Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows Review: Wacky Whizzbanging

Genre: Platformer

Developer: Yacht Club Games

Publisher: Yacht Club Games

Systems: PC, 3DS, WiiU, Mac OS, Linux, PS3, PS4, PSVita, XOne, Amazon Fire TV

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the release of Shovel Knight, as it just doesn’t seem to have left the spotlight. It’s received critical acclaim, nostalgic adoration and made Amiibo history as the first indie entry to receive its own figure. And fresh from the laboratory comes Plague of Shadows, and its no Frankenstein’s monster either.
Yacht Club’s newest addition to the Shovel Knight tapestry is set in an alternate reality, in which the efforts of the eponymous blue hero were undermined by the delicious evil of The Order of No Quarter. As terror besmirches the land, however, Plague Knight’s scheme to create a “concoction of ultimate power” forms the basis for Plague of Shadows. As the diabolical doctor we infiltrate forts and kingdoms on a devilish quest to steal the life essence of our brother knights, and have a good deal of fun in the process. Hee!
A lot of the content in Plague of Shadows seems familiar, which makes sense, as the overall feel of the game echoes that of the Plague Knight level in the original. It’s the explodatorium-exploded, essentially, but with elaboration enough to ensure the campaign isn’t banal. Our base of operations is our underground laboratory, which instantly elicits explodatorium-y vibes. We also know Mona from her finicky appearance during the minigame in Shovel Knight, but see her revelling in her element in Plague of Shadows as Plague Knight’s assistant, offering weapon upgrades in more volume than was ever available in the original, in exchange for the luminous cipher coins we pick up on our travels.

village not allowsBut something that makes the narrative more alluring is how well it interacts with that of the original story. The game lines up with the travails of Shovel Knight admirably, and as he is welcomed into villages, Plaguey’s dastardly plans unfold underground with a sense of humour that far surpasses that of the original game.
Instead of Shovel Knight’s Scroogey pogo-strike, Plague Knight opts for a more…explosive metier. Whilst Plague of Shadows has us traversing the same world map as we had done previously, our arsenal of projectiles encourages the player to look at levels from a different angle.  This possibly makes planning a course of action a bit more useful in the DLC, as wrong moves more often result in death than  in Shovel Knight. However, Plague of Shadows‘ new bomb-burst gives Plague Knight a small height advantage, which, when used in combination with his double-jump, reaches yonder platforms that Shovel Knight would’ve been hard-pushed to reach as easily. Bombs are also upgradable in three main areas: cases, powders and fuses. These affect how you throw, how the bombs act and how long it takes for them to explode, meaning you can upgrade your weapons to suit your playstyle in finer detail than was possible in the original campaign.

cipher coinPlague of Shadows is not without its weaknesses, however, manifesting mostly within in control scheme and difficulty level. To bomb-blast, you need to hold attack, meaning the feature is perfectly appropriate for stationary assaults, but can prove quite cumbersome when leaping across platforms. Confrontation with different enemies often also means changing bomb properties, and given that there are a selection of adversaries to overcome in each area, constantly switching between weapon types can become tiresome.
The doctor’s range-oriented combat style does make boss battles a hell of a lot easier, so if you originally found them difficult, the frustration might be somewhat alleviated. But equally, for those looking for more of a challenge this time, foes yield far too easily to Plague Knight’s combustible MO.

king plague knightPlague of Shadows can be mechanically awkward, and possesses more of a learning curve than its valiant counterpart, but it is still, unmistakeably, Shovel Knight. The beloved characters make their reprise to give us a taste of the dark side, managing to both retain and embellish the comically endearing qualities that provoked so much enjoyment the first time round. With new unlockable feats to pursue and a good deal of hidden potholes to uncover, Plague of Shadows is a joy to replay, whilst  evoking the sense that even in the world of the textbook hero, it sure feels good to be bad.

Clickers, Control, Parents n’ Pikmin: The Familial Bond and Its Ambiguity

NOTE: By reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve played The Last of Us or Pikmin, or both. If you haven’t, you might find this analysis a little confusing to follow, in which case I highly recommend you play the games. In any case, in fact. They’re both cracking. Undoubtedly, spoilers for Pikmin and The Last of Us follow.

Whilst playing The Last of Us, I was struck by how often Pikmin crossed my mind. That isn’t to say they’re particularly similar visually; The Last of Us’ facial bludgeonings and periodic profanity would seem crass in Pikmin’s winsome wilderness, just as the adorable travails of Olimar and his tribe of multicolour companions might be rendered redundant within the world of The Last of Us.

It is, however, a crossover I want to see.

Just replace the Bulborb with a Bloater and we’re on our way.

What I want to talk about is morality, and this is where the Pikmin series and The Last of Us begin to cross paths. Both games involve a moral quest on the player’s part, not just the character’s, and both invite questions surrounding the relationships we build with characters as we play.

One of the deepest relationships that run through the Pikmin games and The Last of Us is parental, and in both game narratives, this sense of familial bond is strengthened by the collapse of rule and the protagonist’s known world. In The Last of Us, the outbreak and loss of young daughter Sarah represents the breakdown of the moralities and systems Joel once related to; whilst the opening scene circulates around human conventions like birthdays, bedtimes and occupational negotiation, the next time we see Joel, he shrugs off the murder of Robert, having infiltrated a Safe Zone.

Pikmin, too, involves a degree of collapse, as astronaut Olimar’s ship, the S.S. Dolphin collides with an asteroid whilst on an interstellar holiday. The collision leaves him “on the surface of a weird planet” with The Dolphin’s parts strewn across it.

As it happens, it is both the outbreak and the crash that leads us, the player, to our respective ‘children’. In games including themes around family, there’s more than likely going to be a child-figure, and in both cases here, each child becomes essential to our survival. Marlene promises weapons in return for Joel to watch over Ellie as they journey west; Olimar must work with the pikmin in order to transport yourself, and gather important ship parts.

The Pikmin are projections of innocence, and their head-mounted stems attribute a useful metaphor for development as the game progresses. As the Pikmin grow, the buds on their stems become daisy-like blooms, causing them to gain strength and resilience as a result of your nurture and guidance.

In The Last of Us, Ellie represents the sparkier side of adolescence, but grows equally as a result of her association with Joel. She begins rather reticent, but starts to challenge her surroundings, and, during winter segments, fully takes on the role of the protector of wounded Joel. As a result, we begin to trust her more as an individual; she is given a pistol and rifle at one point to show it. So, with each game, we are presented with envisionments of innocence that we come to care for and trust.

ellie winterThus, it is this transition from survival aid to companion that is put into question as the two games end. In the original Pikmin game, the good ending supports the concept of parents paving the way towards their children’s independence. We agree to work towards the point Olimar leaves the pikmin by collecting ship parts, thus promoting, or at least agreeing to temporarily take on the view that in order for those we love to truly flourish, we have to let them, and this is reflected in the final moments of the good ending.

The pikmin see Olimar off into the intergalactic realms, before beginning to attack a nearby predator. Their battle-cries fill the audio as multiple ‘onions’ rise into the stratosphere; an assurance that the pikmin have internalised Olimar’s survival strategy, that they have confidence enough to make it on their own.

As such, the good ending of Pikmin turns the player’s experiences with the pikmin in on itself. We might not have wanted to leave, even considered the multiple predators still out there, but as we’re confronted with the pikmin’s newfound boldness during the ending sequence, the message that it was for the best is suggested, but whether or not we can trust this implication remains open to our interpretation.
Pikmin_Secret_OnionsThe Last of Us possibly speaks louder in terms of examining one’s own personal motivations, because the game doesn’t conform to the acts of valour or sacrifice conventional of the apocalyptic narrative.

Instead, we see the many years Joel spent detached from humanity condensed into a few minutes of desperation, as he shoots innocent, unarmed doctors and sneaks an unconscious (and therefore, unconsenting) Ellie away from the scene. He infiltrates a place of hope for humanity (the hospital), and deliberately corrupts it, in order to feel close to the daughter he lost long ago. And finally, when telling Ellie about “what happened”, he omits the truths he knew would turn her against him, instead antagonising the Fireflies by claiming they “stopped looking for a cure”.

swear

The one who teaches Ellie freedom in the midst of a terrible infection ultimately ends up trapping her inside another; the grief that fuels his need for Ellie, and this feeds into the modern-day tragedy of The Last of Us.

But writing his actions off as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t that simple. Instead, the game shows that the need for a connection with another human being can override our pre-conceived morals, and even drive us to manipulate those we want to feel close to. But its similarity to Pikmin comes in when considering what that might say about us as people.

What is right in these circumstances? Do we keep loved ones because we’ve grown to love them, even if we end up controlling them, and where do we draw the line between what we think is best, and what we want? And again, is letting those we love go really for the best?

The extent to which Ellie would’ve been useful is compromised by the doctor’s recording stating that previous cure projects had failed, and the fact that the moment she distances herself from Joel, she becomes kidnapped by cannibalistic David, offer even more of a moral ambiguity surrounding our understanding of Joel’s actions. Likewise, our control of the pikmin never lead to their harm, so can we trust them enough to stand back?

That’s a very real parental conflict today, and it’s reassuring that video games are taking conflicts like these into account.

The Last of Us Review: Love is Neither Hero, Nor Villain

20 years in the wake of a pandemic lies a world descended into ferality. Enterprises leer as mountains once did and, ruined though they are, there is an echo of paleolithic beauty to them. They entrap the world within them, and as I cautiously navigate enclosures of unkempt, overgrown city, I have never felt so small. With a deeply concerned narrative and purposeful gameplay elements, The Last of Us surpasses its initial announcement by Naughty Dog as an “action survival horror”, to a cohesive tale of hope and innocence.
The story unfolds in a United States that has since given way to a human strain of Cordyceps, a malignant parasite that reduces the afflicted into frenzied cannibals. You play as Joel, a contraband smuggler operating on the fringes of restricted Boston. Dishevelled, dispirited and generally mistrustful, Joel’s crossing of paths with hardy teen, Ellie becomes a westward odyssey spanning regimented Boston to overgrown Utah.
The inflamed chemistry between Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson compliments Neil Druckmann’s subtle script for leads, Joel and Ellie, certainly lending to the game as an exploration of parental relationships, and to the believability of the characters.  Whilst Ellie’s innocence stokes her curious tenacity, Joel’s metamorphosis from taciturn cynic to desperate father strikes a powerful resonance to one of the underlying messages of the game: That we will always find somebody to fight for.
joel_and_ellie

Whilst The Last of Us’s controls share similarities with those of its older brother Uncharted, it’s made expressedly clear, early in the game, that Drakey boldness it not likely to wash here. Ammo here is a luxury, rather than a necessity, and scarce to match it, and as each hit bites voraciously into your already diminuitive health bar, choosing when to brawl and when to stealth becomes imperative to the gameplay.
The PS4’s touchpad serves as a crafting hub to create health packs from salvaged goods. Alcohol, blades, sugar and rags can upgrade melee weapons or create makeshift nail bombs, all of which work well with the unforgiving rawness associated with the combat. Brawling boasts a number of gruesome cinematics that oscillate cleanly between control and cut-scene; something that Drake’s Deception began towards, but The Last of Us refines. As I wrench my ad hoc scissor-pipe from the collarbone of an offensive soldier, or unwittingly raise my head from cover, the more I realise that fantasies of archetypal game-indestructability cannot be granted in The Last of Us, and the withered durability of anything I do upgrade serves as a stark reminder of this.

scissor pipe
The natural world stands gorgeously poisoned in the midst of the action. Wrecked societies and abandoned ghost-towns become the norm, whilst always alluding to its living, breathing state. The world isn’t dead, it’s surviving, like us, and this is made apparent through the extraordinary attention to detail of The Last of Us‘s team. From the algae choking the infectious lagoons, to the blooms of malignant zombie-fungus, I find myself both mystified and repulsed; a reaction that is only intensified by Remastered’s revamped visuals. Level layout is strategically labyrinthine, and has us navigating claustrophobic offices to avoid the inevitable onslaught of offence in some moments, only to tear away from the action on horseback in others in order to reccooperate. Rest assured, The Last of Us here achieves a  balance that ensures that for as long as we participate, we can never truly be distanced from danger.
Often when exploring the cavities of quaint deserted villages, we stumble across the scrawls of those who came before us. Whilst some are apologetic and despairing, others are childishly beguiling, and all translate well into the incredible gulf separating those the infection left in the wreckage. The notes serve a definite purpose in The Last of Us. Reading letters is not compulsory, nor do they particularly aid your survival. But they do touch on a profound sense of ethereal presence throughout the abandoned ghost-towns of the post-apocalyptic States. They connect to each other, allowing you to picture their survival together. They allow you to feel close to another human being, amongst the solitude of the unremitting death toll. Even if you don’t feel like giving the campaign another go, collecting these letters to get a deeper sense of how The Last of Us panned out for other characters warrants a second playthrough.
lou bus
Expressing such a powerful message of vulnerability and death via the gameplay itself, this is one of the many things that makes The Last of Us so strong. By allowing players a multitude of different actions when combating a situation, the game allows the results of those actions to serve as a graphic reminder that we are experiencing the world fall down around us, and must do whatever it takes to merely survive; something that appears to meld harmoniusly with the narrative theme of grief and loss.
Whilst B-movie thrill Uncharted boasted impressive visuals and tirades of empowering gameplay, The Last of Us concerns itself with the fragility of that power, and reminds us of how ephemeral life, and lives, can be. As we participate in this turbulent urban epic, the ample character development recognises the battle between what we want and what is best, and despite how broken we become, we carry on anyway.

Hotline Miami Review: Sly Savagery

I find myself in a darkened room with the sensation of creeping lucidity associated with awaking from a rather unsettling dream, with the leering face of a man who promises to ‘tell me how to kill people’. With my expectations foggy and curiosity tickled, I soon find myself in a convolution of disorienting colour, questionable humanity and unquestionable surrealism. And whilst all this is happening, I can’t dismiss the growing belief that I am experiencing something unmistakably intelligent. Developed by Dennaton Games, Hotline Miami is a thrill-ride with purpose, incorporating 2D top down action elements with a vicious stance on violence and morality.

You play a disconnected male character, whose situation strikes a vague resonance with Gosling’s character in Drive. Your identity is never alluded to, both through character dialogue and the game’s perspective. The top-down layout only intensifies the mystery, so that rather than allowing you to project your own strategies onto a separate character as such, it is very much your own morals that are thrown into hot water over the course of the game.

You begin receiving a set of foreboding, yet darkly amusing telephone calls, telling you in double entendres to dress up, drive to a location and ‘clean up the place’. Once you get there, you kill people. Everyone.
thomas hm
Each killing floor is littered with weapons that can be thrown to disarm or knock down an enemy, and all feature their own advantages and drawbacks. For example, while guns can pick off ranged opponents, but create a din that can attract a positive horde of others. This sets up the tone of danger we’re experiencing on each level, a notion that is only intensified by the fact that all weapons kill in a single hit, and that opponents appear to react a fraction of a second more quickly than the player.

The player’s reflexes are wrly exploited in Hotline Miami.  Seasoned veterans and the extraordinarily gifted will find delightful challenge in knocking one guy down, scavenging his crowbar whilst pivoting to take out his partner, only to propel the weapon at a shooter down the hall, but for most of us, progression is much more often a result of trial and error than real skill. Indeed, the only hope of prevailment is to die so often that levels became second nature to traverse, leading to an orchestration of attack, as opposed to running in all guns blazin’. This made the PS Vita’s touch screen optimal for locking onto opponents.

youre dead hm
Accompanying the crazed murder sprees, non-combat segments offer a disquieting contrast to the adrenaline-pumped stress of managing not to die. Senses are instead dulled as the screen crackles, and perfectly normal conversations are held over the decapitated corpses of those we can never be sure are really there, connoting an almost anaethetised sense of un-reality that, cleverly, does not spoil the player’s interaction within the plot.

How Hotline Miami looks remains an impressive feat, especially considering its 16-bit limitations. The palette captures a tarnished exuberance reminiscent of gaudy 80’s fashion, whose sole purpose, at times it seems, is to reduce the insides to balloon animals. Neon cyans and fuschias melt into dingy browns and greens, as crudely sketched characters veer from side to side whilst conversing. All the while the ever-active gradient of the outside environment lurches sickeningly with soporific colour. Graphically, this is a game that never stops moving. Consequently, the stomach churning play has the player almost perpetually questioning the reality of the whole damned situation.

Sound here becomes much less an addition to the gameplay than an assault in itself, and explosions whistle on for literal minutes after occurring. This seems a conscious decision, supportive of the game’s distinctive condemnation of ‘passive play’. Auditory rawness would be expected of a real gun- so why would sounds here be dulled? In order to make players feel more comfortable as they engage in recreational ultraviolence? Nevertheless, the ‘realism’ of both the damage weapons can inflict and the cochlear bruising resultant of their fire proves an unexpected break from the fluctuating visuals, which in turn forbids the player’s detachment from their actions.

Onto the soundtrack. An electroconvulsive blitz, the music easily remains one of the most effective tools in the game. During action sequences, the music generally aims to draw a parallel with the tirade of violence on screen, overlaying a synthetic pulse to the high-octane thrill of a murderous rampage.

It is also, however, this very soundtrack that forbids you to revel in your ‘victory’ after completing a level, by suddenly stopping (assuming a ‘vinyl scratch’ effect) when life finally eludes the building. Confronted only with a numb monotone, you are then forced to walk back through the level, all the while confronted with those you have killed, in order to progress. The effect is evocative of a chilling sense of self-doubt which, I expect, is exactly the kind of feeling that was intended. After all, a central question in the game is: “Do you like hurting other people?”
hm richard
Hotline Miami is a game that showcases mechanics and narrative working in savage, yet alluring harmony. Whilst rules evoke a palpable feeling of contamination regarding the player’s part in violence, the enigmatic story displays a grim knack for encouraging the player to question the real point of it. Why do we do this, and if we do, what does that say about us?

Colour Symbolism in Breaking Bad: The Belly of Walter White

It’s been two years since the closure of Breaking Bad. We experienced in those five years the renaissance of Ozymandias, only to watch him rise and fall once again. Whilst Heisenberg has hung up his hat, though, we haven’t quite hung up ours yet, and remain somewhat marked with a dry cynicism that convinces us that even those we root for, those we esteem as great, aren’t always good.
What truly compelled me about Breaking Bad was its symbolism. Many episodes open with abstract, artsy segments depicting the unravelry of the characters’ lives still to come, but always managed to remain inherently ambiguous. Colour was a vital ingredient in Vince Gilligan’s visual alchemy. From the shimmering gold hazmats to the barren wastelands of the Albuquerque desert, the colour yellow is very much a dominant force in Walter White’s life as the poisoned hero. Indeed, the show’s title screen depicts a toxic yellow flame eroding the two words that have since become so integral to many a high-school chemistry class.

Breaking_Bad_Title_Sequence
From the very beginning, the colour yellow frequently appears attached to Walter White, but it is in Season one’s episode four that it begins to become extremely noticeable. After cooking perhaps the highest grade methamphetamine Breaking Bad’s world of drug-dealers has ever seen, Walt’s efforts are thwarted by the appearance (and frankly killy nature) of Krazy-8. Having managed to regain power, Walter White is seen preparing the captured drug distributor a sandwich. He does this meticulously beside a yellow plate, whilst wearing a yellow shirt, against a backdrop of peeling yellow wall. The sheer oppressiveness of the colour here not only marks the appearance of yellow an an intentional choice by show creator, Vince Gilligan, but also depicts White’s rapid encompassment by the new world he has entered, and the decay (for the walls are dank and worn) it is liable to cause.

Plate Walt White
White, soon after, smashes the plate in the midst of a cancer-induced choking fit, and is seen shakily attempting to put the pieces back together again, only to find that one piece is missing. The missing piece of the plate firstly signifies, to Walt, that he has entered a world he cannot trust (that Krazy-8 will try to exploit his reasonably intact morality by stabbing him with the piece of plate once he is set free), but the yellow hue ties the broken plate, Krazy-8 ‘s yellow jacket and Walter’s shirt inextricably together. Like the plate, by agreeing to distribute meth, Walter has, perhaps unknowingly, lost a part of himself to the criminals he is beginning to associate with; something that catalyses the first of many acts of questionable morality – his murder of Krazy-8. Here, the colour yellow helps us to conceive the instance in which Walter White becomes truly trapped, and no matter how he strives to replace what has been broken, he will always be devoid of that one shard, denoting that things are about to get a lot worse.
What is also interesting about the colour choice to reflect these things is that, through the grim tragedy of the situation, it brings another dimension of abstract irony to what we’re seeing on-screen. When we think of yellow, we are usually greeted by an interpretive notion of happiness, wonder; that bright sunny say on which all our dreams seem possible. But when we tune into Breaking Bad, we are instead confronted with overpowering stenches of drug-dens and anonymous intenstines of botched killings. Considering that the colour yellow seems to grow more and more integral to Walt’s character and expression, this seems a cynical juxtaposition by Gilligan between how Walt sees himself, and the reality of his actions. Consequently, the colour yellow serves as a motif for Walt’s increasingly panoramic fool’s paradise.
Expanding on this, it is quite possible that yellow clothing may be a conscious choice of Walter himself, which contributes to the layered dramatic irony within the show. In Season One, Walt garbs himself in sunny button-downs that tuck neatly into his family-man khakis, whilst he conceals his underground drug networking to those closest to him. The DVD cover for Season Five captures a relentless chieftan enrobed in a yellow hazmat, inexplicably linking Walt’s family ideals with his criminality. Despite all the power Heisenberg has come to possess, the endurance of the colour yellow across the entirety of Breaking Bad boils down to inner state.

walt white s5

Walt is still vulnerable. He’s a man grasping at straws; groping for any morsel of light, of optimism he can get, as his world rapidly darkens. He’s desperately pleading, “This is okay. This is all justified”, and as the audience, we are placed automatically on the fence because of this. In honesty, we want to root for Walt as the ‘tortured hero’. We want to see Walt in the delusional way he sees himself, but throughout the show, Gilligan revels in unforgiving storytelling as he daubs his viewers with darkly humourous, yet painful clarity.
What this vulnerability reminds us is that Walt’s still ‘yella’, and despite everything Heisenberg has ‘accomplished’, he never really rid himself of his fear of dying; something that the persistence of yellow throughout the narrative of Walter White hammers home. In a jacket of gold comes Breaking Bad as a shriek of objection in the face of death; a pathetic realisation that only upon death do we realise just how small we are.