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That Dragon, Cancer Review – The Story of Joel Green

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That Dragon, Cancer is not an easy game to review any more than it is any easy game to play. At its core, it’s a story about coming to grips with a potentially terminal illness in a young child, Joel, and so it falls in the realm of games that serve a purpose other than entertainment. There is probably room elsewhere for endless discussion on how games like this fit into the larger industry, but I am going to focus wholly on how That Dragon, Cancer uses the the trappings of gaming media to deliver its particular message.

Mostly, it does this very well, though players should be forewarned that it is unashamedly not a generalized experience, but rather the personal experience of the game creators (whose own family is the subject of the game), down to their particular beliefs and how they factored into dealing with the illness. Though I personally lost a parent to cancer, I didn’t have the frame of reference to appreciate either the situation from a parent’s perspective or from their particular place of faith. But I still think I took something away from the game and that most players will as well.

In terms of actual gameplay, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form of a simple first-person exploration game with the occasional bit of point-and-click interaction with the environment. The player inhabits a particular visual perspective, although these are sometimes transitory or abstract. The primary point of view is that of Joel’s father, but the player perspective may sometimes briefly shift to that of others involved in the story or even to that of a kind of neutral third-party observer avatar that is free to explore the collective psyche of both parents.

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Whatever the viewpoint in a given scene, the player is usually free to explore a small area and interact with a few objects in it before being able to progress. Most often these play sound clips that fill in the story of the family’s ordeal, but sometimes they form small puzzles, or at least things that look like puzzles at first, encouraging the player to interact in some sequence before proceeding on. But there is rarely any real winning, and equally no actual punishment for losing either, at least not in the ways gamers are familiar with. Sometimes, the player is literally trapped in a room with no actual solution but endless trial and error that eventually progresses the story.

Of course, these frustratingly-designed enigmas are the main metaphor of the game. While a film or written story might express a character’s anguish or frustration, these interactions can create these feelings in the player outright. Locked in a room with a crying, seemingly inconsolable child, meddling helplessly with various things in the room to quiet him down or even just escape, yet finding that you can do none of these things. In these scenes, you’re given a small window into just what the parents might have felt going through the same situation.

Even if the experiences are far, far from identical, it’s a powerful trick. And though a savvy player (or even just one who is a little self-aware about the title they’re playing) will understand what is going on even as the game is doing it to them, I think the message still manages to get across. This is especially true in the game’s several full minigames. Ranging from go-karts to a short sidescrolling platformer, these minigames follow the same guidelines as the puzzles, so you can neither win nor lose anything new from playing them, no matter how well or badly you do. And yet, I still tried. I still had some instinct telling me that I could outplay the actual dragon inside the bigger metaphor. Playing on this gamer instinct to win frames, the game instills the larger human instinct for hope against all odds.

The game’s graphics are stark and somewhat abstract, using largely untextured, visibly polygonal models and terrain. Simplicity serves a point here as it allows others to more easily imagine themselves in these scenes, seeing some reflection of their own memories mixed with those of the Green family. The brightly-colored landscapes also allow for sharp contrast when the game’s lurking villain is shown, like the black, withered tree that appears alone and seemingly meaningless, even harmless, off some path in the peaceful park where the game begins.

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I did have a few moments where visual oddities made it hard for me to fully make sense of the scenes, or where I had trouble distinguishing what was intentional and what might have been visual glitch, but these were limited to a few scenes (and may be improved from my beta copy). On the whole, the imagery is often immensely grand for all the simplicity of the art assets involved, and there are moments where the visuals alone convey broad swathes of story and emotion, from tender moments of the family at rest together to the rather intense image of a hospital room filling with water.

All that can be said for the visual warmth can be said doubly for the narration. Authentic in the truest sense given the parent-creators of the project, their narration hosts the range of involved emotions in their rawest forms, from happy memories to moments of frustration and despair, hope and acceptance. Worth special note for its mixture of the audio and visual is the fact that all the game narration is subtitled, not in a straightforward way on the bottom of the screen, but written across objects and surfaces in the game.

That Dragon, Cancer, is, I will say a second time, not an easy game. The themes it covers would be heart-wrenching fiction on the best day, but are only too real. Some players will find hope in its final chapters, although others, myself included, might find it more sobering than anything. Still, it is a game I would recommend for its visual artistry and the warmth of its storytelling, and as an experiment in the use of the gaming medium. In the latter case, it definitely provides further proof of the value of games as a narrative form in their own right, where mechanical feedback, even of the most frustrating kind, can be part of the storytelling process.

Platforms: PC, Mac | Developer/Publisher: Numinous Games | ESRB: Not Rated | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller 

This review copy of That Dragon, Cancer was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developers.

We’re not going to be giving this game a traditional score. While I loved the visuals and narration, there’s really no putting numbers to a personal experience of this sort. People will have different strong reactions to the game, and that’s a good thing but not something that can really be encapsulated by a numeric score. Play it, and appreciate it on your own terms.

 

Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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