Apparently, the team at Mango Protocol has taken to heart Warren Spector’s advice that developers should always do one new thing with each game. That thing can be as innovative as a new A.I. system or as obvious as a unique art style. The advice is particularly pertinent for titles that slot into well-worn genres, as a unique selling point can help a game to stand out from the crowd, while the lack of one can easily result in a project being lost to the vacuum of digital storefronts. With Agatha Knife, Mango Protocol’s new game, that selling point is the promise of cutting satire, and while the developers make a notable effort on this front, the remaining elements of this 2D point-and-click narrative fail to leave a lasting impression.
Agatha Knife tries to follow in the footsteps of South Park, regarding almost every aspect of culture as ripe pickings for a lampooning, but makes the mistake of confusing offence with irreverence. The star of the show is the eponymous Agatha Knife, a closed-off, insomniac seven-year-old in charge of slaughtering the animals for her mother’s struggling butchery. With the fortunes of the shop having taken a turn for the worse in recent times, Agatha’s mother elects to visit a church and pray for better days, thus introducing the girl to religion. Bored with the proceedings and confused by the preacher’s inane rambling, Agatha goes wandering and comes across a stranger who promises that founding her own religion, Carnivorism, may offer a solution to her problems. The process of doing so, broken down into a formulaic series of increasingly tedious and seemingly irrelevant tasks, becomes the game’s primary questline. The variety of those tasks provide ample opportunity for satirisation of a wide range of topics, and those that fall under the all-encompassing gaze of the game’s commentary include transvestitism, the digitisation of the workplace, and the ever-increasing obsolescence of physical media in a digital world.
This split focus, unfortunately and inevitably, results in a drift away from the central thematic purpose, which should be paramount in a title with gameplay as simplistic and archaic as Agatha Knife. Rather than integrating naturally into the ongoing story, these side tasks appear as little more than busywork included solely to pad the experience. While the forced prolongation could be justified with strong characterisation, Agatha is an unconvincing protagonist, too eloquent for a girl who professes to hate books and too pessimistic for any child of her age. However, her portrayal works within the realm of the game’s bizarre logic, where children are defeatist, adults are naïve, animals talk, and the fourth wall is a flimsy construct. Nevertheless, consistency is only one element of a good story, and, although Agatha Knife initially proves scintillatingly bemusing, if not thoroughly entertaining, the game’s narrative drags, quickly sacrificing edginess to a pervasive sense of mundanity.
A large portion of the profound and ever-increasing blandness of Agatha Knife is attributable to the gameplay systems that underpin the title. The game adheres unerringly to the well-worn tenets of the 2D point-and-click genre, leaning, unsuccessfully, on the narrative to keep player engagement high. The mechanics are straightforward, requiring players to click on the items or people in each environment to reveal potential interactions, which may include examination, dialogue, or collection. Players are able to pick up an array of items from the game’s environment for later use, with almost all of them relevant to at least one of the tasks that Agatha must undertake. The inability to combine items or to use them in any situation outside of their specified purpose reinforces this utter lack of player agency. The on-rails nature of problem-solving results in a game that demands little more of players than to undertake every available interaction on the rare occasions when the solution is not blindingly obvious. As such, the processes involved in progression through the story frequently feel like a frustrating chore, as travelling between the various areas (even with the boon of teleportation) and engaging in often pointless dialogue consumes more time than is necessary. These design flaws stand out so glaringly because the fundamental gameplay mechanics work without a hitch, while prompts and other UI elements are all easily readable and blend effortlessly with the game’s webcomic-inspired graphics.
Even in the visuals, however, Agatha Knife feels derivative. Mango Protocol’s previous game, MechaNika, adopted a very similar aesthetic, but repetition of form is no sin, considering the two projects are linked. Rather, dissatisfaction arises from the tired nature of the art style, which has proliferated over the past few years. Despite this, character design is generally strong, effortlessly evoking a sense of person, but also often leaning too heavily on stereotype, particularly in the cases of the aged librarian and hippy mystic. Similarly, the simple environmental backdrops serve to capture the apparent mundanity of Agatha’s neighbourhood through a variety of locales, though some serve little more purpose than to offer visual diversity as the activities that Agatha undertakes therein could easily have been transplanted to an urban setting, if not removed entirely. While the visuals thus serve their purpose of creating atmosphere, the overarching style, with bold lines and flat colours, seems like a throwback to the Adobe Flash animations of a decade ago and now feels tired, worn out, and hollow.
Hollow is also an apt descriptor for Agatha Knife’s audio presentation, which simply fails to add to the game in any meaningful way, with one key exception. During the adventure, Agatha undertakes a kind of spirit journey into her own mind to uncover the god and tenets of Carnivorism. In the pitch darkness, the bland ditties that background the remainder of the narrative give way to a more ethereal theme, supported by the demonic grunting of an enormous pig. The entire sequence is haunting, and such a notable improvement over the rest of the production that one is forced to wonder what Mango Protocol could do with a horror game. Given the general drabness of the audio, the decision not to include voice acting seems wise, allowing players to imagine the voices, rather than foisting undoubtedly melodramatic actors upon the user. In this case, at least, omission seems a better choice than inclusion. Unfortunately, one fortuitous decision on the part of the developers is not enough to save the audio, just as one brilliant spark of imagination is not enough to save Agatha Knife.
Mango Protocol’s latest game is rife with potential, but consistently let down by execution and a startling lack of imagination in every area except the use of satire. A lack of focus sends the storyline into a seemingly endless abyss of tedium that cannot be overcome by the archaic gameplay. Despite this, moments of greatness occasionally threaten to break through and make Agatha Knife an engaging experience. Unfortunately, moments are not enough.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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