This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Let It Die.
I remember a time when the word "free" always had positive connotations: free food, free drink, and the city of Paris is free of the Bourbonite menace, and if you followed the signs for free candy, it usually resulted in making many interesting new friends in the back of an unmarked van. But not anymore. Now, I regard the word "free" with immediate suspicion. Yet another word ruined by the world of video games alongside other once-perfectly good words like "connect" and "virtual" and "Molyneux". So you can imagine my mixed feelings when a free-to-play game comes out on the PS4 with the name “Suda51” hanging off it, a word that hasn't yet been ruined for me.
If you're just joining us, Suda51 is a Japanese game director inexplicably named after his car license plate, who made his name with quirky alternative post-punk games like Killer7 and No More Heroes. But in his more recent games, to my mind, he's been trying a bit too hard to live up to that reputation; the words "lollipop" and "chainsaw" spring to mind.
Let It Die kicks off with a skateboarding grim reaper wearing funky sunglasses, which is an image that leaps straight off the front cover of The Complete Dullard's Guide to Creativity. See, it's a traditionally grim thing acting in a lively and lighthearted way; that’s almost as clever as putting a hat on a dog. "Shit on a midshipman's biscuit! A dog in a hat?! Dog's don't wear hats! I hope the government are keeping a watchful eye on this dangerous subversive."
Anyway, Let It Die is a roguelike survival action-adventure. This is fun, isn't it? Let's throw out a few more words that don't actually mean anything: blinking kangaroo stovepipe. Alright; it plays like a cross between Dark Souls and ZombiU with a dash of Manhunt sprinkled on the top, represented mainly by unnecessarily-violent finishing moves with improvised weaponry. "Hey, we're smashing someone's face with a steam iron. That's not a thing traditionally done with a steam iron! Someone put that crazy Suda51 on the terrorist watchlist before he breaks wind in front of the Queen or something." You play a succession of men and women dressed like an Olympic swimming team that got about one fifth of their way to being assimilated by the Borg, and your task is to fight through all the levels of a mysterious tower in order to get the prize, the prize being not having to fight through the mysterious tower any more.
Combat is superficially Dark Souls-y in that it's based around stamina management and whiff-punishing, which, incidentally, is one word that video games hasn't ruined, and I think I should invent more meanings for “whiff-punishing” just so that I could use it more often. "Darling, I need to make an omelet; would you mind whiff-punishing some eggs for me?" But I know my Dark Souls and you, sir, are no Dark Souls. The thing about Dark Souls' combat is that it's best suited to one-on-one - you and your opponent try to wiggle around each other like a pair of hedgehogs ballroom-dancing inside a tube sock. But Let It Die constantly makes you fight groups of two or three. Mind you, the enemies can damage each other, so I just keep dodging and let them accidentally clip each other to death. Which works, but just isn't as satisfying as the proper way, like hammering in a nail with a saucepan.
Also - and you might want to get a pencil, because this is a fairly technical suggestion - it'd be nice if the dodge button...actually fucking worked, when the game's going, “Well, he got you with the first hit of the combo, so you might as well keep standing there sputtering indignantly, while he does the rest of it." The game also assigns more than one command to some buttons, like it's passive-agressively trying to get them married. You throw your current inventory item by touching the track pad and eat it by touching the trackpad in a subtly-different way. And I'm sure you can imagine there is very little overlap between “things you want to throw at people” and “things you want to eat”. The list starts and ends with custard pies, and there aren't a whole lot of custard pies in the Tower of Barbs. You also cycle your inventory by touching the trackpad in a third subtly-different way; blimey, this is like trying to seduce your lady friend in a darkened cinema, and discovering that all along you were fingering her bacon sandwich.
Maybe it's part of the challenge, but the primary challenge of a free-to-play game is figuring out when and how the game's going to start stinging you for dosh, 'cos it's unusual for a single-player game to be free-to-play, at least ones not aimed at housewives with empty nest syndrome or kids with itchy micrpayment fingers. And yes, Let It Die is a single-player game; don’t let those international leaderboards fool you. There's an asynchronous multiplayer sort of arrangement wherein you invade other people's hub worlds and wreck up the place for cash. But you can't interact with other players directly, you only fight the random johnnies they assigned to defend themselves, and it's no different than fighting random johnnies in the actual levels. Except instead of fighting them in samey environments, you fight them in the same environment: a subtle but crucial difference, I'm sure you'll agree. You don't even get better stuff from doing it, so I'm not sure why you'd want to, except that you get to imagine another player somewhere in the world shaking their tiny fists in impotent rage. Which sounds petty, but it's the kind of petty satisfaction you need after you yourself had to shake your tiny impotent fists because someone broke into your hub world and widdled in the drinking fountain.
So let's get back to the actual game and how it stings you for micropayments. See, micropayments are for buying continues to keep going after death, and you get a generous free sample of those that lasts just about long enough for you to start getting invested. But I didn't realize you're not actually supposed to be getting invested; you’re supposed to quote, “let it die”. See, once you hit level 10, you're supposed to ditch your current favorite avatars and start leveling up new higher-tier ones with better stats, level caps and go-faster stripes, so you can tackle the new batch of levels without getting your face steam-ironed onto a hilarious souvenir t-shirt. I didn't know that, and I noticed the game wasn't in much of a hurry to inform me of that as I blew all my continues trying to get my tier 1 character to level 13.
Perhaps it's churlish of me to expect a free game not to try to cover its costs, but this was also the point where the game started getting grind-elicious. You see, after my best character died and had no continues, I needed to pay in-game money to resurrect him instead. For you see, perma-death is only a thing that poor people have to worry about. But to make that money, I had to grind with my second best avatar, but his stats were lower and I got him killed as well, so I had to grind up with my third best to bring him back so I could continue grinding up to bring my best one back! And that's when I knew I had to get out before I got caught in an inescapable vortex of failure. I learned that lesson from the Hillary Clinton campaign.
- Dead and loving it: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Maybe micropayments wouldn't be so bad if they had a better name, like "whiff punishing"
- Still there are worse places to wake up in wearing only your underpants