The Last of Us Part II Review

Spoiler alert: Huge The Last of Us 2 plot details have leaked ...

So some pretty heavy spoilers for TLOU2 came out back in April, and after reading them and seeing the attached clips and screen caps, I was surprised by how mediocre I thought the game sounded. Not bad as such, just meh and not worth getting invested in. I never wanted a sequel to The Last of Us in the first place; I thought it ended in such a way that it should have just been left alone. But I replayed the original, mulled what I’d read around in my brain, and went into Part II feeling cautiously optimistic. Well I tried to anyway, the deck was stacked against it by the sheer wave of over-hyping from games press who got early copies. Apparently it’s the best game ever because it’s a harrowing, uncomfortable slog that made them all feel like shit for twenty five hours and elicits an emotional response from players in a way never seen before, because it keeps slapping you in the face and telling you that killing people is wrong, something backed up by the game’s director Neil Druckmann. I don’t normally pay any attention to what other reviewers say, but it’s difficult not to when they go in this hard. So then, is The Last of Us Part II the ultimate emotional videogame experience, that pushed me to my limits and left me forever changed? Is it, at the very least, good? Note that this review will contain spoilers, so if you want to go in blind, now’s your chance to leave.

Still here? Right then.

Four years after the end of the first game, Joel and Ellie live in a sort of western frontier town in Jackson, Wyoming where Ellie is developing a romantic relationship with another girl called Dina. While out on patrol with Tommy, Joel runs into a young woman called Abby and helps her escape from a horde of infected, seeking shelter with her group. Unfortunately someone named Joel wronged Abby in the past, and presumably she’s been working her way through every Joel in America until she kills them all, having got the right one through process of elimination. Anyway she beats Joel to death with a golf club, with Ellie arriving just in time to be pinned down and witness the final blow. Ellie and Dina set off for Seattle to track down Abby and avenge Joel, having seen patches on her group’s arms that say WLF; “Washington Liberation Front”. From there, she and Dina (for a while anyway, before pregnancy-based sickness keeps her stuck at their makeshift base) venture out to find Abby, or at least people who know where she might be; a hunt that yields very little in the way of interesting plot developments. Far more interesting than Ellie’s side of the story is Abby’s, which is almost entirely unrelated and really should have been this sequel’s entire focus. Her story involves her group’s on-going conflict with a religious cult called the Seraphites, her best friend Owen’s disillusion with the cause and her turning her back on the WLF when her life is saved by two runaway Seraphites; a woman named Yara and her young trans brother Lev. Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with Abby’s story and it’s how the game handles Lev’s situation. The character himself is great; he’s capable, friendly and teaches Abby about the Seraphites’ original, non-violent scripture before it was corrupted following the death of the cult’s founder. He and Abby have good chemistry, and they grow to have a nice friendship over the course of the game. The problem, as pointed out by actual trans people I’ve seen talking about this on twitter, is that his story involves the cult trying to kill him purely because he’s trans and therefore “cursed”. His sister gets her arm shattered with a hammer, people try to kill Lev while calling out to him with his deadname, and it all culminates in Lev going back to the Seraphites’ home island to try and explain how he feels to his mother and killing her in self defence. Now, I get that the game is going for a grim, harrowing story about relatable, real-world trauma, but a post apocalyptic action horror game does not need a story about a trans child fearing for his life and killing his infanticidal mother in self defence. Trans people go through enough shit without having a videogame try and bottle that trauma and sell it as entertainment. All I had to put up with was one homophobic slur, by comparison. It is a shame because Abby’s story flows far better and feels like it’s actually moving forward and going somewhere, as opposed to Ellie just treading water. She goes to more interesting locations, encounters a unique new form of infected, and has that core relationship with Lev, something that Ellie lacks due to her supporting characters only being present some of the time. The game is poorly paced, too; whereas the first one felt like a journey as it moved through the seasons, the sequel shows a three day period from Ellie’s perspective, then just as it reaches a climax the game jumps back to the start of those three days, but now you see things from Abby’s perspective, who didn’t even know Ellie was in Seattle until that aforementioned climax; it feels like two different games. It reaches what feels like a conclusion only to jump forward to an extended epilogue where both characters deal with an entirely new group and have a dumb fist fight, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion that reminded me of Batman V Superman, and if a story reminds me of that then something’s clearly gone wrong somewhere. Ellie’s story lacks anything of real substance or interest, to me at least, the whole “Cycle of revenge” angle has no weight and having Joel be killed and Ellie’s life ruined for this feels like a complete waste. The first game ended on that wonderful ambiguity and should have been left alone. Abby’s story should have been the entire sequel, with her being completely unrelated to Joel. Just without the trans trauma porn.

Gameplay wise, it feels a lot like the first game, but with some new additions. Ellie and Abby can both go prone and jump, and the combat arenas have been adapted to take advantage of that, with lots of little nooks and crannies to slip in and out of, long grass to hide in and elevated spots to climb to. It features that same blend of stealth, shooting and melee combat but with new dedicated dodge button I kept forgetting to use. Sadly, apart from the occasional gunfight that felt exhilarating and tense, combat just felt dull to me, like I was going through the motions. By far the gameplay’s biggest problem is its attempt to make you feel the effects of your violent actions, specifically making you feel bad about all the killing. The level of violence just felt like the first game to me, even when I was killing guard dogs and beating people to death with claw hammers. Much has been made of enemies calling out each other’s names upon finding their murdered friends, but it had no effect on me. If anything it’s amusing; you pop someone in the head and someone nearby just calls out a random name, it has no weight to it whatsoever. There’s also a feature where shooting an enemy’s arm with something powerful like the hunting rifle will rip it off, causing them to crumple to the ground screaming bloody murder. The first time this happened I laughed out loud and said “Disarmed him!”. The second time this happened I was slightly irritated because I didn’t know if I was free to stop aiming at them and look for their mates. The third time, and every time after, it had gotten stale. Just a pattern of hackneyed attempts to make me feel bad. I fully expected these attempts to not work on me, but I grossly underestimated just how poor they are. They’re laughable.

So I’ve been going in pretty hard on the game’s faults, but there are things I like. Chief among them are Abby and Lev, and their relationship. I don’t know how old they both are, so I’m not sure if it’s closer to mother and son or older sister, younger brother but either way it and the two of them are the best things about the game. The game’s approach to the horror trope of “Meat moss”, i.e flesh growing on the walls, is fantastic; huge clumps of mushrooms that have spent years taking over buildings, particularly two sections Abby goes through; a descent through a hotel completely overcome by the fungus, with infected stuck to walls that break free to surprise attack you, and navigating Seattle’s infection ground zero in a WLF-occupied hospital. The infected all look gross and dangerous, and it’s nice to see the extreme long-term effects of the cordyceps. Ellie’s supporting cast; Dina and in particular Dina’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, are both likeable and useful in combat. There’s a single section early on where Ellie has a map she updates as you go to optional areas that’s neat, I wish they’d had more of those. The game looks really nice; the more interesting environments that aren’t just mossy buildings and grassy streets are neat and feel like they’ve really pushed the boat out after establishing the first game’s aesthetic. It’s a very well put together game from a technical stand point, and taken purely as a stealth action horror game it’s competent and solid, just a bit dull.

So that, unfortunately, is The Last of Us Part II. Its “Cycle of revenge, violence is bad, don’t you feel like a monster?” story is weak, its pacing is poor and its gameplay, while fine, is marred by its constant, laughable attempts to make you feel bad. The second Last of Us game should have been about all new characters in a new location, and that’s what Abby’s story is. A version of Abby’s story where Joel and Ellie aren’t involved, there are no hackneyed attempts to make the player feel bad for killing enemies, and where Lev can just be a trans character without going through a horrible experience put into the game to try and capture relatable trauma for the audience of an entertainment product: that’s a game I’d really take to. As it stands, it’s a disappointment.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review

Shantae and the Seven Sirens for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game ...

Shantae is a series I’ve only very recently become familiar with, after seeing Matt McMuscles playing this latest instalment. It’s the flagship original series of Double Dragon Neon and River City Girls (both of which I recently played through and loved) developer WayForward; a Metroidvania series about a cute, half-genie lady who can transform into animals and fights a pirate Queen called Risky Boots. How I’ve only just heard of this now I don’t know, but I’m into it.

So Shantae, her uncle Mimic and her friends Sky and Bolo go on holiday to Paradise Island, where it turns out the mayor has gathered together five other half-genies for a festival, during which they’ll all perform on stage. After meeting her co-stars and sending them to the stage area, Shantae is the only one left standing after the lights go out and the others are suddenly and mysteriously kidnapped. Seeking them out, she descends to the sunken city beneath the town, home to the titular Sirens and with Risky Boots skulking around, clearly up to something. The story is largely just there to frame the gameplay, but the cast are all likeable, it’s well-written and the sirens make for interesting antagonists through their design and what little is known of them and their plans. I could have done with a little more detail about the main cast, but that’s not the game’s fault; I’m getting to the series several games in. I plan to go back to the others now that I’ve finished this one. One thing that is odd is that some dialogue is voiced, some isn’t, and sometimes what the characters say doesn’t match up with what’s written down, even within the same conversation sometimes. Not a critique, just an observation, like how every time you encounter Risky Shantae says “Risky BOOTS!” in the exact same way, it’s oddly charming.

The gameplay is pure Metroidvania, with everything designed around that central conceit. The environments are all gorgeously drawn, and varied whilst having a shared “Under sea” theme. With a few exceptions, the enemies are all aquatic, ranging from simple things like crabs, frogs and jogging lobsters to more elaborate ones like fish people, skeletal pirates and snake women. Each area is distinct, but feels like it’s all part of this lost, sunken city run by malevolent sirens. Rescuing each trapped half-genie gives you access to an animal transformation that gets you past one type of obstacle: a newt form that lets you climb walls, a tortoise that lets you smash heavy rocks, that sort of thing. Unusually for the genre, the game is split into chapters with a clear pattern: explore, fight Risky Boots, free a half-genie, use the resulting transformation to reach and beat a boss, find an item to enable the half-genie to share her power with you in the form of a dance. Shantae loves dancing, see, and doing so lets her channel a few powerful abilities like purifying toxic water and reveal hidden elements in the environment. You have one melee attack in the form of a hair whip, the speed and damage of which can be upgraded, as well as ranged sub weapons, and monster cards- items dropped by enemies that provide a different buffs to your abilities. The game often throws what seem to be side missions at you, usually collect-athons or delivering lost items, that turn out to be plot critical, something I’m glad I figured out early on. The chapter format keeps you from getting too lost, but the game doesn’t hold your hand; there were a couple of occasions where I was tempted to use a guide, but I persevered, and when you solve a quest or make real, tangible progress it feels fantastic. Particularly when I was trying to find an item and the search took me to an area I had overlooked that led to an area themed around undead pirates. Also it’s mentioning that the soundtrack is really good; it’s catchy, engrossing chiptune stuff reminiscent of Shovel Knight, that enhances the mood of every area.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a good Metroidvania game with funny, charming writing, likeable characters and great level and enemy design. Also so much of it is adorable, which is always a plus. It’s a good game, I’m glad I gave it a go and I’m looking forward to diving into the Half-Genie Hero’s back catalogue.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Ion Fury Review

Ion Fury Key Art Gaming Cypher - Gaming Cypher

Ion Fury is a first person shooter running on the Build engine, known for games like Blood, Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D. It’s an era of first person shooters I have no real experience with: I started with Doom then made the jump to things like Timesplitters and Red Faction, and in addition to that lack of experience it’s an era I’ve never really seen the appeal of, personally. They may have been something special back then but if this is representative of what the Build engine had to offer then times have changed for the better. Bear in mind DOOM Eternal came out earlier this year, and in terms of retro fixes, so did Streets of Rage 4.

You are Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, a cop in a futuristic city pursuing someone called Heskel, who has a seemingly endless supply of robots that come in various forms, ranging from humanoids in ponchos and flying brains to teleporting, skinless bodies and tank people. That’s it for story; Shelly cuts a bloody swathe through the environments spouting pop culture quotes like Duke Nukem, whether they fit the tone or not (She makes Breaking Bad references of all things), guns down loads of robots and at the end presumably kills Heskel. I wouldn’t know; I didn’t finish it. I gave it a good go- there are apparently seven chapters and I got a decent way through the fifth one- but any feelings of fun or enjoyment I had were overshadowed by the game feeling like a slog; a wearisome experience that just stretched on to eternity with no end in sight. It’s not a bad game as such, it just has no hook, or really any reason for me to keep playing it. The shooting is fine but lacks any real punch besides the shotgun and bombs, the levels have bursts of interesting design before falling back on industrial tunnels and sewers, and there are various annoying niggles that pile up. There are weapon reloads despite your ammo count just being a number signifying your total amount. There’s fall damage, and despite being two different ammo types using the same gun, accessed with the alt fire button, the grenade launcher and shotgun take up separate weapon slots, which is annoying when you’re under fire, try to take out the shotgun and end up splash damaging your face off. Running and gunning is rarely viable, as enemies easily chew through your health and armour, there’s heavy splash damage on explosives and enemies often have an easier time hitting you than you do them, particularly the flying ones. That’s the game’s problem: there’s no one, big issue that ruins it, just a series of smaller ones that all come together to result in something mediocre. Of the three games I’ve reviewed recently this is by far the longest, and has absolutely no reason to be. Were this a shorter experience like the other two, it would be better. Not good, but better.

So that’s Ion Fury: not bad, but not good either. A combination of nuisances and its length resulted in me just giving it up to play something more fun (Double Dragon Neon, specifically). Mediocre.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18