entire franchise (and that’s factoring in all the games and extended universe, including Downfall). Do you like hacking minigames and cheap comic book art? I sure hope you do because that’s all you’re going to get out of this experience! The only purpose this game serves to the series’ narrative is letting us know a bit about Franco before he’s immediately offed at the beginning of Dead Space 2, but like… who cares? Skip this one for sure.
  • EU Peters Out By Dead Space 3 – Moving on to more general thoughts, it sucks that Dead Space 3 killed the series because it effectively killed the extended universe while it was at it. This especially sucks because Dead Space 3‘s story was ripe for spin-off tales. After all, it introduced a rogue, militant terrorist faction of the Unitologist Church who come out of nowhere, wipe out Earthgov and then cause outbreaks across the galaxy, which the game promptly forgets. That’s a bunch of potential horror stories that went completely unmined. Even then, the two EU stories we did get during Dead Space 3‘s cycle, Catalyst and Liberation did almost nothing to expand the series’ scope or lore. Dead Space and Dead Space 2‘s cycles both gave us new insights into the universe or background events, which makes the sudden disinterest come Dead Space 3 even more depressing.
  • The Portrayal of Religion – One thing that has always annoyed me about the extended universe in Dead Space is that it’s really obvious that the writers have a bone to pick with religion. Everyone writes off Unitologists immediately and calls them crazy, despite the fact that they’re often being confronted face-to-face with the literal holy object of their religion. Like, I’m no Scientologist, but if someone showed me Xenu I’d at least consider the possibility that they might have some answers. Naturally, every Unitologist (except for Samuel Irons, the goddamn champ) gets written as a fanatic or downright evil, while the people who explicitly oppose them are “rational” thinkers like scientists, doctors and… uh… the police. This despite the fact that about half of the Unitologist characters weren’t even known to be Unitologists until the events of the stories, showing that they’re really just regular people for the most part. It’s just so obviously anti-religious sentiment and is excessively simplified to the point of being insulting (such as the implication that being religious causes you to be more susceptible to the marker’s maddening effects). This also ignores that the Dead Space series makes it explicitly clear that governments are the real villains, Unitology is just a tool. Hell, even the series’ writers seem to have forgotten this because by the time Dead Space 3 rolls around the government’s killed off-screen and we have moustache-twirling religious loonies as the villains. The treatment in the franchise is just lazy and makes “Unitologist” shorthand for “villain” 99% of the time.
  • No Resolution – Sure, you could argue that Awakened ends the franchise with everyone dying, but I don’t buy that. Dead Space has too many loose ends still dangling, the most crucial of which is Lexine. Dead Space 4 (or an EU story at the very least) NEEDED to bring Lexine into the forefront and make good on Nicole’s revelations in the Extraction comic – it is possible to defeat the necromorphs. Hell… I’m half tempted to write my own version, because EA sure as fuck is never going to.

Love/Hate: Dead Space 3

Man, I was being nice to this game back when I wrote my original review of it. The intervening years have made me more and more hostile to Dead Space 3, especially considering that EA used its moderate success as an excuse to kill the franchise. That said, there are things to love about Dead Space 3, so let’s dive in and check it out…

Love

  • Tau Volantis is Cool – I remember a lot of fans complained that a Dead Space game was going to be taking place on a planet back in the day, but I’ve never had an issue with this. For one thing, it’s still sci-fi and for another, a frozen planet is barely a step down from the existential danger of space. In fact, it opens up new opportunities for horror – enemies hidden in the snow, body temperature regulation, snow squalls, etc. Visceral Games use all of these elements throughout the game and make the most of the setting within the framework they set for themselves.
  • Side-quests – One of the most interesting new additions in Dead Space 3 is the optional “side-quests” that you can embark on. These reward the player with supplies for completion and, most importantly, provide little self-contained stories to uncover. I’m a sucker for side-quests and appreciate their inclusion in this game – it gives me some fun, optional content to explore and rewards you for taking the risk.
  • Co-Op is Entirely Optional – Co-op modes were being shoehorned into games during this time period and often resulted in you being forced to wrangle a friend whenever you wanted to play, or dealing with invariably awful AI companions. Dead Space 3 makes the elegant decision to make the game’s marquee co-op mode entirely optional. Want to play through the game solo? That’s cool, Carver will be awkwardly on the fringes of the entire story, but you’re otherwise not even going to notice. It is a far more preferable solution to this than brain-dead AI that turns into a frustrating burden. The only issue is that certain side-quests are co-op only, making it feel like you’re missing out on content for not participating.
  • Extensive Weapon Crafting System – Dead Space 3 is often criticized for its weapon crafting system, being blamed for reducing the horror. However, I feel like it provides a more elegant solution to the weapon management system from the previous games, effectively allowing you to pick the weapons you actually want to use and mash them together into two personal super-guns. Sure, this also results in them being potentially overpowered, jack-of-all-trades crutch weapons, but Dead Space 3 is designed around that so it works. Getting your preferred weapon to a “just right” state is satisfying in itself and there are so many combinations you can produce that it’s cool to see it in action.
  • Supercharged Kinesis – In the very late game Dead Space 3 goes off the rails in terms of its stakes. One of the best parts of this though is the supercharged kinesis – kinesis has always been fun, but how do you like the idea of tearing the limbs right off of attacking necromorphs or launching entire markers at the real hive mind of the necromorphs? It’s a power fantasy but it feels so damn good while it lasts.
  • The Space Section – After the introduction, Dead Space 3 spends a good hour or two in orbit around Tau Volantis. It feels like a watered down version of classic Dead Space, but it’s still a blast to play through as you fly through a spaceship graveyard and trying to get the parts to repair your own craft. I especially like the art direction on the necromorphs here, they’ve been dormant for almost 200 years and they look so desiccated after all this time.
  • Feeders – Dead Space 3 doesn’t introduce a lot of new enemies, but a couple of them are great. Most pertinent are the Feeders, blind necromorphs that are attracted to strong light sources and sound. Having to deal with enemies in a non-combative way is a great change for the series and provides some of the few true horror moments in the game. Plus their backstory is amazing, having been created after starving humans got desperate enough to feed on the flesh of defeated necromorphs. In addition to Feeders, the Shambler is also a cool concept, where a necromorph decapitates a victim and then embeds itself in their neck cavity to control the body.

Mixed

  • Body Temperature Regulation is Underutilized – I know I praised Dead Space 3 for how it makes the most of Tau Volantis, but one thing it could have done more with is body temperature regulation. When you crash land on the planet you have to stay in proximity to heat to avoid freezing to death, but you soon find a thermal suit and never have to worry about it again. If they hadn’t done this then there’s definitely the potential for this to just become a burden, but handled well I feel like having to worry about freezing to death would have added far more tension to the game and made Tau Volantis itself a more dangerous setting.
  • Awakened DLC – Once again, a Dead Space story DLC lands in the mixed section, for similar reasons. On the plus side, Awakened drastically ups the horror elements compared to the main game, making for a tenser and more interesting experience. However, its ending leaves a real sour taste in my mouth. For one thing, it effectively undoes the ending of the main game, going from a bittersweet ending to one that is straight-up nihilistic. The fact that this is the last piece of Dead Space story we’ve ever gotten just makes it worse. Don’t get me wrong, a bleak ending can work but I don’t feel like it was earned at all. In addition, are you telling me that no one managed to evacuate Earth to the several stations and colonies we know humanity has? Hell, I was under the impression that the vast majority of The Sprawl was evacuated in Dead Space 2 and that was in the middle of a full-on outbreak in a confined station. It just makes me even more annoyed that we never got Dead Space 4 starring Lexine Murdoch-Weller going out to kick some necromorph ass.

Hate

  • Balance Is Out of Whack – Dead Space and Dead Space 2 struck a fantastic balance of making health and ammo scarce while giving you just enough enemies to deal with where you felt like you were barely holding on. Dead Space 3, however, completely fails in this regard and just feels cheap at times. The game inundates you health pickups, to the point where I never managed to run out (and, to be more accurate, my inventory was chocked full of them at all times). You’re also never going to run out of ammo for any particular weapon, because ammo pickups are now universal. Enemy encounters are just a pain in the ass though – you get swarmed by enemies from all angles, to the point where it just feels cheap. I’m not sure if this is because the game only has one spawn system to cover for single player and co-op, or if the game has just been designed to try to overwhelm you, but it makes planning less important than spraying and praying.
  • Microtransactions – Dead Space 3 was the prototype for forced-in microtransactions in single player games. I remember thinking that it wasn’t a big deal back in the day because I never felt like you needed to rely on them to get supplies, but goddamn if their putrid legacy can’t be felt to this day. The fact that this game was so groundbreaking for something so shitty is an irredeemable blight on the game that can’t be taken away.
  • Human Enemies – By far one of the worst aspects of this game is that it turns into a cover shooter at certain points. I’m playing Dead Space, I don’t want to play a crappy version of Uncharted or Gears of War. It’s just… ugh.
  • Everything is Watered Down – Did you like Dead Space‘s mix of horror and gore? Cool, then how about we give you an action game in the vein of Uncharted instead… While Dead Space 3 does have occasional moments of light horror, the game is on the whole orders of magnitude less scary and far less violent. Hell, even aspects of the previous game which return here, such as the Stalkers, are changed to be less scary (instead of trying to flank you, they just charge instantly). Like I said, the weapon crafting and universal ammo reduce the tension as well in favour of straight action. What do we get instead? Over-the-top set pieces which quickly outstay their welcome. Even some of the necromorphs are wielding weapons in this game, which just makes them less inhuman terrors.
  • The Story – Hoo boy, strap in because there is a lot to talk about in this regard:
    • In regards to the set-up of this game, within the first few minutes we’re told that Unitologist terrorists have straight-up wiped out EarthGov and are launching terrorist attacks across the galaxy to try to initiate convergence. Holy shit, that’s crazy! I hope you don’t care about this interesting turn of events though because the game never returns to it and we never got any extended universe content to cover these monumental developments. To make matters worse, Awakened ends with Isaac and Carver trying to contact EarthGov so… did they (by which I mean the writers) forget what happened?
    • I also don’t like the concept of the Brethren Moons. For one thing, we don’t need to know what controls and creates the markers, the mystery is part of the allure. Beyond that, we’ve already got enough complication – the markers make the hive mind, which controls the necromorphs… so what’s the point of a hive mind if there are actually Brethren Moons? It’s the sort of plot development that I hate, where it relies on ever-growing stakes to feel important. Like, what was next for Dead Space 4, finding out what’s controlling the Brethren Moons?
    • Oh and nearly every single character in Dead Space 3 SUUUUUUUCKS. Main human antagonist, Danik? He’s such a lame villain. At least Tiedemann in Dead Space 2 was somewhat understandable in his motivations, Danik is just a monologuing asshole. And speaking of assholes, Norton spends the entire game being a jealous prick to Isaac. Even Carver’s a real dick, but at least he has something of an arc where he becomes friendly over time. Most of the rest of the cast are cannon fodder, except for…
  • Ellie Has Been Sexed Up – God damn, EA wanted Dead Space 3 to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd, so what’s one way they went about this? They sexed up Ellie Langford, softening her features, presumably giving her implants and then showing off a ton of cleavage whenever possible. Like… it’s so in your face and so obviously pandering that I hate it.
  • It’s Compromised to the Core – Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Space 3 after all this time is that the game is fundamentally compromised. Visceral clearly didn’t get to make the story or game they wanted to, but in order to keep the series going they had to give in to EA’s demands… and for what? The game still didn’t do well enough to keep the franchise alive and even if it did we would have gotten a Dead Space 4 that was even more removed from what made this franchise great in the first place. All we’re left with is a game which betrays everything we liked about Dead Space to begin with and ends the series on a truly sour note.

Love/Hate: Dead Space 2

Welcome back to the next entry in the Dead Space Love/Hate series. Today we’re going to be looking at Dead Space 2, which is probably my favourite entry in the franchise and straight-up one of my favourite games ever. That said, there are still things that bother me even in my favourite games, so let’s get into them…

Love

  • Builds On The First Game’s Strengths – For the most part Dead Space 2 plays like the first game did, but better. There’s more of everything – more enemies, more weapons, more varied encounters, more intensity, more polish, etc. It doesn’t take any huge leaps forward but it doesn’t need to – it takes an already solid foundation and just makes it better in every way.
  • Balance of Horror and Action – A lot of people say that Dead Space 2 isn’t nearly as scary as the first game, but I disagree. While Dead Space 2 has a bit more action, it still balances this with intense encounters and a pervasive scary atmosphere. Just as much as the first game you’re having to balance your sparse reserves of health and ammo and plan out how you’re going to survive every encounter. Big set-pieces like the Tormentor fight are still intense and terrifying and to this day I can remember moments of horror like fighting my way through the necromorph infested school.
  • Isaac Speaks! – Dead Space 2 really drives home how much Isaac Clarke’s silent protagonist turn in the first game was a mistake, because he displays so much more personality here. It opens up so much more opportunity to interact and react to the world around you. It also makes it easier to show off his personality and the influence that the marker is having on his sanity.
  • Story Is Improved – One area where Dead Space 2 excels over its predecessor is its much more interesting story progression. Kicking off in one of the most viscerally-memorable opening sequences I’ve ever experienced in a game, Dead Space 2 throws you into the middle of an active necromorph outbreak as Earthgov and the Church of Unitology fight over control of Isaac. Meanwhile, Isaac is just trying to figure out how to destroy the marker and survive, while being taunted by haunting visions of his deceased girlfriend, Nicole, as his sanity is ripped away. It makes for a far more interesting narrative than the relatively simple “bitch work” in the first game. The story even explores some deeper themes, showing the toll that grief takes on the mind and the process of overcoming it.
  • New Enemies Are Amazing – Dead Space 2 introduces several new and iconic enemies to the series, making combat encounters even more varied than they were before. The best is by far the Stalkers, velociraptor-like necromorphs that hunt in packs, peeking out around corners at you and running away to find the best place to get a sneaky flank on. Hearing one of these things letting out their charge-scream when you don’t know where it is coming from is panic-inducing. Pukers are also very iconic enemies, to the point where I had completely forgotten that they weren’t in the first game. Their corrosive and slowing projectile vomit attacks can create really tense problems for Isaac if they aren’t managed carefully and getting too close is a potential death sentence. The Pack and Crawlers are also great enemies and terrifying reminders that the necromorphs are merciless, wiping out all living beings regardless of their age.
  • New Weapons Add More Variety – There are three new weapons in Dead Space 2, adding more ways to dismember necromorphs. Of these, by far the coolest is the javelin gun, a weapon which shoots out huge javelins which can impale necromorphs and pin them to walls and, to add insult to injury, be electrocuted for additional damage. The detonator is also cool, acting as a grenade launcher that can be used to set traps around the environment. Finally, the seeker rifle is effectively a powerful battle rifle, allowing you to fire at distant enemies with greater precision. Furthermore, old weapons have been rebalanced to make them more useful, such as the pulse rifle gaining a far more useful grenade launcher alt-fire mode. The flamethrower’s still pretty meh though.
  • Free Movement in Zero-G – The space sections of Dead Space felt gimmicky, but the feature is fully fleshed out in Dead Space 2, allowing you full ability to move and shoot in zero gravity. Put simply, it makes these sequences much more exciting and fun to play through.

Mixed

  • Severed DLC – The Severed story DLC for Dead Space 2 is such a mixed bag of glorious highs and disappointing lows. One the plus side: holy shit, it’s a bite-sized narrative sequel to Dead Space: Extraction! It gives us even more of Dead Space 2‘s fantastic gameplay! We get some really interesting lore for the factions in the Dead Space universe! Twitchers are back! But on the disappointing side… it’s barely an hour long (for ~$7)! Lexine’s back and gets screwed over even harder than in Dead Space: Extraction (she’s shunted into a relationship with Gabe, despite both of them not getting along at all in Extraction, and spends the entire game being damselled despite once again being the most important person in the Dead Space universe)! Ultimately, it’s more Dead Space 2 so it’s worth it for me, but I can’t help but wish it was its own fully fleshed-out experience.

Hate

  • Obligatory Multiplayer – Like many AAA games of the era, Dead Space 2 has a tacked-on multiplayer mode that no one wanted or asked for, which exists purely to extend player engagement and sell multiplayer DLC packs. Don’t get me wrong, there are tacked-on multiplayer modes from this era which were surprisingly fun, such as Metal Gear Online and The Last of Us, but that was because they offered some sort of fun unique experience that you couldn’t get elsewhere. While the concept of playing as a necromorph is enticing, it is ultimately just not very fun to play and struggles to justify the mode’s existence. Like… if I’m playing Dead Space 2, I’m there for the story mode. There’s nothing here to keep me interested.
  • Hard Core Mode is BRUTAL – I don’t bother to go for Platinum trophies unless I really enjoy a game, so the fact that I went for it on Dead Space 2 should show how much I was dedicated to the pursuit. To this day there is only one roadblock keeping me from the Platinum – beat the game in Hard Core mode. Can’t be that bad, right? I soldiered through Zealot mode no problem, what more can the game throw at me? How about beating the game on Hard but with only 3 saves to get you through the whole 6+ hour runtime of the game? So not only do you have to plan out the points you save ahead of time, but if you reach that point and your health/ammo are low? Too bad, you’re screwed. Oh, you died? Say good bye to an hour and a half of gameplay! And don’t even think about having a life, you have to dedicate it to this game solely if you want to earn this trophy. Seriously, I just don’t have the time to throw myself into this mode and deal with the frustration that it demands just to get a digital trophy. The fact that even 6% of players have beaten the game on this difficulty is insane to me.
  • Final Boss Fight… Again – Once again the final boss fight in a Dead Space game is questionable. After blasting through hordes of enemies and barely surviving the regenerating ubermorph, Isaac reaches the marker and gets dragged into a hallucination where he has to fight off Nicole, necromorphs and damage the marker. Do this three times and convergence is stopped… because the marker’s creator has to be absorbed in order for it to work? What? The marker is destroyed because he managed to literally overcome his grief? It’s better than the original Dead Space‘s ending and it makes sense thematically, but it’s a weird-ass way to defeat the final boss for an otherwise straightforward game like this and just makes the lore around markers convoluted… Okay, that’s a bit of a nit-picky hate, but seriously, this game is just so damn good.

Love/Hate: Dead Space – Extraction

For the second entry in the Dead Space Love/Hate series, we have Dead Space: Extraction, the shockingly good rail shooter spinoff for the Wii… like, just typing that out makes it even more surprising that this game is as good as it is. I played this when it was ported to the PS3 alongside Dead Space 2 and had a great time with it. That said, for everything I love there are always things to hate – let’s take a look at the breakdown.

Love

  • Wisely Translates Dead Space to Motion Controls – The Wii had a terrible track record of nigh-unplayable ports which were marred from the system’s underpowered specs and reliance on motion controls. Rather than try to put a lesser version of the original game onto the Wii, the devs at Visceral Games wisely chose to make a brand new experience from the ground up. This allows Extraction to provide a fun experience well worth checking out for fans of the first game and exist on its own merits at the same time. It also manages to keep the horror elements mostly intact, providing plenty of build-up before confrontations and making running out of ammo terrifying as you get swarmed by necromorphs.
  • Compelling Side-Story – Prequels and side-stories often struggle to justify themselves in video games, but Extraction has the benefit of being legitimately interesting. Dead Space‘s world was designed to be expanded upon and the events that took place on Aegis VII were only hinted at in the first game. The comics and movies cover this ground as well, but Extraction is the most comprehensive and engrossing version of what happened on Aegis VII and the Ishimura. As a result, it’s well worth playing for fans of the series and doesn’t suffer from demystifying the events that led up to Dead Space. It also helps that the mainline Dead Space games always happen long after or in the middle of necromorph outbreaks, so seeing one from the very beginning provides a very different and just as compelling experience.
  • Action Reloads – In addition to all its changes as a result of adapting to the Wii’s hardware, Extraction introduces action reloads to the series. It’s a small change but it is so satisfying to pull these off consistently (that sound effect is pure bliss) and necessary to survive the swarms of enemies that come at you. Fumbling an action reload can be a horror unto itself as you’re stuck reloading those extra moments while a necromorph is bearing down on you.
  • Enjoyable Characters – Extraction spends a lot of time just letting you get to know the characters and having them interact with one another. They’re all fairly stock characters (Nathan’s a detective, Gabe’s a soldier, Lexine is the over-her-head civilian and Warren’s the executive company man), but the amount of time we get to spend with everyone makes them grow on you and there are a few twists and turns as it goes along. Lexine in particular has a fascinating secret which I wish would have been explored further in Dead Space 3 or 4.

Mixed

  • Pacing – Rail shooters tend to conjure up images of endless bullet-fests, but Extraction tends to take its time between confrontations, building up the characters, atmosphere and tension instead. While this ultimately makes for a better experience in my opinion, it’s undeniable that you’re going to need patience because Extraction can take a long time to get from place to place, moreso than any of the mainline games in the series.
  • Voice Acting is Spotty – As much as I enjoy the characters and interactions in this game, and as great as Laura Pyper’s Irish accent is, it’s hard to deny that the voice acting is questionable at times. Whether it’s weird delivery or bad acting, every single main character suffers from this at some point. It’s not constant and it’s not a crippling issue, but it does make the game’s emphasis on the characters awkward at times.

Hate

  • Poor Graphics – I get that Extraction is a Wii game so Visceral had to work with what they could, but the game still looks really rough, especially in the HD PS3 port. I think that a lot of the game’s assets are recycled from Dead Space, but scaled down so that we’re stuck with really muddy textures. The bodies of dead necromorphs also immediately dissolve, which I can only imagine is related to the Wii’s underpowered tech. That said, at least the framerate is silky smooth in the PS3 port (can’t confirm whether this carries over to the Wii version), which is important since the whole game is in first person with a lot of head-bobbing. A sub-60fps would be nigh unplayable so while the graphics are bad at least the game’s still very enjoyable in spite of this.
  • Seriously, Another Asteroid Shooting Gallery? – One of the universal complaints about the first Dead Space is that the section where Isaac has to man a cannon and shoot asteroids is the worst part of the game. So what do they do in Extraction? Why, they added another shooting gallery as you approach the Ishimura! It’s just as bad as it was in Dead Space and judging the distances of incoming projectiles is unforgiving.
  • The Objectification of Lexine – Like I said earlier, Lexine is probably the most fascinating character in the game. Everyone else is an archetype, but she gets at least a bit more potential in that she’s a civilian who’s caught up in all of this mess and has to make the most of it. The fact that she’s immune to the Marker signal and causes the people around her to be as well also makes her potentially the most important character in all of the Dead Space universe, brimming with story potential. So what does Extraction do with her? Well, within a minute of the game starting she’s getting overt sex comments from her boyfriend. That’s innocuous enough, but then it’s implied that Nathan McNeil keeps her around because he wants to seduce her, he stares at her ass at one point, he stares at her during one scene when she’s gratuitously naked and she needs to be rescued on several occasions. When you add it all up, Lexine’s portrayal turns her into a damsel and sex object. None of the other characters get this sort of treatment and it sucks.
  • Rushed Ending – The ending of Extraction is strangely rushed and sudden. After the survivors escape the Ishimura, suddenly the screen fades to a necromorph POV which attacks Lexine… and that’s it. Did a necromorph sneak on board the ship? Did they survive? It’s so ambiguous that Word of God had to step in and reveal that this necromorph was Nathan McNeil, who somehow got infected and transformed on the ship as they got away. We now know that Gabe and Lexine survived, but there’s no way to know this based on the way Extraction ends.

Love/Hate: Dead Space

Dead Space is one of my favourite video game franchises. It’s like it’s made to appeal to me – horror, sci-fi and twisted monsters intent on tearing you apart. During the series’ hey-day, I enthusiastically consumed every bit of Dead Space media I could get my hands on. The franchise has had its ups and downs, which makes it ripe for a Love/Hate series! Naturally, we’ll start at the beginning with 2008’s Dead Space

Love

  • Solid Gameplay – Dead Space was conceptualized as a spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 and builds on that game’s foundation in some fantastic ways. For a long time people said that the restrictive controls in early survival horror games were a key part of the experience. Dead Space showed that you could have free movement and enjoyable gameplay and still have a terrifying game experience. More specifically:
    • Strategic dismemberment makes combat far more interesting than just making enemies into bullet sponges. Blowing limbs off also dynamically changes necromorph attacks – cut out their legs and they’ll crawl after you, blow off their head and they’ll flail wildly, take off an arm and they’ll have one less way to kill you, etc. Some enemies are also only vulnerable to specific attacks so it keeps combat constantly engaging.
    • Stasis and kinesis are also great tools for combat, light puzzle-solving and environmental traversal. Stasis in particular is essential to survive the swarms of enemies you’ll face in the late game and kinesis can be the difference between life and death when ammo gets scarce.
    • Another thing that I really appreciate about Dead Space‘s design is that ammo and health pickups are wisely restricted to keep you desperate, especially in the late game. I can still remember getting into combat encounters where I had a handful of ammo and had to actively strategize how to get through the next encounter alive, it makes for intense, thrilling gameplay.
  • Immersive In-Universe HUD – One of the coolest design aspects of Dead Space is that it doesn’t have a traditional HUD showing health, ammo, etc. Instead, these are all built into Isaac’s outfit (RIG) and weapons. Unlike some other games at the time which tried to cut down on HUD elements (such as Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which removed the visibility meter for a binary red light/green light), the information visible to the player isn’t inadequate either, everything they would need to know is clearly communicated and visible at a glance.
  • Sound Design – One aspect in which the Dead Space series was universally commended on was its sound design. From the blasts of your weapons, to the screeches and roars of the necromorphs (I can still remember being freaked out the first time I heard a Divider), to the sounds of things scuttling around out of sight, it all helps to create a pervasive horror atmosphere for the game. The way that sound is almost entirely absent during sections that take place in space are particularly notable, featuring just dull thuds which makes these areas an eerie highlight.
  • The Horror – Dead Space‘s horror takes elements of the Resident Evil games and mixes them in with influences from The Thing, Alien, Event Horizon and zombie movies to give us an enticing cocktail. You’re just constantly on edge, unsure where or when danger is going to come at you. It even trains you over time – is something going to come out of that air vent? Is that slasher just playing dead (you quickly learn to stomp every corpse, even human ones, just to be safe)? When the door opens is there going to be something on the other side? The resource management I’ve previously mentioned also helps here, keeping every single encounter tense and ensuring that you can never let your guard down.
  • Enemy Variety – Dead Space features fifteen unique forms of necromorphs, enhanced forms of most of these, plus three boss monsters, all presenting unique threats and requiring different methods to dispatch them. This variety helps ensure that Dead Space‘s combat encounters never get old as the enemies and environments can be mixed and matched to present unique challenges. Particular highlights include the Pregnants, whose bloated chests will spew out several small enemies if shot, Leapers (who never fail to stress me out) and the shriek-inducing Twitchers. Also worth mentioning is The Hunter, a necromorph that rapidly regrows its limbs and stalks you as you try to complete your objectives during two parts of the game. The first time you encounter it, you have to use kinesis to create a path to escape as it’s bearing down on you – I can still remember being freaked out!
  • Organic World Building – Like many games of its time, Dead Space populates its environment with audio logs and diary entries, filling out its world without forcing the player to sit through mandatory exposition dumps. Some of these logs are quite affecting – as you travel through the game you’ll find snippets from Jacob Temple and Elizabeth Cross, another couple who are fighting to reunite with one another. When you finally catch up with them, it makes for a tragic moment because you’ve invested so much in their journey and serves to make the psychotic Dr. Mercer that much more of a villain. In addition, the game imparts details about fictional concepts like planet cracking, the state of the galaxy and the Church of Unitology organically, giving us a sense of what the Dead Space universe is like without having to show us directly.
  • The Ishimura Layout – The Ishimura makes for a claustrophobic and cramped locale to try to survive on. It feels appropriately old, grimy and lived-in and each deck has its own unique feel to it. It’s a fun, varied environment that helps drive most of the game’s terrors.
  • Brutal Death Sequences – No one wants to die in a video game, but if it’s gonna happen then at least you can revel in the morbid satisfaction that is Dead Space‘s BRUTAL death sequences. Isaac gets chopped to bits in various manners that really drive home how relentless and merciless the necromorphs are.

Mixed

  • The Story is Functional But Unremarkable – The story in Dead Space is pretty simple – bad stuff happening in space, Isaac volunteers to man the rescue mission because his girlfriend is caught up in the middle of it all. From there you spend the next several hours surviving and uncovering exactly what happened, but a lot of it ultimately boils down to bitch work: something bad happens on the ship, so Isaac gets told to go fix it. It works and it helps drive the game forward, but it’s not super compelling on its own. There’s a twist towards the end that is also not particularly satisfying because the red herring is really obvious.
  • Oxygen Meter is Kind of Pointless – Isaac has a limited reserve of oxygen when entering the vacuum of space. Initially this creates some additional anxiety and you can even upgrade your RIG to have a greater reserve… however, this is a waste of a power node. You realize pretty quickly that oxygen is more of a threat than a real problem – after all, the developers had to design all vacuum sections to be completed without requiring upgrades. In addition, there are O2 refill stations and, if that wasn’t enough, portable air canisters. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever died from lack of O2, nor have I bothered to waste my valuable power nodes on upgrading my supply. Spend that shit on stasis or your guns.
  • Zero G Sections Are Clunky – While functional at the time, movement in the zero gravity segments of the game is pretty stiff. Basically, you have to aim at platforms and press a button, which will launch Isaac towards it automatically. Again, this works, but compared to later games in the series, it’s far less enjoyable to move around in zero G.

Hate

  • Situational Weapons – There are seven weapons in Dead Space, each with a primary and alternate fire mode… and some of these are just crap. The flamethrower in particular is almost universally acknowledged to be dogshit in nearly every situation, especially when its jobs could easily be done with a less situational weapon. To add insult to injury, it can’t even be used in a vacuum in this game and can’t even hit most of the bosses at all! The Pulse Rifle and Ripper are also quite weak without significant investment in upgrades. I also never liked the Force Gun, it’s is only really good for knocking back enemies, but I’d rather just kill them outright. Personally, I tend to stick with the Plasma Cutter as my mainstay, Line Gun for heavier targets, then maybe the Pulse Rifle, Ripper or Contact Beam for my last two slots, depending on what I need at the time.
  • Silent Isaac – The sequels made Isaac’s “silent protagonist” turn in Dead Space worse, but even at the time this was a dated element of the game. While Isaac does manage to show a bit of personality just through his actions, it really limits how engaging he can be, in favour of being a blank slate for the player to project on. Even then, it’s just plain weird that he’s not talking to people who are talking to him or reacting to all the horrors going on. Like, he’s not gonna say anything about the monsters or the people committing suicide in front of him…?
  • Final Boss is Disappointing – After hours of tense horror, the final boss fight suddenly turns Dead Space into an action spectacle. It goes against the whole point of the game and doesn’t provide much of a challenge for that matter. I feel like the regenerating Hunter provided a better template for how to make a horrifying boss, but the Hive Mind makes for a disappointing finale.
  • DLC – Being a PS3/Xbox 360 game, Dead Space comes with obligatory DLC in the form of reskinned costumes and weapon skin packs. The costumes that give you in-game effects that shake up the game slightly, but there really isn’t much to them and they don’t change the game enough to be worth it in my opinion. Effectively, it’s DLC for the sake of DLC.

Dark Souls: The Ethics of Linking the Fire

In case I haven’t made it obvious yet, I love the Dark Souls franchise. I adore the challenging, clever and strategic gameplay, but just as important to me is the series’ lore. FromSoftware have crafted an incredible mythology for these games which, in my opinion, is the main reason why this franchise has had the longevity it enjoys, as it encourages players to dwell on their own theories and piece them together even when they’re not actively playing the game. FromSoftware have also baked in an intentional amount of ambiguity, meaning that every player is going to have their own interpretation of the world and events that occur within it. On that point, several months ago Jim Sterling put out a video about his interpretation of the politics in Dark Souls and, while I agree with his interpretation of the lore for the most part, I found it interesting that our ultimate conclusions on how to complete the story differ. I had kind of taken it for granted that my interpretation of how to proceed in Dark Souls and its sequels was “correct”, so it was intriguing to see other peoples’ takes on how one should proceed in the game. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that the Dark Souls franchise provides a fantastic case study to explore the philosophy of ethics.

Before we go on, it’s worth establishing the basic lore of Dark Souls somewhat in case you’re not familiar. In the world of Dark Souls, there was first the Age of Ancients, where immortal dragons ruled the world and nothing really ever changed. Then, one day, fire and souls appeared and the greatest of these souls were claimed by those who would become the four lords – Gwyn the Lord of Sunlight, Nito the Lord of the Dead, the Witch of Izalith and the Furtive Pygmy, possessor of the titular Dark Soul. Gwyn, the most powerful of the lords, kindled the “first flame” and used its power to wage a war against the dragons. The downfall of the dragons ushered in the Age of Fire, with Gwyn as its ruler. However, during all this the Furtive Pygmy split the Dark Soul into fragments, a small piece of which was possessed by every human. The Pygmy knew that one day fire would fade and that this would usher in an Age of Dark, which humanity would now possess. Indeed, while Lord Gwyn’s reign was prosperous and saw the establishment of many powerful kingdoms, the first flame did begin to slowly fade, threatening to end his rule over the world. In desperation to prevent this end from occurring, the Witch of Izalith accidentally destroyed herself and her entire kingdom, turning them into demons, while Gwyn ultimately sacrificed his own life to the first flame to restore and prolong the Age of Fire.

The original Dark Souls picks up some time after Gwyn’s sacrifice, with the first flame fading once again. As the fire fades, humans have begun being afflicted with the “curse of the undead”, which causes humans to be unable to die, but they lose bits and pieces of their humanity and personality until they enter a zombie-like existence as a “hollow”. The player takes the role of one of these undead who is tasked with gathering souls to become powerful enough to acquire the four Lord Souls. The driving force behind the player’s actions is never quite clear – first, it’s a vague prophecy about an undead who will collect souls and end the curse of the undead. Then they are confronted by Gwyn’s daughter in Anor Londo, the city of light, and a serpent named Frampt who tell the player to collect the Lord Souls and use them to “link the fire”. Ultimately, the player then has to confront Gwyn in the Kiln of the First Flame, where they then are presented with the choice of linking the fire, an act which the player probably still doesn’t fully comprehend – which is what brings me to the point of this post. What should the player do at the end of Dark Souls?

There’s one more thing that we need to establish before we can answer that question. It’s worth mentioning that there is deception at foot in Dark Souls which many players will likely never even realize on a first playthrough (if ever). Anor Londo, the city of the gods, has been abandoned and darkened all this time and Gwynevere, who directs us on our quest, is an illusion. Furthermore, Frampt is not the only serpent out there, for there is another one named Kaathe who tells the player the “truth”, that Gwyn usurped the Age of Dark from humanity in order to extend the Age of Fire, a process which he says goes against the natural order of the world. Frampt has been coercing undead to relink the fire through deceptive means and if the undead he was shepherding understood what this meant, they might not be so keen to see it through. In contrast, Kaathe reveals that he’s looking for a “Dark Lord” who will rule humanity in this Age of Dark and is hoping that the player character will fulfill this role by slaying Gwyn and rejecting the fire.

Okay, now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, we can finally start looking at whether the player should link the fire or not. In his video, Jim Sterling talks about how he chooses to not link the fire because he likens it to real-world politics, where the gods are akin to the rich and humanity are akin to the oppressed working class who are exploited to give more power to the rich. In this reading, linking the fire is akin to holding up unequal power structures which are to your detriment. In that scenario, Jim chooses to not link the fire and to tear down the power of the gods in favour of humanity, which is a perfectly valid reading of this scenario. However, even being aware of this deception, I still choose to link the fire in Dark Souls because I believe that this is the most ethical ending.

There are several ethical philosophies that can be applied to try to determine what course of action is the most ethical to pursue. Paul Martin Lester lists and briefly explains six of them on his website: the golden rule, hedonism, the golden mean, the categorical imperative, utilitarianism and the veil of ignorance. For our purposes we will focus on utilitarianism for now, as it is the closest to conventional views of morality. According to the University of Texas’ “Ethics Unwrapped”, utilitarianism is a moral philosophy where “the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number [of people]”. You may look at this and wonder how linking the fire produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, especially since we have already revealed that the prolonging of the Age of Fire benefits the gods, while humanity is meant to inherit the Age of Dark. However, there is a key factor worth considering here – when he established the Age of Fire, Gwyn linked humanity’s souls to the first flame, thus bringing about the curse of the undead and hollowed states. The undead may actually be intended to be humanity’s natural state in an Age of Dark, but the Age of Fire has made it into an awful state of being which collapses societies and tears away the self. We see this many times over the course of the games, as colourful characters such as Solaire of Astora, Siegward of Catarina, Lucatiel of Mirrah and the crestfallen knight slowly lose themselves to hollowing, a condition that becomes more and more prevalent in society as the fire fades. As a result, the longer that the fire is allowed to fade, the more disruptive the curse of the undead is going to be for the lives of humans everywhere and the more people who are going to lose their humanity. When viewed this way, linking the fire is clearly going to cause the least disruption to the lives of the people, especially if it is done sooner rather than later.

The whole Frampt vs Kaathe debate is also worth a second look when deciding whether to link the fire. At first glance, most players who encounter Kaathe are going to assume that he’s he one telling the truth about the world and the player’s situation and therefore has your best interests in mind when he tells you not to link the fire. However, it’s worth noting that Kaathe is a foil to Frampt and that both of the primordial serpents are kingseekers – Frampt wants to find a successor to Gwyn to link the fire, whereas Kaathe wants to crown a “dark lord” to usurp Gwyn’s throne. As the player, that works fantastically for you, since you spend the whole game collecting souls and becoming (likely) the most powerful being in this world. However, is having one powerful overlord really the best option for humanity in the end, or is it better for humanity if one powerful individual is sacrificed instead to keep their way of life intact? Are we better off with another Gwyn-like figure ruling this Age of Dark, only more powerful since he or she has absorbed all of the lord souls? We, of course, don’t really have an answer to this question, but it’s worth keeping in mind when appraising the situation – we can’t assume that Kaathe has the best interests of humanity in mind and, while it’s great for us as the player that we could be the most powerful being in the world, it may not be the best situation for everyone else. As a result, Frampt’s deception is likely warranted, as a being strong enough to link the fire is extremely unlikely to do so willingly. We actually see this play out several times in Dark Souls III, where the truth of the linking of the fire has become common knowledge and the man tasked to link the fire rejects his calling. Not only that, but three of the four resurrected Lords of Cinder who have already linked the fire once before reject the call and refuse to go through with linking a second time (not to mention that Aldrich was forced to link the fire the first time and Ludleth of Courland vividly recounts the pain involved in the experience, so there’s little wonder why they don’t volunteer to go through with it again). One can easily see how this deception would be necessary to convince the most powerful being in the realm to unwittingly volunteer to give up their power (and life) to link the fire.

Since the Age of Dark is supposed to be the time of humanity, wouldn’t that inevitably be the best for humans though? This is, unfortunately, an answer that we simply don’t know based on the lore that From Software have given us. This is, as “Ethics Unwrapped” puts it, a drawback of utilitarianism: “because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad.” In the Dark Souls franchise, we simply do not know what an Age of Dark is actually like. The closest we get is the Untended Graves in Dark Souls III, which seem to portray a dim future in which an Age of Dark has fallen (although this is definitely debatable). Since we can’t even conclusively look to the Untended Graves for an Age of Dark, we only really have the Abyss to go off of. The Abyss is a place in Dark Souls which seems to have some connection to the true nature of the Dark Soul and humanity. The Abyss spreads across lands and swallows them up. The Abyss is so corrupting and dangerous that we know of three entire kingdoms (Oolacile, New Londo and Carthus) who have succumbed to it have to be destroyed and contained to stop its spread. It’s worth noting that Kaathe is heavily implied to have been behind the spreading of The Abyss in Oolacile and New Londo, further suggesting that it plays some sort of role in his quest for a dark lord. The results aren’t pretty though – the people who come into contact with The Abyss all go mad and/or have their bodies twisted into monstrous forms. As one goes deeper into The Abyss, they find numerous mysterious, incorporeal phantoms which are clearly meant to symbolize humanity. Whether these are the souls of the people who have been swallowed up by The Abyss or a more base form of humanity is up for interpretation, but all that is certain is that they drain the player’s life force on contact. It’s also worth noting that, in the original Dark Souls‘ DLC, The Abyss seems to stem from the unrestrained desires of Manus, thought by some to be the Furtive Pygmy himself and perhaps Kaathe’s original candidate for dark lord. This lends further credence to the idea that the dark lord is just the most powerful being of their age, one who can shape people and the world around them with their overwhelming dominance. There is so much ambiguity about The Abyss and the Age of Dark though that it’s hard to make a concrete judgment call on them. Is everyone living a terrible existence, but humans are living the least-terrible existence of them all? Is life as a humanity phantom or a maddened, misshapen monster really all that bad? I can’t say that The Abyss is bad with absolute certainty, but it is clear that to bring about an Age of Dark would change our fundamental understanding of human life. In my opinion, the risks are not worth it, especially since we know that life in the Age of Fire is perfectly fine for humans.

That’s the situation in the original Dark Souls, but what about Dark Souls II? Should the player ascend the Throne of Want, or turn their back on it? There are a couple new elements introduced in this game which are worth taking into consideration. First, the concept of cycles is introduced. Dark Souls II reveals that there is a constant back-and-forth of ages of fire and dark. As a result, we discover that even if you did embrace an Age of Dark in the original game’s ending, the fire returns eventually and all of this will have played out again. Considering that the curse of the undead still persists, this would suggest that humanity is still linked to the fire and that these cycles of the Age of Dark aren’t even beneficial for humans, further giving fuel to the idea that linking the fire is the safest choice. In Dark Souls II, Aldia calls the linking of humanity to the first flame “the first sin” and says it has corrupted the natural order of the world – however, until humanity can be unlinked from the fire, it is unavoidable. However, just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it is therefore the right or best option and Aldia knows it, as he rages in search of a solution to this problem.

The other variable worth taking into consideration in Dark Souls II is the theme of kings and their queens of Dark. Dark Souls II reveals that the defeat of Manus split his soul into fragments which became four granddaughters. These granddaughters would seek out kings, the most powerful people in the land, and seek to corrupt them and eventually take the first flame for themselves. Unfortunately for them, their corrupting influence would eventually be the downfall of each kingdom before their efforts could come to fruition, leaving only ruins or kingdoms in decline. Interestingly enough, by taking the crowns of each of the lords, you can actually stave off the effects of hollowing – it doesn’t cure or end the curse, but it is a way to freeze it in place and effectively become a god of the Light and the Dark. In Dark Souls II, your ultimate goal is to take the kingdom of Drangleic for yourself and Queen Nashandra is your final opponent. In this game, it is explicitly the Dark which is manipulating you, as Nashandra is waiting for you to be powerful enough to take the throne before swooping in to take it for herself.

So, with Nashandra defeated, do you then sit on the throne and therefore link the fire? The answer feels simpler, yet more ambiguous than it did in the first game. The Throne of Want is analogous to the First Flame, but the exact effects of sitting on it are uncertain – unlike Dark Souls where you become human kindling, in Dark Souls II the ending implies that you’ll establish your own kingdom. Or, if you choose to forgo the Throne of Want, you’ll allow an Age of Dark to take hold once again. Considering the journey of this game, the ending where you take the throne is far more satisfying. I’d also argue that, since humanity is still linked to the fire, taking the throne is the best option in order to stave off the curse of the undead once more.

Finally, we have Dark Souls III, where things have taken an interesting turn. In this game, the fire has been linked so many times that each successive linking has produced a shorter and shorter Age of Fire, and now the fire itself is nearly spent. It’s gotten to the point where the heir meant to link the fire refuses, figures who have previously linked the fire are resurrected and also refuse to link it again, and so people who failed to link the fire before are resurrected to try to get them to link it. The situation is so bad that space and time itself has become reshaped and distorted, desperately trying to bring about the linking of the fire that has become so fundamental to existence. Dark Souls III has several possible endings, but once again the “right” ending seems much clearer than in the first game. However, the variety of endings allow us to explore some of the other ethical philosophies in more detail.

There’s only one ending which allows the player to link the fire, but the flame has become so feeble that it merely dances along their arms, instead of becoming a surging conflagration like in the first game. It’s clear that the fire’s power has faded almost entirely and that this act of linking at this point it is functionally pointless. However, this ending could be viewed as the “categorical imperative” ending. In the ethical philosophy of the categorical imperative, once something has been established as “right”, it should always be done and there are no excuses not to not perform this action. Since the linking the fire has long been established as the “right” thing to do, it should be linked regardless of the long-term benefits (after all, have we not been looking down on Prince Lothric all this time for not linking the fire to begin with?). However, I personally find this ethical philosophy far too restrictive and inadequate. From a utilitarian perspective, since the fire is spent the curse is already wracking humanity, and the world itself has twisted to try to relight the flame – it’s clear that the time to link the fire has past and that embracing the Age of Dark is the only option left to us (in fact, considering that the Age of Fire was becoming shorter and the curse of the undead more frequent, the most ethical thing to do would probably have been to embrace it sooner than this). So, what options does the game give us to bring this about?

In the normal ending, the player summons the fire keeper to snuff out the first flame. She reveals that although an Age of Dark is now settling, eventually fire will come again anew. Perhaps this will be a new flame, no longer linked to humanity. This seems to me like it is the most ethical of the endings from a utilitarian perspective, since it severs humanity’s ties to the first flame and allows the Age of Dark to finally settle in on its own merits. It also gets around the problem we had in the original Dark Souls of one extremely powerful being dictating the flow of this age – a new Gwyn, using their power to extend the Age of Dark in the same manner that the Age of Fire has been unnaturally extended. This ending could also be seen as the “golden mean” ending. The golden mean ethical philosophy posits that the most ethical approach is to find a middle ground between two extremes (in this case, linking the fire and becoming the Dark Lord). Since you have chosen to not link the fire, but have not become the new lord of the Age of Dark, this ending strikes about as close to a middle ground as possible. The fact that this ending satisfies two different ethical philosophies is just further evidence that it’s probably the best outcome for this world.

There’s also a secret ending where, just before the fire keeper snuffs out the fire, the player betrays her and steals the last of the flame in the final seconds. It’s the kind of ending you take if you’re roleplaying a complete bastard who is collecting souls, any soul, to empower themselves at the expense of everyone else. One could view this as a particularly nasty “hedonism” ending. In ethical philosophy, hedonism posits that the most moral thing to do is to maximize pleasure while you can, because you don’t know what tomorrow may bring. In the dark and brutish world of Dark Souls, your character has been slaying people and collecting their souls to empower themselves all game and with your journey at its end, there really isn’t any reason not to just collect one more soul from this viewpoint. That said, obviously, viewed from any other ethical philosophy (not to mention conventional morality), this is by far the most unethical ending in the game.

Perhaps the most interesting ending involves completing a quest for the Sable Church of Londor, a coven of undead. During the course of gameplay, you can discover that the Sable Church are dedicated to fulfilling the legacy of Kaathe and want you to become the Dark Lord. Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that if you choose this ending then you absorb the remaining power of the first flame into yourself and bring about an Age of Dark with yourself as its appointed Dark Lord. However, the ethics of this ending are dubious – not only do you have to marry and then kill Anri of Astora to bring it about, but the ultimate implications of this ending are left up to the player to interpret. As a result, this ending could be categorized as hedonistic or utilitarian, depending on how you imagine your rule as Dark Lord will play out. Interestingly enough, the eclipsed sun which has been in the sky throughout the late game turns into a pale, dark eclipse upon your ascension to Dark Lord, perhaps signifying that you have indeed become the Dark foil to Gwyn and your legacy may mirror his. Knowing this, allowing the fire keeper to snuff out the flame is probably the most conventionally-ethical option since it keeps the most people on an even footing, but the Dark Lord ending is the most interesting in my opinion.

Considering how much interpretation is involved in Dark Souls, a clear “ideal” solution is almost impossible to declare definitively. A Dark Lord ending may indeed be the best possible ending if you decide that your character will rule benevolently and not make the same mistakes as Gwyn. Similarly, not linking the fire may be best if you believe that it will end the cure of the undead – again, we just don’t know and it’s up to your interpretation of that ending to decide. This interpretation and debating over the lore and its implications is a major factor in Dark Souls‘ enduring popularity – as I said in my Love/Hate article on the series, the original game has been eclipsed in terms of performance, gameplay and challenge, but the world it has created is damn-near unparalleled and makes this game still stand out to this day.

Love/Hate: Pokemon Sword & Shield

Over a year ago I wrote the first of what would become my Love/Hate series, a retrospective of the pros and cons of each generation of Pokemon. Since then, we’ve obviously gotten the start of another whole generation of Pokemon with Sword and Shield and, having completed the main story and gotten some time to mull over my feelings on the game I feel like it’s time for a Love/Hate update. That said, this is of course only my opinion and there’s the potential for it to change over time (opinions on the Pokemon themselves in particular are likely to soften as more time passes). So, with that in mind, let’s get this started!

Love

  • Raids – Easily my most-anticipated feature from the previews was raid battles, which pit four players against an extra-powerful Dynamax Pokemon. I’m happy to say that these are about as fun as I had hoped, requiring some additional strategies to get through successfully. That said, for four- or five-star raids you’re definitely going to need 2 or 3 human companions because the default NPC trainers are terrible.
  • Dynamax Makes Gym Battles Climactic – Restricting Dynamax to raid battles and gyms was a truly inspired move. By the time you get to a gym, you’re already pumped up by the music and the roar of the crowd as you march out onto the turf and then send out your first Pokemon. Then, when the battle is drawing to a close, you finally get your chance to bring out your Dynamax Pokemon and things get even bigger and more exciting. I have to admit, with these rare intervals, Dynamax is a really cool feature and the flashy moves make for a suitably epic climax to each challenge, almost like a reward in itself.
  • Some Great Characters – I was actually pretty surprised how well fleshed out many of the characters were in Sword and Shield. Hop starts out as your standard friendly rival, but he actually learns to not just define himself in the shadow of his superstar brother or feel like he’s hurting the family legacy. Meanwhile, Marnie is carrying the hope and dreams of her town on her shoulders as she battles through the Gym Challenge. Bede goes from arrogant prick, to desperate to prove himself worthy, to humble over the course of the story. It’s also pretty exciting to see Sonia earn the mantle of Pokemon Professor for her efforts in studying the Darkest Day. All-in-all, these characters are great and are going to be remembered for years to come.
  • Quality of Life Improvements – As always, Sword and Shield have brought some much-needed refinements to the formula which just make playing the game more enjoyable. These include Surprise Trades which go on in the background while you play, nature-changing mints, XP candies for quick and easy level-ups, access to PC boxes at any time, name raters and lotto-ID in every Pokemon Center (halle-freaking-lujah!) and the introduction of TRs to replace move tutors. It’s a lot of little things, but add them all up and it makes the experience of actually playing the game far more enjoyable.
  • Spoiled For Choice – While much has been made of the restricted Pokedex in these games, you are absolutely spoiled for choice at the start of the game. Most Pokemon games will very slowly dole out the available Pokemon, often repeating the same ones over and over from route to route. Sword and Shield say “screw that!” and give you two packed routes and then throw you into the Wild Area in the first couple hours, absolutely spoiling you with choices for a solid team. While I did eventually settle into a composed team by the second or third gym, the amount of choice you get off the bat was impressive and helps ease the sting of the restricted Pokedex in the first few hours.
  • Customization – Due to an increased emphasis on multiplayer options, Game Freak have really upped the number of customization options available to the player. Almost everyone I’ve encountered playing the game has customized their character beyond the default outfits (which is almost too bad because even the default outfits are really cool). Even better, the Card Maker allows you to design your own player trading card, which has no real purpose other than to be cool… and I love it. It’s such a small, pointless feature but probably my favourite thing in the whole game.
  • Some Really Cool Pokemon Designs – As always, there are some really great Pokemon introduced this generation. Corviknight, in particular, is probably the coolest “starter bird” Pokemon of all time, while Yamper and Wooloo make your heart melt as much as any Eevee could, and the Galarian forms are all quite interesting and distinct. There are some wildly different Pokemon in this game and several of these experiments pay off in interesting ways.

Mixed

  • Graphics – Much has been made about the graphics in this game and, while I’m nowhere near as critical about them as some, I understand the criticism. Personally, I like the game’s aesthetic and think that it looks very pretty in places like Wedgehurst, Galar Mine, Slumbering Weald and Ballonlea. That said, the game has an embarrassing amount of pop-in, with characters just disappearing into thin air if you move more than a couple dozen meters away. Worse, the frame rate drops in the Wild Area are really bad a times, especially when playing online (and, considering that this is basically how you’re supposed to be playing in the Wild Area, this is a big problem). The game doesn’t even look particularly taxing for a Switch game so this lack of optimization is frustrating.
  • The Wild Area – A lot of people love the much-hyped Wild Area, but I’m pretty mixed on it personally. On the one hand, it’s certainly cool being able to explore the world, but the design is very limited. Each area is basically just three patches of grass spawning the same three or four Pokemon over and over again. The world would feel more lively if there were way more Pokemon in each area instead of just having to see the same three again and again – it’s pretty bad when traditional routes feel way more lively and diversified than your open world. World traversal is also a pain in the ass because you can’t climb over even tiny hills. Oh, and the dynamic weather sounds great, until you get stuck encountering Pokemon over and over again in snow or sandstorms, trying to figure out where you’re trying to go. Look, I think the Wild Area’s a decent trial run of this concept of an open world Pokemon game and I do think that this is where the series is going to be going in the future, but it’s going to need to feel way more open and lively if it’s going to be better than traditional routes.
  • Camping – Much was made of camping in this game, but there’s very little going on with it. I mean, it’s pretty cool seeing your Pokemon (or an online player’s) walking around the camp, but it gets boring pretty quickly. You can also play with your Pokemon, but there’s only two toys available and they also get very boring quickly. Then the only thing left to do is make a curry, of which there are a 151 different varieties! There are probably some players who are going to have fun filling out their “curry dex”, but it’s a pretty lengthy mini-game which involves a ton of resource gathering with little reward… basically, for all the effort you go through, your Pokemon just get some XP, happiness and get healed. It can be handy when you’re out in the Wild Area and need to heal, but just using a healing item is far faster and less of a pain in the ass.
  • In-Game Events – Holy crap, Game Freak are actually using online functionality to add things to their game and keep players engaged? So far they have been having special events which make certain Gigantamax Pokemon appear more frequently in raids and have even released new Gigantamax Pokemon into the game (apparently there are 30+ unavailable Pokemon in the game’s code which are going to be released in future). That said, there Pokemon are such a pain to obtain. First off, you have to find the Pokemon to begin with. Second, these tend to be five-star raids and therefore require at least a couple online partners to succeed, which can be enough of a pain in the ass to wrangle. Then you still have to win the raid and you only get one chance to catch the Pokemon. What if it breaks out? Too bad, you have to go through the whole process all over again of finding the Pokemon in a raid, wrangling your partners, winning the raid, etc… Just trying to get a Gigantamax Snorlax recently took me hours of unsuccessful attempts.

Hate

  • Weak Story – As good as some of the characters in Sword and Shield are, the story surrounding them might just be the weakest in the entire main series.
    • For the story itself, you get endorsed by the Champion and go complete all the gyms. Every once in a while something unusual happens, but for nearly the entire game the Champion tells you to forget about it while he goes to deal with it instead. The “evil team”, Team Yell, aren’t even all that much to talk about either, they temporarily block your path and fizzle out quickly. The villain is potentially interesting, but he gets very little development and makes maligned villains of games past like Lysandre look positively inspired by comparison. Eternatus is also very poorly explained as a villainous Pokemon.
    • Worst of all though is the post-game, which involves you running around Galar to each of the gyms and fighting a bunch of repetitive, weak raid battles… but you don’t even get a chance to catch the Pokemon you fight. Oh, and you also have to fight a pair of chodes, Sordward and Shielbert, who might be my least-favourite characters in the entire series. They suck and this whole post-game is just a pain in the ass that I only plowed through in order to catch the box art legendary.
    • It’s also worth noting that several characters are totally underserved by the story. Professor Magnolia, for example, shows up maybe twice in the entire game and ends up getting completely overshadowed by Sonia by the mid-point of the game.
  • Feature Removal – Look, I know much has been made of this already, but it’s really difficult to ignore the fact that over 500 Pokemon are missing from this game. On top of that, the removal of Megas and Z-moves sucks. I’m still exploring what the region has to offer, but the longer I play, the more this exclusion is going to sting because it cuts down on the variety Pokemon has always offered.
  • Dynamax and Gigantamax – Like I said earlier, I actually like Dynamaxing as a mechanic in gym battles, but allowing it by default in online battles isn’t very fun. It encourages stall in order to get through the three turns, while also being broken for certain Pokemon because of the additional effects of attacks (being able to set weather or terrain AND cause damage is so much more deadly than the more powerful base damage of one-use Z-moves). Gigantamax, on the other hand, is kind of a pointless addition considering the additional work it caused. The only difference is that the Pokemon gets a new look for three turns and can use a G-Max move if they have the right type of attack. Funnily enough, these G-Max moves tend to be less useful than the default Max Moves they replace… so can I just have my Megas and Z-moves back? Please?
  • Online Features – Online stability has never been a sure thing with Game Freak, but I had hoped that they’d be able to get with the times on Switch. Unfortunately, the online functionality in Sword and Shield is not great at all. Not only does being online in the Wild Area make your frame rate tank, but it also can cause connected players to float in the air or go into impossible places. Navigating the online menus is a waiting game, as you can wait for a minute or two for it to refresh and show you a bunch of useless notifications. Trying to connect to raids is also a total crapshoot, if any even show up in your feed (this is a particular sore point for me because raids have been my go-to entertainment thus far). Oh, and to make matters even worse, basic stuff like the VS Recorder and the freaking GTS have been removed! I know some people have said “oh, well just use Discord if you want to get a specific Pokemon”, but no, screw that. I should be able to just search the Pokemon I want or deposit to get what I want. Removing this key feature is just a kick in the nuts for a collecting game like this, especially when you have pointless shit like Gigantamax and camping which were clearly taking up a lot of resources to implement.
  • Catching/Level Cap – Game Freak put themselves into a weird situation by allowing you to encounter extremely-high level Pokemon in the early game if you wander around the Wild Area. Their solution to this potentially game breaking problem? Just outright forbid you from catching Pokemon of certain levels until you have a gym badge allowing you to do so. This is a baffling decision. For one thing, it discourages exploration – after all, why go off the beaten path to look for new Pokemon if the game isn’t going to even let you catch it? In the early to mid-game I was just blitzing through the Wild Area to get the gym badges so I could be allowed to catch Pokemon. Even stranger, your team’s level cap outpaces the catching level cap very early, so you can be rocking a team of Pokemon at level 40 and still not be allowed to catch Pokemon of a lower level than them. It’s such a dumb decision and I don’t think that this was the right way to handle it.
  • Game Just Feels Half-Baked – The sum of a lot of these issues is that the game just feels half-baked and incomplete, likely due to the strict annual release schedule of these games. Missing features and unsatisfying story might not even be an issue if Game Freak had some more time on their hands, or if they’d be willing to outsource some of their work. Game Freak and The Pokemon Company really need to take a 2-3 year break to give us a game with some serious, uncompromised passion behind it, although given the success they have regardless I can’t see this happening…
  • Some of the New Pokemon… – Good God. I was really liking every Pokemon that was officially revealed prior to release, but having played the game in full there are some seriously butt-ugly Pokemon hiding in this roster.
    • I feel like Eiscue deserves a special mention here. It’s a penguin with a gigantic ice block on its head and then when the ice block breaks, it’s got this stupid, derpy, sad face underneath… what the actual hell. It’s so stupid and derpy that I can actually see myself turning around and maybe liking it someday, but right now I’m deciding whether or not this Pokemon is worse than Barbaracle.
    • The four fossil Pokemon are also so bad looking. I find the idea of having two Pokemon fused together to be an interesting one, but then you remember that Kyurem Black and White exist and that these Pokemon look arguably worse. Having genetic abominations that look like they wish they were dead is funny in a Judge Dredd comic, not in Pokemon. These things are seriously the most casually unethical development in a series which has long lampshaded the fact that it’s all about cockfighting.
    • It’s also worth mentioning that the final evolutions of the starter Pokemon are pretty much universally acknowledged to be the worst ever. They’re all incredibly disappointing or off-putting, which is particularly unfortunate since their first evolutions are actually probably the best since at least Gen 2.

Best Pokemon of Gen 8: Corviknight, Wooloo, Eldegoss, Thievul, Yamper, Frosmoth, Flapple, Dragapult, Zacian, Zamazenta, Galarian Weezing
Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 8: Chewtle, Sandaconda, G-Max Copperajah, Impidimp’s entire evolution line, Pincurchin (guaranteed to be a future “most forgotten Pokemon”), Eiscue, Dracozolt, Arctovish

Love/Hate: PS4

Love

  • The Games – The PS4 has been a massive success and that mainly comes down to one thing: Sony have done an incredible job of cultivating high-profile exclusive games in a variety of genres. God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Gran Turismo, Until Dawn, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Ni No Kuni… I’m just barely scratching the surface, but that gives you an idea of the variety of games available to satisfy various tastes.
  • Social Features – The social features built into the PS4 are possibly my favourite PlayStation innovation of all time. Being able to automatically capture the last fifteen minutes of gameplay and then share videos and screenshots from it is a revelation and instantly made me regret buying an Elgato HD months before the PS4 came out (although I’ll finally be putting it to use with the Switch soon enough when Pokemon comes out).
  • Rest Mode – I already loved rest mode on the PSP and PS Vita, but when it came to the PS4 it was better than ever. Not only can you suspend your progress in games, but the system will download updates while in rest mode, meaning that you no longer have to wait for lengthy updates when you turn on the console!
  • Controller Innovation – Finally, after the questionable PS3 controller, Sony really nailed the changes to the PS4’s DualShock redesign. The sticks feel more precise, the touch pad is awesome, the triggers are great and the overall weight and feel is perfect. It’s easily the best PlayStation controller and I hope that the PS5 only improves upon it.
  • My Favourite PS4 Games – As usual, here’s my list of favourite games on the PS4: God of War, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, Uncharted 4, Nioh, Metal Gear Solid V, Battlefield 4 and Rainbow Six Siege.

Mixed

  • Remasters Out the Wazoo – Remasters were a thing late in the PS3 era, but they feel far more prevalent in the PS4 era. That said, the remasters we’re getting now are of a much higher quality, with straight-up remakes like Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil 2 in some cases, but it makes the industry feel creatively stifled. Hell, many of my favourite PS4 experiences are just remasters, such as Dark Souls and The Last of Us.

Hate

  • Mandatory Paid Online – PS+ was cool when it was an optional service, but having to pay for it every year sucks, especially since the price went up to $80 a year (in Canada). It’s at a point where I rarely play online now so I haven’t even bothered to renew my subscription – it’s just not worth it for me. This sucks though because it means I can’t just drop into a game of Rainbow Six Siege without dropping a big upfront cost to play with my friends.
  • Corporate Interests Have Sucked the Fun Out of Gaming – The PS3 era was just a taster for how bad gaming has gotten in the PS4 era. Major publishers have scaled down the number of games they release per year to a small handful, and seemingly every game we get is unfinished at launch, a multiplayer experience and filled with microtransactions in a transparent attempt to bleed you dry. For most publishers, “fun gameplay” isn’t even a consideration anymore, it’s all about getting you addicted and then extracting your cash. It’s hard to find story-driven, single-player experiences these days and it just makes gaming feel nowhere near as fun as it used to be.

Love/Hate: PS Vita

Love

  • Amazing Hardware – The hardware of the PS Vita is, simply put, fantastic. In fact, I’d argue that hardware-wise it’s probably the most perfect PlayStation product in terms of power, function and design. Power-wise, it’s pretty comparable to the PS3, the screen looks fantastic (especially on the older, OLED models), the battery life is pretty decent and the interface works very well. Many people say that the PS Vita was basically the original Nintendo Switch and they aren’t wrong. The system’s hardware is certainly comparable and could have found similar success with better support.
  • Great Indie Machine – People have written off the PS Vita for years now, but even to this day, the system still gets releases from indie developers who have helped keep the system afloat. Having a PS+ membership carry over from the PS4 also helped with this, since it basically meant that you were getting a free game every month to try out. I actually got Gravity Rush and freaking Hotline Miami through this system and am even hoping that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night still comes to Vita because that’s where I’m planning on playing it.
  • PSP Backwards Compatibility – The PS Vita basically ended up aping the PSP Go’s functionality, because you can go back and play most of the PSP’s digital library on the go. I actually ended up selling my PSP to a friend because of this, although I do have some regrets now since games like Metal Gear Ac!d aren’t on the PSP online store. Some PS1 games are also available here, although the selection isn’t as good as it was on PSP.
  • My Favourite PS Vita Games – As usual, not a comprehensive list, but I loved: Gravity Rush, Hotline Miami 1 & 2, Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 and 2 and Guacamelee!

Hate

  • Sony’s Support – Sony’s lack of support for the PS Vita was pathetic and left a fantastic system to die. Some of this is on third party developers as well, as the games they put on the system were cheap and horrible (especially Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified), but Sony could have sold this system with a huge, high-profile success (similar to how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild single-handedly launched the Switch).
  • Forced Gimmicks – This also relates to the previous point: potential system sellers, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, were plagued with forced gimmicks to show off the hardware’s capabilities, such as the front and back touch screens or gyroscope. Only Gravity Rush really got through this without feeling lesser for it, but it wasn’t really the system seller that the Vita needed. Can you imagine if Naughty Dog had made an authentic Uncharted experience on the Vita though? I would have snapped that up in a heartbeat.
  • Proprietary Memory Cards – Sony pulled an ultimate one-two bullshit move by making the PS Vita’s memory cards proprietary and then making them incredibly expensive for what you got (the largest cards were over $100!!!). They did eventually lower the price, but they were still much more expensive than their SD card counter-parts, meaning that not only was the PS Vita more expensive than its 3DS competition, but their memory cards were also more expensive. It’s no wonder that the system flopped when you consider this.
  • The Rear Touch Pad – The one major hardware flaw of the PS Vita was its rear touch-pad. I hated every time a game asked me to use it, because it suuuuuucked. It doesn’t even take up the entire back of the system, so I can never be sure exactly where I am when I use it, nor am I even sure if I’m even touching it when I have to. Yikes. Even worse, if you used your PS Vita for PS4 remote play, this touch pad became your L2 and R2 buttons, making tons of games basically unplayable if you wanted to do well at all.
  • PS1 Classics Support – The way PS1 classics are handled on the PS Vita makes no sense. Far less are available on the system than were on the PSP or PS3, but certain ones can be brought to the system if you download it onto a PS3 and then transfer them to the Vita… what? Metal Gear Solid, for example, is only playable this way, which makes no sense at all (I had to actually go through this in order to play it for my MGS retrospective).
  • PS TV – Adding to the pathetic support for the Vita by Sony was the PS TV, a cheaper Vita which essentially functioned as a mini home console. It didn’t even last a year before Sony stopped supporting it, and even the apps for it (such as the Netflix app) straight-up don’t even work. Basically the only reason it even exists still is that you can play PS Vita games on it for cheap and stream PS4 games to another TV through remote play.

Love/Hate: PSP

Love

  • Great Hardware – The PSP was a really great little handheld. It was very well-designed, felt great in your hand and had some great features, even outside of gaming. Having played only Gameboys up until this point, having a wi-fi capable system with an internet browser made this thing basically my first cell phone in terms of its functionality. It was also quite powerful, able to put out near-PS2 graphical levels in the palm of your hand. Compared to its competition, the Nintendo DS, the PSP won the hardware comparison, easily. I also loved that you could suspend games by putting the system into sleep mode, it was such a good feature.
  • Strong Support – People don’t remember it very well, but the PSP had strong support from first and third party developers, and even outsold the Nintendo DS for years, until that system’s cheaper price and stronger support ended up winning over in the end (the presence of Pokemon games certainly helped as well). Still, this allowed the PSP to have a very strong stable of games that you can look back on fondly.
  • PS1 Classics – One of the genius moves for the PSP was to allow you to play PS1 games on the go. Sony ended up releasing quite a few major titles for the system, including Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII (in fact, I had never played FF7 until I downloaded it on my PSP).
  • My Favourite PSP Games – The usual deal: this isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are some of my favourite PSP games. These include Resistance: Retribution, Soulcalibur: Broken Destiny, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Metal Gear Ac!d 1 and 2, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Patapon and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (mainly because, holy shit, a GTA game running on PSP hardware!?!).

Mixed

  • UMDs – UMDs were a cool, ambitious concept, attempting to be multi-media discs which would allow you to game and watch movies on the go. Sony tried to get film studios to release films on UMD discs and while there was some support, it wasn’t widely adopted (my PSP came with a copy of National Treasure 2, if I remember correctly). So yeah, they were ambitious, but man do they take up a lot of space for a portable cartridge, they load slowly and the just look so strange. I’ll give them points for trying something new, but I’m not entirely sure that it worked well.
Hate
  • No Second Analog Stick – Why, why, WHYYYYYYY did Sony not include a second analog nub on the PSP!?!?! It’s the system’s most glaring issue and it single-handedly screwed over so many games on this system. The second analog stick on the DualShock had, by this point, become the solution to the camera issues which had plagued early 3D games, but by not including a second analog nub, you immediately put developers back to the PS1 era. Predictably, camera controls became the #1 issue on PSP games, with half-baked solutions abounding (see: Splinter Cell: Essentials, which would force you to stand still and hold another button in order to move and fix the camera in place).
  • Power Button Placement Was Bad – The PSP was designed really well, but there was one glaring flaw (besides the lack of another analog nub, anyway…): the power slider was right were the palm of your hand would be, meaning that it was really easy to accidentally turn your system off. You kind of had to train yourself to not do this while playing, although there was more than one instance where I’d be playing Portable Ops online and accidentally turn the game off mid-match.
  • PSP Go – The PSP Go was a cool concept: basically, a smaller, redesigned PSP which could only play games downloaded to the system. However, it was way too expensive Sony gave this thing basically no support, meaning that it was dead on arrival. I feel sorry for anyone who paid $250 for this thing at launch, because Sony sure as hell didn’t earn your money.