Connect with us

Review

That Dragon, Cancer Review – The Story of Joel Green

Published

 on

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.

2016-01-08_00004

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.

2016-01-08_00008

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

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

Published

 on

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

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.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

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.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

Continue Reading