This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews My Friend Pedro and Sea of Solitude.
It's taken slightly longer than usual to have to do an indie double-bill; normally, the drought period sets in pretty quickly after E3. Thanks, games industry; now, let's work on the "constantly trying to steal money from children and vulnerable people" thing. And then, who knows? Perhaps we can get you released from that contract with Satan. Anyway, My Friend Pedro is a 2.5D platform shooter I feel like I've been hearing about for ages now, which is the classic example of a game that has put a sterling amount of effort into its core second-by-second gameplay and bugger-all else. The core gameplay is super-acrobatic gun combat where you use slow-motion to flip and jump all over the place getting insane kill combos, and everything else seems to have been worked out in five minutes by someone who goofs off work all day watching all the Homestar Runner videos.
So the main character is some dude, in a gas mask, and he shoots people wearing Christmas sweaters, and his best friend is... I don't know, a banana with a smiley face. "It's random! The Internet loves that shit!" Except, speaking as an Internet comedy grandee, bananas are pretty old-hat as random humor goes; my grandma uses bananas in her random word association jokes. These days, all the cool kids use durians and açaí berries.
I want to emphasize, though, that the core combat is really good; I smash through a window on a skateboard, kick the same skateboard into somebody's eye socket, back-flip over his friend, shooting two guys at once, kick a frying pan into the air and shoot at it so the bullets ricochet into three other guys who were in cover and had apparently latched onto some mad idea that it was in their power to stop me, and then, for the first time since initially entering the room, I touch the floor. None of this is pre-animated; it's all within standard game physics, so I could feel like I'm accomplishing something impressive for once in my miserable life. It's got the "easy to learn, hard to master" thing.
I particularly liked the ability to aim at two things at once while dual-wielding; once you get the dual Uzis, it becomes "easy to learn, hardly need to master" as the entire world disappears into smoke and blood splatter decals. So in the second half of the game, when you get a bunch of two-handed weapons too powerful to not use and the split-kill feature all but quietly disappears like a socially awkward person leaving a party, it's disappointing, 'cos it was the combat's most unique feature; it's like cutting the armpit-fuck session short to have more time for the fuck in missionary position. But My Friend Pedro is a bag of potato chips; you'll appreciate them as they go into your fat, disgusting mouth, but once they're gone, you'll never think about them again, or write a rave review for Greasy Snacks Digest.
All the stuff that makes a game memorable - context, story moments - they're all lost in this dreary attempt at effortless humor that reminds me unpleasantly of Sunset Overdrive, except where that felt like the result of a roomful of 35-year-olds endlessly workshopping what the kids find amusing these days, My Friend Pedro feels like it reaches the same place just by being too lazy to put much thought into it. It even does the same thing where one of the enemy factions is nerdy gamers, not cool gamers like what you, the player, presumably are, and it still comes across as obnoxiously aloof. It also does the thing where it goes, "Oh, look! A sewer level! How original, roll eyes!" and then proceeds to un-ironically have a sewer level that goes on way too fucking long. IF YOU KNOW IT'S BAD, WHY ARE YOU DOING IT? Surely, the comedic, subversive thing to do would be to pretend we're having a sewer level, and then go, "Oh, bollocks to this hackneyed shit; let's have a level where you ride an ostrich through a bouncy castle!"
That's about it, so let's move on to our next game, Sea of Solitude, an EA Original, part of EA's plan to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world, occasionally withdraw their fist from the butthole of their terrified employees, and pat an indie developer on their head with a hand still slick with anxious liquid shit. But why judge? Sea of Solitude is a... What the fuck are you, Sea of Solitude? Exploration game? "Go to the thing the game tells you to go to and press a button" game? ...in which you play a girl named Kay adrift in a vast sea full of monsters and flooded buildings, many of which appear to represent people and events from Kay's life, and when I say "appear to", I mean "totally do" because she keeps reminding us they do. It's one of those games like Gris, aiming to fast-track themselves into the sphere of indie critical darlings by being all sad and metaphorical and about mental health, but has zero subtlety and isn't actually saying anything of interest; it's just got one hand flat against its forehead in exaggerated angst and the other hand outstretched to collect all the "Best Art Direction" prizes.
What I dislike about games like this and GRIS is that they're trying to affect the appearance of meaningfulness without actually having any depth. If you look at, say, Moby-Dick, it can be interpreted as a metaphor for a lot of things - man vs. nature, order vs. chaos, the struggle to clean semen out of the bathroom rug before your mum gets home - but on the surface level, it's an adventure story about a white whale and a dude with a narc-on, and if you prefer it that way, then that's all it need be. GRIS and Sea of Solitude have no surface level; it's all symbolism all the time, but at least GRIS has its characters keep their fucking mouths shut so it's open to interpretation. Sea of Solitude has no such patience, and Kay's narration is constantly laying everything bare. "Look, there's a thing. It represents thing. Isn't that clever?"
The game would benefit enormously from an edit, if not total removal of all spoken dialogue, and I'm not just saying that because of the voice acting. The game officially lost me the first time I heard a monster speak in the voice of a normal person putting on a stupid monster voice. "Rrargh! Kay, you never do anything right! I'm one of your inner demons! Have we made that obvious enough yet? Rrargh!" I noted in the credits that Kay's voice actor was also the lead animator for the project; how relieving it was to hear she hadn't given up the day job.
Sea of Solitude is one of those games that's either going to really speak to you or completely leave you cold; it'll all depend on whether you personally relate to Kay or not. And the more I played, the more I disliked her, not because she was an inattentive sister or any of the other reasons the game gives for why she's tormenting herself like this; it's because she's such a fucking self-absorbed drama queen, she'll craft a grand operatic scenario out of her interpersonal relationship issues. "Oh no, I didn't give my depressed boyfriend enough space! Verily must I be clothed in the raiment of the traitor and banish myself to the wine-dark seas of nothingness to dwell forevermore!" JUST STOP TEXTING HIM SO MUCH, YOU DIPPY MOO!
And I wouldn't be so harsh, but I don't even have a decent game to frame it around; don't code that swimming in the sea where the monster lurks is bad and dangerous if swimming in the sea is the next thing we have to do to progress, for fuck's sake, unless this is another metaphor. "Ooh, the darkness that shrouds the way forward represents the darkness that Kay saw after her head disappeared up her own arse!"
- Adrift in a sea of wank: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- All I'm saying is a real friend wouldn't let a friend skateboard through a plate glass window
- Journey through surreal symbolic world: still cheaper than therapy