Call of Cthulhu (2018)

Reproducing Lovecraft’s unique genre of horror in visual mediums is a challenging task. Lovecraft’s primary theme was that the unknown and unknowable were horrifying. The feeling of existential dread is more powerful when you imagine some terrifying reality, which is why many visual mediums struggle to reproduce that feeling. Call of Cthulhu is obviously inspired by Lovecraft, the question whether it can effectively replicate the cosmic horror that he was so keen on.

The premise of Call of Cthulhu is that you are a drunken investigator who has trouble getting a case. When approached by a wealthy man, you cannot deny their request to look into the death of his daughter, Sarah Hawkins. She, along with her husband and child, died in a house fire that was deemed an accident. Sarah’s father seems to believe there was more to the story, and he cites that there is a strange nature surrounding Sarah. As an artist she primarily painted deeply unsettling pieces, and her father believes that her disturbing art has a connection to her death.

You travel to an ominous island off the coast, and you quickly establish that something is terribly wrong here. The town is dilapidated, the citizens all seem delusional, and nobody seems to want you there investigating their business. Over the course of the game, the story will continue to unfold as you unravel the dark secrets of the island. It is a fairly standard Lovecraftian tale, rife with cults, sea monsters, and unspeakable horrors. 

The story and atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu is by far the games strongest appeal. The atmosphere itself is fantastic. The entire world is dark, dingy, misty, and all-around unsettling. There are a variety of environments and set pieces that fit perfectly in a Lovecraftian setting. The game also does a phenomenal job at distorting reality. A common theme in Lovecraft’s mythos is madness, and Call of Cthulhu replicates that well. There are many sequences that will have the player questioning what events are actually occurring and which ones are dreams or insanity within the main character’s thoughts. What is less successful is the implementation of the story.

While I do think the narrative had some interesting moments, I don’t think it was particularly memorable or enough to carry a game. I was interested in the mystery aspects of the game, trying to deduce what was happening on the island. But for the most part, I think the story pulled in too many different directions instead of focusing on a couple of stronger and more fleshed out ideas. It almost feels like a collection of Lovecraft’s greatest hits, there are so many different elements at play in a fairly short game. Most of the characters get pitiful screen time, and it feels like each aspect of the story was rushed and barely came together in a cohesive manner. But my larger issue with the plot is a common complaint amongst most Lovecraft inspired media.

Unexplored places like the cosmos and deep ocean were central to Lovecraft’s stories, as they are real places that are unsettling to most people. What lies within them may be so inconceivable and terrifying that it would drive men to madness. At this point, most people who are familiar with Lovecraft already know about the Cthulhu mythos, the references to the occult, and the recurring imagery of the deep ocean. It feels like the writers of these newer stories are missing the point when they directly rip these concepts. 

A successful modern Lovecraft adaptation would have to make the consumer uncomfortable. There would need to be unknown elements, things that don’t make sense and are incomprehensible. The feeling that humanity is insignificant when compared to what could possibly be lurking in the unknown reaches of the cosmos. Not just rehash the same themes and monsters that we’ve been seeing for a hundred years. Ironically, the most I’ve felt the signature cosmic horror feeling is in games that weren’t directly inspired by Lovecraft’s work. Visiting Dark Bramble in Outer Wilds, the BTs in Death Stranding, and the Mimics in Prey are all examples of this. It’s not a coincidence that I loved all of those games. 

As a game with a focus on story elements, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the actual gameplay is pretty mediocre. There is a mishmash of various elements, with some RPG investigation taking the forefront most of the time. Aside from that there is stealth, puzzle solving, exploration, and combat. These range from inoffensive at best to frustrating at worst. But none of them really take up a significant portion of time and can be gotten through fairly quickly. I appreciate that the developers at least understood that gameplay was not the core focus of the game and didn’t let it get in the way too much.

The only gameplay element that was prevalent for the entire game was the RPG investigations. You essentially search for clues and chat with NPCs to gain information about whatever you are investigating. There are some options that will essentially require a dice roll depending on your skill levels. It’s a little odd that they relied on RNG instead of just pure stat checks here, there really wasn’t any need for a randomness element to be incorporated. This isn’t a game about exploring many different options. If I make a strong character, I should be able to pry open stuck doors. And if I make a charismatic character, I should be able to pass more speech checks. Not have to rely on some dice roll that really adds nothing except for a failure state.

My other gripe is perhaps expecting a little too much for a game without a focus on gameplay. As it stands, investigations are just ways of disseminating information. You click on a clue and the game will tell you its significance, and questioning characters is just an exercise in exhausting all of the dialogue options. I wish there was some actual investigating here. Make the player use their brains to figure out a scene, not just tell them after clicking on enough clues. 

Overall, Call of Cthulhu is an at least competent Lovecraft experience. It doesn’t have riveting gameplay. It isn’t innovative in any capacity. And the story is just a rehash of the stories that we all know already. Despite this, it does have its moments of unsettling atmospheric horror. It is for these reasons I give Call of Cthulhu a 5/10. While it’s not revolutionary by any standard, it manages to craft a disconcerting world that will draw you in.

Forager (2019)

Idle games are a strange beast. Looking at them from a distance, it’s hard to see why anybody would enjoy watching numbers on a screen increase. But once you spin up an idle game, it’s like crack. It turns out that these types of games are dopamine generators, making them hard to stop playing. Forager is not solely an idle game like Cookie Clicker, but it combines the traditional waiting and production boosting loop of idle games with a top-down adventure game. It keeps you busy adventuring instead of idling and doing nothing, making the formula even more addicting.

You begin your adventure in Forager on a single island full of natural resources. As you being collecting materials such as stones, wood, and coal, you will be able to build some basic structures to unlock better gear which in turn lets you harvest resources more efficiently. This is the gameplay loop that will carry you until the end of the game. You also will collect gold, which can be used to buy more islands which contain additional resources. 

What keeps Forager interesting is how quickly you unlock new things. It always felt like I was minutes away from being able to make significant progress in some way. Whether it be crafting a new item, unlocking a skill, buying an island, or building a new structure, there was always something around the corner to keep me playing. That feeling of “what’s next?” never disappears, and the game keeps you sufficiently entertained while you are acquiring these new and shiny objects.  

As you wait for your banks and factories to produce gold and resources, Forager fills the idle void by encouraging the player to continue adventuring. Resources constantly regenerate, so you will repeatedly loop around all of your unlocked land to collect anything that has spawned. It’s not an excessively interesting form of gameplay, but it does keep your hands and mind at least somewhat busy while your machines chug away. There are monsters, puzzles, and the occasional boss, but these are minimalistic. Most of your time will be spent breaking down rocks, trees, and ores. At least until the endgame when most processes are completely automated.

A major flaw that I had with Forager was how the gameplay loop falls apart towards the end of the game. Once you unlock most of the skills, buildings, and islands, there isn’t much left to do other than wait around for the last few items to be produced. Anything that needed is automatically mined and collected. I just sit around and wait. This is exacerbated by the fact that the late game items take an absurd amount of time to produce. You can of course create more buildings to speed up the process, but each subsequent building of the same type increases in cost. Either way, it still takes a lot of time spent doing essentially nothing just to generate a few late game items.

My main issue with Forager is how empty it all feels in retrospect. After consuming a couple weekend afternoons and burning out during the late game of Forager I was left with the question: what was the point? There is no real objective of the game other than unlocking things. Combat is absurdly simplistic so there is no feeling of accomplishment. It’s not even like you can intelligently construct hyper-efficient islands that churn out resources faster. It’s just a matter of killing time and sending quick dopamine hits to your brain as you unlock new things. There’s no artistic merit, there is no challenge, there is no feeling of discovery or awe. It’s the video game equivalent of scrolling through social media for hours on end. Addicting but vapid.

I think Forager could have been improved immensely by developing its combat some more. I get it, the point of the game isn’t the combat. But there needed to be some substance to the game other than collecting resources. It could also alleviate burnout in the endgame as you have an ultimate goal to work towards. Maybe offering a gauntlet of increasingly difficult bosses would both allow the player to kill time practicing will items are being made, as well as have a constructive goal to keep them interested. As the game stands now it’s just an addicting time killer.

Overall, Forager feels like half of a game to me. If it had leaned heavier into either combat or efficient resource management (à la Factorio) it could have been a more rewarding experience. Instead, it’s just a good way to kill some time if you really have nothing better to do. When playing a game, I want my brain to be engaged in some capacity, not just idling for the sake of it. It is for these reasons that I give Forager a 5/10. Unlocking new things is fun for a moment, but the satisfaction quickly wears off when you realize those new things are purposeless. 

The Last of Us Part 2 (2020)

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that The Last of Us Part 2 is the most controversial game of all time. There was a ludicrous amount of vitriol towards the game and its writers upon release, which were quickly matched with dozens of professional reviews claiming it to be a masterpiece. What about The Last of Us Part 2 elicited such powerful reactions? Do I believe that it deserves such malice? No. But I also don’t believe that the game is the paragon of storytelling that many critics deemed it to be. 

I typically stay away from spoiler territory in my reviews, but it is impossible to meaningfully discuss The Last of Us Part 2 without delving into those dangerous waters. It is a game that heavily relies on storytelling, and nearly all of the game’s controversy stems from some shocking story moments. As such, I will hide spoilers in an expandable tag when I begin discussing them. But before I get to that point, I do want to highlight some other aspects of the game.

If there is anything that The Last of Us Part 2 should be lauded for, it is how technically impressive the game is. Naughty Dog has always been known for being the top dog when it comes to visual fidelity, and this game is no different. The environments, set pieces and character models are extraordinary. But what was more interesting to me was the animations. During combat, there are many instances of organic encounters that were so well animated that they felt scripted. Enemies getting pinned to walls or hanging over railing as you swing weapons at them looks shockingly natural.

Perhaps the most commendable feature of The Last of Us Part 2 is its vast array of accessibility options. There are many ways to modify the game that players can use to make the game or accessible to play. Players with hearing impairments, visual impairments, or motor disabilities could apply a host of changes that makes the game more accessible. Options like high-contrast visuals, holding to melee, auto-pick-up, subtitle direction, vibration cues, HUD re-scalability, and auto-target are all great examples of features that are available to make the game more accessible. 

 On a related note, there are also modular difficulty options that lets the player tailor the experience to their liking. If you are having a tough time sneaking through areas but are good at combat, you can just tone down the stealth difficulty without making the enemies easier for example. I really do appreciate the amount of effort that went into making The Last of Us Part 2 a customizable game that players can modify to match their desired experience.

The original The Last of Us was not known for its combat, and I don’t think the sequel changes that. There are some improvements and additions to modernize the formula, but neither the stealth or combat are particularly impressive. There is now high grass that you can hide in, you can now crawl, and there are some new tools and weapons. The enemy AI was also substantially improved. Enemies are now much better at tracking you down, checking over their shoulders, and sneaking up on you. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is engaging whether you are sneaking through derelict buildings or improvising during a shootout, but it’s certainly not best in class by any means.

Modern Naughty Dog games have always had a consistent length, and for a good reason. It seems like 10-15 hours is the sweet spot for these types of cinematic or story driven games. The Last of Us Part 2 breaks this mold by stretching to approximately 25 hours, which I don’t think is a justifiable decision. I enjoy the occasional narrative heavy game, but I don’t feel like The Last of Us Part 2 has enough meat to warrant opening the buffet. Truthfully, it feels like there is a ton of wasted time and filler. Even taking your time, completing all of the combat arenas back-to-back only takes maybe 4-5 hours. And even though the game is story driven and contains many cutscenes, there definitely isn’t 20 hours (equivalent to 10 full length movies) worth of dialogue and story. 

So, where did all the time go? Similar to its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 places on emphasis on certain survival elements. In particular, the player explores the environment and acquires resources that can be used to craft equipment. I praised The Last of Us for utilizing the scarcity of resources to create tension in combat. Even trivial encounters become anxiety-inducing when you only have a couple of bullets and no medical supplies. The Last of Us Part 2 is similar in this regard, but I believe too much time is devoted to scrounging for supplies.

There was a certain balance in the original game; the areas were not particularly spacious and the game was not overly long, so spending a few minutes here or there to collect supplies never felt tedious. But in The Last of Us Part 2 the environments are far more spacious and open, which makes for more dynamic combat arenas but it also equates to more time spent searching through them. A ludicrous amount of time is spent opening drawers, running around abandoned buildings, and searching bodies for rusted scissors or ragged bandages. 

Click here to see story spoilers!

This is where opinions around The Last of Us Part 2 start to get heated: the story. The premise of The Last of Us Part 2 is built around the key theme of revenge and forgiveness. It takes place a few years after the events of the first game, with Joel and Ellie living peaceful lives in Jackson, Wyoming. The serenity quickly dissipates as Joel is brutally beaten to death in front of Ellie by an unknown group of travelers. Soon after, Ellie sets out to track down the band of murderers to avenge Joel.

The real meat of the story unfolds over the course of 3 days in Seattle. In a series of more and more shocking acts of violence, Ellie gradually loses her humanity as she hunts down her targets. She tracks them down one at a time, learning more information about her ultimate goal: finding Joel’s killer, Abby. About halfway through the game, the real controversy begins as we swap to Abby’s perspective.

After experiencing Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle and being left on a cliffhanger, the player is now meant to play those 3 days again but from Abby’s point of view. There obviously is going to be backlash when being forced to play as someone who viciously brutalized a beloved character. But I do think that I would have been much more receptive to this risky storytelling decision if the writers hadn’t played their hand so blatantly.

Look, I understand that the dual narratives are meant to parallel Ellie’s and Abby’s experiences and how similar their journeys are. We learn that Joel killed Abby’s father in the first game, he was the doctor that was going to dissect Ellie to attempt to make a vaccine from her immune brain. Abby becomes and callous and hateful person as she hunts down her father’s killer, and Ellie repeats that path as she tracks Abby. The core issue that I have is with the writer’s approach once Abby’s half of the story begins. 

Once we swap perspectives, the first scene that occurs is a flashback of Abby and her father. They, no joke, rescue a mother zebra from being wrapped in barbed wire. It’s so heavy handed that it’s comical. Soon after, we see Abby play fetch with a dog while living in her community. A dog that Ellie would later go on to kill. The game is so blatantly attempting to get the player to sympathize with Abby, while at the same time resent Ellie for killing the characters that you meet as Abby. 

I understand that both Ellie and Abby are meant to be flawed characters, but when I have to spend half the game playing as Abby, I quickly lost interest in the plot. I just wanted to see what happened after the cliffhanger. Making the player spend 12 hours playing a character that you are almost definitely going to hate initially is more than just a risky decision. I found it hard to ever root for Abby, as she is an undeniably bad person. The way she killed Joel, her apathy towards the fact that she is about to kill a pregnant woman, her attitude towards her friends, she’s just not a redeemable character.

What is bizarre to me about The Last of Us Part 2 is how it’s approach to storytelling is opposite to the original game. The Last of Us was not known for its bombastic story, in fact I would argue that it was a pretty generic post-apocalyptic zombie narrative. What made the game great was how the characters were the focal point, not the events taking place. Joel and Ellie were fully fleshed out characters who felt legitimately human. They grew together, had flaws, and ultimately bonded as a father-daughter relationship. The Last of Us Part 2 seems to care far more about the events unfolding rather than the characters.

Aside from Ellie, Abby, and a new character called Lev, every character in The Last of Us Part 2 is boring. Abby’s friends in particular are hard to ever care about. Hunting them down as Ellie is your entire goal for the first half of the game, then playing as Abby the writers attempt to make you feel sympathetic and guilty about Ellie’s actions. But you already hate them, already know they are killed, and are probably aware of the obvious ploys that the writers are using.

Much of the adventure is a solo affair, which is diametrically opposed to how the original game was structured. Joel and Ellie bantering back and forth while traversing the world was key to the experience. But in The Last of Us Part 2 most of the time spent is without a companion. The only sections that felt remotely similar to the original game were some flashback sequences of Joel and Ellie, as well as Abby and Lev climbing a skyscraper. 

To be honest, I think the opposing perspectives approach could have worked. But the order of events combined with how lengthy the game is definitely will leave many players with a foul taste in their mouths. I believe if Abby’s perspectives were short sequences interspersed throughout Ellie’s adventure, the player may actually grow to care about Abby and her crew before murdering them all. We don’t need to spend 12+ hours seeing every moment of Abby’s perspective. 

The ending of the game is frankly absurd. Again, I get what the writers are going for, Abby and Ellie are both malnourished and severely beaten as a result of their revenge fueled journeys. Abby is ready to move on since she accomplished her goal of killing Joel, but Ellie is not satisfied and forces Abby to fight. Ultimately, Ellie gets the best of Abby and is about to kill her when she decides to spare her. 

We learn that she had a flashback to her last conversation with Joel which was about forgiveness. I get that this was an epiphany for Ellie, but real humans don’t act like this. She had her father figure murdered, was mutilated, had a friend killed and another permanently brain-damaged, her wife left her, and she killed dozens of people just to reach Abby. All to give up on the finish line. I get that it was supposed to be some message about revenge and forgiveness, but I don’t buy that a reasonable person would behave like this. 

The final gripe that I want to bring up is what I call the Naughty Dog problem. I could (and maybe will) write an entire article on this epidemic, but I’ll try to keep my thoughts here brief. Naughty Dog, and many studios that are inspired by Naughty Dog’s style of cinematic experiences, feel like they are trying to make films rather than games. These types of games make poor use of the medium at hand. Video games are inherently different than films, they are interactive by nature. Nowadays, many triple-A studios have drawn inspiration from Naughty Dog. Too many games don’t ever utilize the interactivity of the medium.

Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us feel split. One half of the game is a narrative experience, and the other half being relatively disconnected gameplay. It feels like an action film where the player gets control during the fight scene. I think this approach to storytelling in games is fine on occasion, but in games like The Last of Us Part 2 it almost feels dirty. The game borderline shames the player for their actions, despite their being no other choice. I think the game would have been improved if the player could choose at the end of the game whether Ellie spares Abby or not. It would have given the player some agency in the final decision, leaving them grappling with morality and deciding how the journey of revenge concludes. 

Overall, The Last of Us Part 2 didn’t deserve all the attention that it received, positive or negative. It’s definitely not an unmitigated disaster by any means, it has competent gameplay, stellar visuals, and an exciting story. But I wouldn’t herald The Last of Us Part 2 as a masterpiece either, the gameplay was nothing special, and the narrative was poorly executed. It is for these reasons that I give The Last of Us Part 2 a 6/10. It is a rollercoaster of a story that is sure to leave many of its passengers nauseous. 

Dead Cells (2018)

I’m the first to admit that finding a rogue-lite game that suits my tastes is difficult. As someone who enjoys steady progression systems and a consistent difficulty curve, the rogue-lites and rogue-likes of the world seem antithetical to my preferences. Even Enter the Gungeon, a game which I love, almost had me quitting after a handful of hours. Unfortunately, Dead Cells never hooked me and grew stale after a dozen hours. While the combat was entertaining enough, I had felt like I had seen the whole game after a handful of successful runs.  

The core concept of the rogue-lite genre is that every time you die, you must restart the game from the first level. Rogue-lites in particular have methods of progression that unlock weapons and upgrades throughout the course of the game that will make subsequent runs easier to complete. That combined with the knowledge and skill gained after multitudes of runs allow the player to make it deeper and deeper in the game, until the eventually conquer the final boss.

One of the primary aspects of Dead Cells that is given praise is its progression system. While playing the game, exploring hidden crevices, and killing enemies you will gain cells and blueprints. Blueprints serve as unlocks for weapons and tools that once earned can be found in subsequent runs. You must spend cells to complete the blueprints as well as unlocking generalist boosts like additional health flasks. 

The premise of Dead Cells is that you control an amorphous blob that takes control over a beheaded body that it finds. You must traverse a crumbling kingdom to defeat monsters and overthrow a corrupt ruler. There is not much explicit story and explanation given to the player. Instead, you will find hidden bits and pieces of lore scattered throughout your runs. It’s clear that there is a disease known as the malaise that is the source of the kingdom’s ruin, but learning the source of the disease and how the main characters are significant is something that the player will have to figure out after many, many hours. Truthfully, the reason you play Dead Cells is not for the story. 

My favorite aspect of Dead Cells is undeniably its combat. As side-scrolling hack n’ slash, you can expect some fast-paced and chaotic action when playing Dead Cells. There is tons of skill expression in how you choose to approach each encounter. You can rely on pure instincts to dodge incoming attacks, or you can play it slow and rely on ranged attacks and traps, or perhaps you prefer to utilize shields to block and parry blows. Every weapon behaves differently, and each one you find will have different augments to its base ability that can further warp its playstyle. It is fun to experiment with numerous builds and see how different each run can be.

Slashing through hordes of enemies just feels right. When a game gets combat correct, it’s hard to explain. There is a visceral feeling of satisfaction. Dead Cells undeniably gets it right. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, to good combat. Enemies react to your hits, but given the opportunity will retaliate with massive damage. There is a ton of variation in each enemy type, leaving the player to play cautiously with each new encounter. But once you master each stage you can strike down enemies with confidence and breeze through at breakneck pace.

The meat of Dead Cells is its combat and exploration. Dead Cells labels itself as a cross between a rogue-lite and a metroidvania. I’ve discussed its strengths as a rogue-like, but as a metroidvania it’s a tough sell. The nature of being a rogue-lite is the inherit randomization of the layout of each subsequent run, which is in direct conflict with the progression loops of traditional metroidvania. Exploration is a key aspect of any metroidvania, and remembering where locked doors and out-of-reach ledges were is absolutely core to the experience of a metroidvania. The exploration of Dead Cells is more dynamic, but it does not scratch the itch that a traditional metroidvania would.

Dead Cells is composed of many differing areas, and you can change your path during each run if you so choose. You must collect and unlock a handful of relics across numerous runs to access some of the more challenging areas. While this seems like a metroidvania initially, I quickly realized that collecting relics and accessing alternative routes was entirely unnecessary. Sure, it was more content to play through, and some new enemy types dropped new blueprints, but the intrinsic reward was not justified. These areas brought me no closer to defeating the final boss. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt like due to the increased difficulty of the zones it was actually a hindrance to attempt them during a serious run.

To increase your power in a run to give yourself a chance to defeat the final boss you unlock weapons of varying power levels as well as scrolls that increase your health and damage. As far as I could tell, taking the path of least resistance was just as effective as tackling the most challenging routes. Unlocking new blueprints to craft new weapons is fine, but I found that many of the blueprint weapons were undeniably weak. Sure, some were stronger than the early game weapons but most were not worth the price of admission. It feels like much of the progression in Dead Cells justification was “just because”, which truthfully did not drive me to continue.

The biggest offender of this mindset was how difficulty levels scaled. When you initially defeat the final boss, you are given a “boss cell”, an item which you can activate in future runs to up the difficulty. When you defeat the next higher difficulty, you unlock the next boss cell, and it continues like this until the 5th boss cell. At that point you will finally be able to challenge, the “actual” final boss of the game. 

The truth is that I felt absolutely zero desire to complete further levels of difficulty past the initial one. You are rewarded with more cells to unlock more blueprints, but as previously mentioned that felt worthless. Moreover, you do not unlock any real “additional” content until the 5th boss cell, which I’ve heard rumors will take 75+ hours to realistically complete. I felt no drive to unlock higher difficulties just for the sake of it. I like challenging games, but doing the same thing over and over with just harder enemies doesn’t appeal to me.

Overall, Dead Cells is just a confusing game to me. I enjoyed my first dozen hours with the game but I felt absolutely no desire to progress after that. Hardcore fans will tell me that the point is to complete each difficulty level, but there just doesn’t feel like there is a point. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m just not the core audience of this type of game. All the unlockables and blueprints and difficulty levels just beg the question “but why?”. It is for these reasons that I give Dead Cells a 6/10. Despite having fun combat, I just don’t understand the cyclic and repetitive nature of Dead Cells.