This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori And the Blind Forest.
Video game developers have something in common with heavy goods vehicle operators and prostitutes who specialise in older clientele: it's extremely important that they know when to stop. Useful skill for all of us in fact. It's a very sound and praiseworthy idea to shove Cadbury's Creme Eggs in your mouth, but when you find yourself shoving them in any other bodily orifices, you probably should've stopped before it got to that point. Similarly, the developers of The Order: 1886 didn't know when to stop; around the time of the earliest pitch meeting, they should have stopped breathing and suffocated to death. Although strangely, they did know when to stop when given the many subsequent opportunities to drive straight into a traffic barrier and graciously end the blight that is their lives. And then you have the curious case of Hotline Miami 2, a game that, when I finally got to the end, I felt should ideally have stopped some hours ago, and yet at the same time, it also didn't seem to have finished properly. It's the first of two Steam games I plan to get good and steamed up about today.
Hotline Miami I: The Phantom Menace was a landmark in the field of pixelated gratuitous violence; a sort of dramatization of the last ten minutes of Taxi Driver on fast-forward. And what I liked about it was the surreal atmosphere and the ambiguous story that made the whole experience feel like a handful of brief moments of clarity glimpsed through the psychedelic haze of Rubik's Cubes and synth pop. Hotline Miami 2 makes the mistake of trying to be less ambiguous. It's like reading the book version of 2001: A Space Odyssey; learning what the film was supposedly banging on about and feeling unaccountably disappointed about it. It also attempts to suck on Quentin Tarantino's chin like the big rocket shaped ice lolly it resembles by telling a huge ensemble story and switching between various protagonists: a group of vigilantes inspired by the first game's hero, a rogue detective, a writer, some gangsters, a fat bloke with a face like a baseball mitt that's been repurposed for sexual misadventure; a collection linked only by a mutual interest in running up to large numbers of bald men and mashing the left mouse button until someone falls over.
The trial and error gameplay hasn't changed much from the first game. I'd say it was a copy-paste job, but it seems to be a little buggier this time. It's not even hard to get a dude trapped clipping into a door, at which point you could harness the energy of his vibrations to power your home for a fortnight. Otherwise, it's the same ratio of one unspeakably violent victory for every twenty to thirty-thousand unspeakably violent failures, which previously gave a sense of suicidal futility as the protagonist waded into yet another melee that gave him worse odds than a Shetland pony in a Gygax dungeon. But the same gameplay loses something when enacted by characters with ambition to survive past the next five minutes. The overlong campaign began to feel like a chore as we switched from one uninteresting character to the next until one by one, they go through little arcs that don't have any kind of satisfactory payoff, finally ending in a confusing hallucinatory mess, presumably at the point the writer's house caught fire and they hastily concluded the story with the phrase, "and then everyone took drugs and died, THE END."
So if Hotline Miami left you hungry for more, Hotline Miami 2 will leave you very full and feeling rather sick and disappointed in yourself, and then it keeps going for a while until you're in the kind of food coma that you can only get out of with a taser gun.
The second game we're sliding across the firing range is Ori and the Blind Forest, a fantasy Metroidvania platformer about a glowing baby cat-rabbit-thing in a dark forest, for whom camouflage is just a thing that other people worry about. Let me say before we go on that Ori and the Blind Forest is a really beautifully animated game, with a very effective intro sequence that, in a short time, conveys the heartwarming friendship between our player character and their adoptive parent and the gut-punch tragedy when they die, leaving us alone in the world and forced to venture into the dying lands. So the question you must ask yourself is whether or not all of that is enough. Because once the actual game game started, all the goodwill I had from the strong beginning gradually dribbled away like jam in a drain pipe. I'm fully aware that it's acquired a certain acclaim; Steam doesn't hand out those "Overwhelmingly Positive" user review summaries to just anyone like a free t-shirt. But excepting the animation department, Ferngully and the Last Rainforest does very little beyond hit the lowest possible targets for the genre of "arty platformer".
Firstly it's, you got it, a big-headed innocent cat-rabbit-thing exploring a big scary world against a melancholy orchestral soundtrack. The plot is the usual "Restore light, banish Dark", which is exactly the same searing emotional drama that takes place when I launder my tea towels. The Metroidvania gameplay has the usual parade of movement power-ups: the double jump, the wall jump, the barbecue bacon jump with large fries. About the only new idea the gameplay offers is that you have to create your own save points at the cost of some of your magic power, but it doesn't take long for the cost to be negligible. And then you might as well crack off a save point every time you touch down, in the way Piers Morgan leaves a trail of oily handprints everywhere he goes. What annoys me about the gameplay is that it communicates entirely in the language of glowing blobs. Pick up the glowing blob. Avoid the evil glowing blob that shoots glowing blobs. Carry this glowing blob to the altars so that you can restore glow and blobbiness to the land. I feel sorry for colour-blind players; they wouldn't be able to tell a missile from their own left bollock.
I suppose I'm giving Ori-Pori-Pudding-and-Pie a lot of shit, because I feel manipulated by it. I was being emotionally manipulated by the sad opening and I was fine with that. I like to give myself a good rigorous manipulation most evenings, but then at the ending, they overreached and ruined everything.
ENDING SPOILER WARNING, SPOILER WARNING, HOOT, HOOT, PUT IT ON MUTE!
If you establish your game with a sad "Bambi's Mum" death scene, magically bringing Bambi's Mum back to life at the end makes all the goodwill slurp back inside me like a traumatic reverse childbirth. We befriend a bloke and he resurrects our Mum to do us a solid. But we never spoke to him, so how would he know who or where our mum was? It's just conveniently engineered for the sake of the most nauseatingly saccharine happy ending possible. When your plot establishes magical resurrection, all the stakes and drama immediately collapse. Where's the meaning in self-sacrifice if we can just get resurrected? Oh, the villain was motivated by her dead babies? Never mind! *PBTH!* They're alive again, be more careful this time! Actually, don't! Who cares? Here's three more babies, fuck it!
I complain, because it undermines the emotional impact, you see, not 'cause I'm psychotic and I want everything to die. (Not just because of that anyway...)
- A sweet Metroidvestite from Metroidsexual Metroidvania: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Tried to think of some facetious way to rename 'Ori' but all I could think of was 'Houri' and that felt like trying too hard
- Please donate to the glowing blob benevolent association