#Videogame #review #Hellblade @NinjaTheory #horror

Let’s get it out on the table: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the type of game I would’ve wanted Silent Hills to be. Not the exact game, mind you–I’d expect an SH installment to have more endings–but the degree to which Ninja Theory lovingly, carefully dropkicks the player into Senua’s broken mind is nothing short of majestic.

A significant degree of Hellblade’s marketing focused on capturing psychosis correctly (and, of course, the beautiful graphics). It’s great to see a game developer put so much care into the construction of a game’s plot, setting, and characterization that they consulted with psychologists and the mentally ill alike.

This care pays off quite well. Hellblade is full of both subtle moments of psychological tension, and direct freight-train-to-the-face moments of genuine horror, where the player doubts not only reality, but Senua herself.

Most are already aware of this, so I’ll address the most obvious element: the warning in the beginning of the game that repeated failure will result in permadeath, erasing the save file. Some were angered by this announcement, while others were angered by the fact that, apparently, no such system exists. You can die many times, but as far as anyone’s been able to figure out, nothing will permakill you.

That’s actually one of the most genius parts of this game. By terrorizing the player with such a deception, Ninja Theory instills the same existential dread Senua herself feels at all waking moments: that her failure will result in the destruction of Dillion’s soul, and her own being dragged down to Hel, her existence erased by the fact that there’s no one left to mourn or miss her.

Granted the savvy player might realize this very early on, because the warning says ‘failure,’ not death, will result in her destruction, and the black rot that symbolizes this failure grows during plot events, not so much after deaths. It took me roughly four deaths–all at the hands of the God of Illusion–to deconstruct this otherwise brilliant device and remove a significant amount of my own tension from the experience.

Hellblade, as a game, is broken into two parts: combat and puzzle solving. Ninja Theory is known for precise combat, but those who were a fan of their take on the Devil May Cry series will be a little disappointed. While the combat here is rendered well and feels very realistic to Senua’s characterization, those who fell in love with the fluidity of DMC’s action-packed, bass-thumping, mayhem-driven combat system will find Hellblade a bit formulaic and repetitive.

The puzzles are very interesting perspective-based events that fit well into the story, but unfortunately, the long puzzle-solving stretches, limited combat variance, and intensely narrative nature of this game limit the replay value. That first run through, though, is god damn amazing. 

Ultimately, how much value you get out of subsequent playthroughs will depend on whether you want to turn the ‘auto’ combat difficulty to hard, if you have any collectibles to round up, and if you played with headphones on the first time (In the words of Shia LaBeouf: DO IT!).

However, this game’s first run through alone is worth the thirty dollars it currently costs. Between the graphics so beautiful you’ll literally stop playing just to look around, and the heart-stopping moments of Senua’s descent into madness, Hellblade is easily one of the most ambitious and well-executed games I’ve played in my entire life. While I’ll be waiting for a DMC 2 (unpopular opinion, I know), I sincerely hope they get license to make the next Silent Hill. They’d nail it. No doubt at all.

Three reasons #TheBindingofIsaac might be the most #zen #game ever @edmundmicmillen

Life is suffering, and death is inevitable. Buddhism (as well as many other eastern philosophies) teaches that these two statements are parts of the, if not the entire, core of the human experience. After all, nothing is more certain than the fact that, eventually, the universe will self-destruct and everything we know will be erased.

Let’s avoid nihilism, at least for a moment. For those of you not familiar, The Binding of Isaac is a phenomenal game with high replay value. It’s also one of the most shockingly adult games I’ve ever played, with an all-too-brief story of a boy names Isaac whose mother has a psychotic episode and believes God is telling her that Isaac has become corrupted/sinful/impure.

She takes his toys and clothes, and shaves his head, but the voice commands her to kill him, much like how God commands Abraham to kill his son, also Isaac, in The Bible. Our Isaac, though, finds escape through a strange trapdoor in his room which basically leads to an ever-changing hellscape full of monsters. “Mom” is a boss, as is “Mom’s Heart” and “It Lives,” which is basically a vengeful fetus god (lookin’ at you, Silent Hill 3).

Given that your main attack is to shoot tears at the enemies until they die, and many pickups hurt Isaac (by actively damaging him or causing him emotional/bodily distress, making his tears larger/more powerful), it’s clear to see that this game isn’t for the faint of heart. But, despite its incredible learning curve and difficulty scale, it’s the most meditative gaming experience I’ve ever had.

Death is Inevitable

Sticking with this for a moment, I go in expecting to die. Did I get blown away on the first level? No problem! I figured that might happen. Die at the final boss? Well, heck, at least I made it that far, and I know better for next time. I’ve gotten blasted at the last second so many times that I recently had a perfect run (no damage) during the battle against Mom’s Heart, generally known as a Bullet Hell.

Steam user Lunick says, “**** this game,” but I say, “If I’m still alive in twelve seconds, I’m eating a whole victory cheesecake.”

Life is Suffering

The Binding of Isaac uses a couple different sacrifice mechanics, ranging from donating health to get money, which can be donated (for unlockables), spent at shops, or given to beggars (for gifts), all the way to actually sacrificing yourself by impaling Isaac on spikes in given rooms. (Brief note: he’s, like, five. Maybe younger. This game is brutal.)

 

Why is this zen? Because it teaches you not to be prideful by holding onto all that extra health, especially if you’ve left pickups behind in other rooms. Sure, if you’re on your last heart container, I recommend visiting a Great Fairy getting some more health before forking over the rest to a Demon Beggar, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given away most of my life force only to surge back and obliterate all before me.

You are One with Everyone

Isaac is technically the only character in the game, but he takes on the forms of different Biblical characters, like Azazael, Samson, and Lilith (in the new, disgustingly-perfectly-named Afterbirth expansion). He’s always Isaac, yet shares the collective knowledge and experience of these other figures (doubly so, considering unlockables and donations carry across all runs in a given save file).

Buddhism teaches this very same concept: that we share in the collective experience of all mankind. Good things that happen to one of us happen to all of us; trauma and danger–like a child’s mother trying to kill the child–harm everyone, hence why all these other figures are trapped in the magical door to hell too.

Those are my thoughts on this game. What are yours? Give me a shout in the comment section!

Some things @theevilwithin did right, and some it did very wrong #videogames #horror

I’ve been replaying The Evil Within on my PS4 and, as I did the first time, really enjoyed some of the gameplay. Since I’m a pretty critical gamer, I can’t help but praise it–and chastise its creators for some glaring oversights and easily avoidable flaws. Let’s check this out.

Good: Run for your Life

There aren’t a lot of games out there with quality chase sequences, but when done right, those games deserve a thumbs up. The Evil Within is one such game, offering several “Run or you’ll die” moments, many of which are complicated by traps, offering even more ways to get brutally torn into a thousand pieces.

Bad: PS2-Grade Controls

Between a white-knuckled grip on the shake-cam and controls that feel more at home in Silent Hill than a PS3/PS4 title, you’re likely to slam Detective Castellanos into so many walls you’ll wish he was locked in a padded cell so he didn’t keep hurting himself. I’m not suggesting it should’ve been an Assassin’s Creed-style “turn so fast your legs skitter out to the sides” sensitivity, but god damn, this guy turns slower than a cruise liner.

Good: Interesting Monsters

Between the variety of disfiguration the main enemies suffer, The Keeper, The Four-Armed Teleporting Kayako, and the grotesque bosses, there are quite a few baddies to look at while the Detective gets murdered.

Bad: The hell do they look like?

Between the aforementioned herky-jerk camera, intentionally grainy screen, and the background environments, there’s barely any time to actually see what you’re shooting, and when you do see it, it blends into the background. Fuzzy texturing and an over-emphasis on gritty world-building left the creatures feeling lack-luster.

Good: Atmospheric Tension

Some of the early environments do a great job of capturing that survival horror feel, especially if you’re low on green gel and haven’t bought many upgrades.

Bad: They Completely Forget About Tension Halfway Through

Call of Duty style shootouts and an increasing reliance on bosses or subbosses to keep the game challenging cause atmosphere to go right out the window. Bonus Bad: Survival horror ammo scarcity, massive shootouts, and a camera that shakes harder than a fault line during a volcanic eruption gets frustrating very fast.

Ugly: The Main Character is a Moron

I was pretty disappointed with Det. Castellanos’s character. He spends half the game asking obvious questions, and the other half making idle, unthinking remarks. At one point, he even refers to “that red liquid.” …That liquid is called blood, detective.

However, the acting is very well done, and kudos for bringing in Jennifer Carpenter for Nicole Kidman. As a huge fan of Dexter, there’s a certain appeal to having her in the game.

Ugly: Too much Resident Evil

I love Resident Evil, and I’m all for homage, but between Evil being in the name, the final boss getting blown away by a rocket launcher, and the fact that it uses the iconic “zombie hunkered over, eating someone, then turning around slowly while the lights flash” TWO TIMES, I found myself wondering why I didn’t just play RE.

Even the subbosses are copied straight out of RE4, including fighting two giant troll things at basically the same time (El Giganto), a water-dwelling beast that you can’t directly kill (El Lago), and a subordinate of a major boss that uses ground hazards and extreme physical power (Salazar’s Right Hand).

But, when the game actually tries to be its own experience, rather than a fan-service clone, it handles really well.

Ugly: Troped-up Female

There are only two women in the game. Kidman plays the damsel in distress and the femme fatal, while Ruvik’s sister, aka Four-Armed Kayako, is the woman-as-monster. There’s no redeeming element here, and I’ve knocked a full point off its score for that.

Do I recommend this game? Yes. I wouldn’t say I love it, but I definitely enjoy playing, and have bought it twice. It’s not perfect–six and a half out of ten, at best–and it won’t give any seasoned horror fans nightmares, but it’s worth a few playthroughs. If you haven’t tried it, and you’ve got a little spare time/money, give it a look.

@HoltonsHorror reviews #CaptainAmericaCivilWar @Marvel

Okay, so this movie isn’t horror, but who would I be if I didn’t devote a blog post to the heroes I’ve come to know and love?

For those of you that are new to this planet, Captain America: Civil War is about The Avengers coming to a disagreement over the Sokovia Accords, a UN-ratified document that would only allow the team to intervene if and when a UN committee deems intervention necessary. This doesn’t fly with a lot of the members, but it really doesn’t with ole Cap’n A, whose compulsion to act when he sees injustice–and his experiences in WWII–seriously clash with this “Let’s put the good guys on a leash” philosophy.

Now, how did this movie do? Let’s delve in (Or scroll down for a TL;DR).

(SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)

It was a pretty good adaptation, all things considered. There was no way they were going to be able to bring in every hero in the Marvel Universe, so considering that they introduce Black Panther and Spiderman while also expanding on the day-to-day relationships of the other Avengers was really something.

Paul Rudd! How was I not going to start with him? He was phenomenal, like he’d walked right off Ant Man and into CA:CW, ultimately using his Ant suit in a way that will please those familiar with the comics and surprise those who aren’t (and extra props to his comically deep laugh during such a big scene).

Black Panther! While his character arc was predictable, it was still well executed, the costume/stunts were great, and Chadwick Boseman was a perfect choice.

Spiderman! Tom Holland was another spot-on casting, and since Spidey wasn’t part of the driving action, he got to really immerse himself in the role. He’s really only present for the big fight scene, yet stands out by delivering a constant barrage of jokes while actively fighting, just like in the comics.

Love! One of my favorite hobbies is imagining what these superhumans do during their down time. What bank does Natasha Romanoff use? What does Tony Stark eat for breakfast? Has Steve Rogers ever played a video game? (This is a great exercise for writers, BTW).

But, one of my favorite scenes in CA:CW comes from Vision and Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) casually hanging out at The Avengers compound, the buds of romance clearly blooming. I especially liked how the Mind Stone fails him when it comes to cooking. They’re endearing and amusing scenes that provide a respite from the heavy tone of the movie, and frankly, I could’ve done with another one of those scenes (despite the 2.5 hr run time).

But how was the plot?

I was really surprised at how integral Bucky was. I knew he’d be involved, but The Winter Soldier wound up being one of the main characters, and though his personal trials were, again, nothing too unique, the initial twist involving Hydra’s Winter Soldier program was surprising. Then when they showed how Bucky was involved with ole’ Tony Stark, things got REALLY surprising, and basically turned the plot inside out.

The tensions run high between the teammates throughout, and we see many instances of team allegiance being challenged by personal relationship. The poignancy, most notably when Captain America attends a particular funeral, was profound and welcomed.

There are, of course, some pitfalls. As with any Marvel movie, there’s about ten to twenty minutes devoted to explaining or setting up for new heroes/villains later on, including the second after credits scene (all I’ll say is that it’s about Spidey). To the writers’/director’s credit, they do humorously skip past Spiderman’s origin (Holland says, “When what happened happened, my senses were turned up to eleven”), which got a lot of laughs from the seasoned viewers.

The aspect I most appreciated, though, was that this was clearly written for people who’d seen the other movies. The Falcon and Ant Man refer to their brawl in Ant Man several times; Falcon and Bucky clearly haven’t forgotten each other and are still sore over The Winter Soldier; Stark and Pepper Pots have a development in their relationship that might be lost on those who didn’t see the Iron Man films. This not only saved time and delivered constant, fresh writing, but it made me feel a little more validated for having spent so much money seeing all those movies.

Some Dull Bits

The negative aspects are few and far between. The music, for example, is performed and written very well, but isn’t distinguishable from the scores in other Marvel movies. Some scenery and backgrounds look the same (how different can one destroyed city block be from another), though this is balanced by some very interesting arenas, namely an airport and a Hydra compound. There are some would-be significant characters who, due to limited screentime, are criminally underdeveloped (like Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May).

And, of course, Hawk Eye comes back, and is about as effective as he’s ever been. Sure, he’s still clearly a clever tactician, but his role seems more to showcase the other character’s abilities, like when he tries to help Scarlet Witch, gets overpowered by Vision, and has to have her rescue him.

…Although, it’s kind of nice to see a guy in a typical “damsel who tries to help and needs to be saved” position.

The Summary (TL;DR)

See this movie. Just go see it. Right now, in IMAX 3D, like I did. It’s by far one of the best Marvel films to date, so much so that I’m glad Thor and The Hulk weren’t in it, because it would’ve demanded changing a fairly fantastic group dynamic.

The combat is stylish, dynamically-shot, and still manages to be new despite almost a dozen of these comic adaptation movies (not even counting DC!). This feels more like watching people in conflict rather than mere characters, a huge step in the right direction for a franchise that was starting to lack emotional depth, beyond the usual “I don’t want to fight my family” or “I don’t want to lose my love interest” plots.

I was worried about Joss Whedon taking his hands off these movies, even though this wasn’t really an Avengers film, but am glad to say that the Russo brothers nailed it. I give it a 9/10, with half a point lost for the soundtrack, and .1 stars lost for every time I’ve had to hear someone complain about Stark’s ego. Otherwise and overall, fantastic.

Why I’m Team Captain America

I’m about to wade into the second most polarizing issue of this year and throw my allegiance into the ring. I’m Team Captain America, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Superhuman Registration Act. And one that does.

1: Paul Rudd

Ant-Man was always a fascinating idea, but brought to life by Paul Rudd, he was hands-down one of the best heroes I’ve seen on the big screen. He’s funny. He’s charming. He’s a good dad (arguably). And, he openly acknowledges that he doesn’t want to be a hero. Even at the end of the titular film, he clearly just wants to be a dad–but America needs him more than his daughter.

2: Scarlet Witch

As the only remaining mutant in the Marvel cinematic universe, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is standing on a pedestal. Not only does she have a connection to the mind gem, one of the infinity stones that will be the central point of the Infinity Wars, but there are going to be major scars from that time she brainwashed everyone and ruined their lives. That’s going to get interesting.

3: Bloodlust

The trailers already show Bucky (The Winter Soldier) attempting to shoot Tony Stark (Iron Man) between the eyes, but the repeat of Captain America’s “C’mon, I could do this all day” line suggests that he’s losing the fight against Iron Man–and that he expects to die, or at least go down fighting. Will Stark kill his ex-best friend? …No, obviously not. But he’s going to think about it, and I want to see him try to apologize for the whole almost-murder thing.

4: Avengers sans Whedon

As a long-time fan of Joss Whedon (Thanks to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), I was looking forward to The Avengers from day one. Then the two movies came out, and they were awesome. Now, without him? I’m going to be a very strict (but not harsh!) critic.

5: The Registration Act

Like I said, one was the Act. Why do I care? Because where is the line? Would Dr. Strange, one of my all-time favorite characters, have to register? He’s not really superhuman, if you think about the fact that the chakra system and spiritual power is accessible to anyone. What about Vision? Does he even count as human? And, The Hulk definitely isn’t human, while Bruce Banner is only a human until he transforms.

That last one can be debated, but still, someone with an eidetic memory could potentially be forced to register. While Sheldon Cooper isn’t about to level New York, would you–would anyone–really be okay forcing innocent citizens to submit to such control?

I sure as hell wouldn’t. #CaptainAmerica #TeamRudd

#Kickstarter! #Free #poem! Come get more stuff!

I’ve got a Kickstarter going trying to help fund a book of poems I’d like to write on the art and culture of Prague. I’m especially interested in how the decline of religion in the area since World War 2 affected people on the interpersonal level, given how prominent Christianity had been in days prior.

If you’re like, “I don’t know, maybe I’d support him, but is he any good?” then here’s a poem to try to help change your mind: “Snow Blind,” originally published with TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics.

SNOW BLIND

Clarissa dances among drifts.
Form illuminated by sun-stained
snowfall, blinding blankets
Recording footsteps through light.

Shadows anchored to weary feet
Attempt to teach that darkness is
More natural than blindness.

Beyond comforting walls,
Strangers stare at side-winding scar,
Tracing its hungry path from eye
Along jaw to mouth that cannot smile.

Eyes shut, hand placed as visor,
She hides inside so snow can’t remind:
I walk only when light falls.

Plus, high contributors get Reiki treatments, dedicated poems, signed copies upon publication, and more! A serious bargain going on over here, so would you kindly be the truest definition of a wonderful, beautiful person and give it a look? Maybe a share too if you’re Batman levels of awesome.

 

Batman Vs. Superman: Marvel Can Relax…

I tried to see Batman vs Superman today–I really did. Predictably, it was sold out in nearly every viewing, and since I was trying to see it with a friend, I didn’t want to get two separate seats.

I’ve heard a lot about the issues with this movie, and though John Taff sums it up nicely (see below), I think the biggest problem with DC movies, aside from the fetishistic obsession with dark, gritty atmospheres, is a very basic one:

DC seems convinces comics were popular because of what the characters do, but really, we care about who they are. It’s great when Batman fights the Joker in The Dark Knight, but what did it mean for him? …Not a whole lot. Batman went on treating him like any other villain, when in the comics/games, each fight has a major psychological impact.

Take The Amazing Spiderman, in contrast. Peter Parker has to fight The Lizard, a mutant version of a former hero. He pleads with him throughout the fight(s), even at risk of injury, trying to reason with the man. Finally defeating him means taking a major step toward adulthood–and understanding that being a hero means sometimes having to treat every villain, even the people you love, the same.

Even Ant-Man did a great job with this, which was pretty great for such a comedic hero movie. (Spoilers!) When Ant-Man fights The Falcon, and Falcon loses, we get the treat of him saying, “It’s really important to me that Cap (Captain America) never finds out about this.”

Sure, it’s a joke, but it’s also the truth: his reputation, and future in the Avengers, could’ve been on the line if the others found out he was beaten by someone only an inch tall. It’s an honest look into his motivations, and the consequences of even a seemingly mundane fight.

And, honestly, I loved that fight far more than the entire Superman vs. Zod fight at the end of Snyder’s first Superman film. Maybe ole’ Supes was upset about killing the last other Kryptonian, but he sure didn’t seem too bent out of shape about leveling Metropolis.

Don’t get me wrong: I love both studios, and will still see BVS, but if it’s at all like the others suggest, I won’t be surprised. I’m too used to DC to think their movies will show consequences anymore.

***

It’s been billed as the Clash of the Titans, DC’s answer to the almost relentless onslaught of Marvel domination, the prelude to the Justice League, the set up for the entire DC cinemat…

Source: Batman Vs. Superman: Marvel Can Relax…