This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Inside and Shadow of the Beast.
So it's yet another typically quiet July, stretching ahead of us like the long dusty road that connects two cesspools, let's take a look at some indie games exclusive to consoles, or as I like to call them, "class traitors"!
I still miss those innocent days of the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade, when the Xbox 360 would break the mid-year drought with a showroom of indie digitals, like a rich man digging a paddling pool in his front yard for the little street urchins to play in, while he watches from his darkly lit room window, sweating profusely. And for a moment this week, the spirit of Summer of Arcade returned, when the Xbone coughed up a spiritual successor to Limbo, the depressed self-harming beach babe of the 2010 frolics.
So let's take a look Inside. Er, sorry, I meant to say "Let's take a look at Inside". And that's going straight on to my list of game titles that are needlessly awkward to google, alongside Fuse, and Wet, and Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, which is very awkward to google if your girlfriend ever looks at your search history.
Inside opens with a small child lost in a dark forest, and you're given the implied instruction to keep moving right until something tells you to stop. Nothing wrong with having a comfort zone, of course, but one could be forgiven for thinking at first glance that PlayDead Studios have merely slapped a sporty red top on the protagonist of Limbo and left it at that. It's an atmospheric puzzle-platformer of the "child lost in scary world" genre that remains, even after all these years, the fast-track indie acclaim. You have a jump button, and a "pull things" button, and you will die like a Game of Thrones supporting actor demanding a salary increase.
But while the similarity to Limbo remains stark, things feel a little different when you start getting chased by dogs and scary men with flashlights, and we discover there's slightly more of a plot going on Inside, I mean, in Insi-- Oh fuck it, I'm just gonna call it Thatcher's Britain from now on, alright?
Where in Limbo you were an insignificant speck of interest to other characters only as two ounces of a tasty nutritious alternative to pork, there's definitively something a bit deeper going on in Thatcher's Britain, if the authorities are chasing you with scary dogs. As we explore the city, we uncover a sinister society where a scientific elite exploit a caste of what could be artificial humans, or brainwashed humans, or the living dead, or Brexit voters. It's all kept in the background and open to interpretation, your job is to keep moving past the interesting things and try not to get murdered by the interesting things.
It's got a handful of new mechanics to puzzle your way around. Since Limbo, the protagonist's head has been reduced in size for improved buoyancy, so now you can actually swim. And there's a recurring mechanic in which you remote control some artificial Brexit voters, that in certain points of the game start to make it feel like somehow a even bleaker Abe's Oddysee .
But ultimately none of it fully shakes off the Limbo comparison, at least until the very last sequence of Thatcher's Britain. It is by no means a long game, and there are several elements one feels don't get a proper payoff. What was with that underwater baby thing with the 70s hairdo? What happened to that pig we hung around with? I thought we were getting along really well. But it's the last few minutes that most dominate my thinking when I go over Thatcher's Britain in my head, when the game takes the last exit to Bonkersburg. I very much don't want to spoil anything, but if you ever fallen asleep while watching Children of Men and had that dream where you're chased down a hallway by your father's disembodied testicles, it might seen weirdly familiar.
A long journey unexpectedly turns into a few minutes of chaos and horror, and abruptly stops in a way that feels simultaneously relieving and anticlimactic. It's like watching The NeverEnding Story up to one of the scary bits and then shooting yourself in the head. And honestly I'm not even sure I recommend it. Certainly memorable and effective, but I left feeling more depressed than satisfied. Well, if they made Sex and the City into a film, there must be a market for depressing things.
Anyway, Thatcher's Britain was only Xbone exclusive for like a week before the Steam release, so let's move on to something that's still console exclusive as far as I know, Shadow of the Beast on the PS4. A remake of a classic Amiga sidescrolling beat-em-up. The usual line one takes for remakes is, "What's the point of remaking something that's already a classic?", and happily that is a question that will come nowhere near this venture, because the original Shadow of the Beast was a load of old knobblers, in which the principal activity was standing in one place mashing the punch button until everything stopped moving. So it's a perfectly sound idea to try the recipe again, but maybe with one less cup of diarrhea and one more cup of God of War.
And so in Shadow of the Beast, we are the titular beast, who resembles a purple dude wearing a Pokemon over his head, we were created as a living weapon by an evil sorceror, we break free of their control and proceed to murder our way through the sorceror's minions, to talk about our list of grievances to the big baddy. So far so good, or rather, so far so God, of War. Where the game tries to evoke that game that inspired it is in the combat, which is very much in the spirit of, "keep pressing the punch button". Enemies approach in single file, from in front and back, and most of the can be instantly killed in one hit.
What's the word for this strange feeling inside me, this cozy feeling, of warmth and familiarity, and makes me feel like I'm in precisely the place where I'm most comfortable? Oh, I remember. Hatred. I hate this combat system. Because it's one part combat to one part PaRappa the Rapper , and when you activate Rage of the Gods, I mean Frenzy Mode, I mean "I can't even remember what they called it, I can't be arsed to look it up", it becomes entirely a rhythm game, with preanimated kills instead of music that I couldn't even look at them because I had to focus entirely on the timed button prompts, so my dude could have been befriending the enemies with piñata parties for all I know. What's more, every move you make locks you into an animation that you can't cancel out of, like drew the short straw, and like a threesome participant who drew the short straw, you have practically no defense against being stabbed from both sides.
With time however, I did find myself gradually getting the hang of the rather needlessly complex array of moves, blocks and dodges. It turns out that all along the best strategy was, "keep pressing the punch button". I went into the final boss fight with a weary confidence in my abilities. And then, joke upon joke, the final boss fight uses different gameplay altogether, like an engineering degree course that ends with a pie eating contest. It becomes a Space Harrier jetpack shooter! And the original did something similar, but let's not forget that this was in a bygone more experimental age, when game design involved throwing ideas up into the air and breaking out the elephant gun.
The theme with this week's episode has been, "games that turn into something else torwards the end". But while Thatcher's Britain somewhat gets away with it, by being constantly vague, Shadow of the Beast seems to merely forget what it was supposed to be doing. At the start, the villains steal a baby, and we go after them in pursuit. But I don't think that baby's ever brought up again! A baby isn't something one can quietly drop, the last baby I dropped certainly isn't quiet.
- A beast in bed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I suppose Dark would be a pretty awkward title to google as well if anyone had ever wanted to google it anywhere ever
- How about all these british politics gags