The Corrente Review Of Games: Volume I, Number 1 (English Edition)
A few months ago several members of Corrente discovered a shared enthusiasm for video games. A number of posts got threadjacked when, for example, BDBlue and I found an excuse to sing the praises of Fallout 3. BDBlue suggested gaming related posts for Corrente a few times, and we've finally decided to act on it.
BDBlue recommended Valkyria Chronicles to me in one of the threads. I tracked it down in the bargain bin - it had been out for a while and didn't make much of a splash. I really enjoyed it and think it's a sleeper hit for the PS3. I in turn recommended BioShock to her, and she tracked down a used copy. As of this writing she's enjoying it quite a bit. In both cases the recommendation of an older game had two advantages: The recommender had thoroughly played it, and they were purchased at well below the original retail price. For those who don't have great stores of disposable income to throw at whatever is being hyped at the moment the discount is nice.
The immersion is the big thing, though. It's really tough to get a feel for a game after just a few hours, and in the case of the big reviewing outlets it's more a rapid walkthrough with studio-provided cheats to speed things along. I sympathize with the pressures these reviewers face: the need to cover multiple games each month, the premium on novelty that requires new games to be reviewed almost immediately, the need to stay in the good graces of studios - it's all very demanding. But it doesn't allow for reviewers to pick and choose a select few, marinate in them, and if necessary call out an unsatisfying game in the plainest possible language.
We don't have those pressures, though. We can scan the horizon for what looks promising, snag the ones we think we'll like, get submerged in them over weeks (or months) and give our frank opinion afterwards. And since we here at Corrente tend to be cynical, impossible-to-please contrarians you can be sure there will be no uncritical fanboy/fangirl raving over some lazy, unimaginative, rote exercise in conventional gameplay or in the corpse-plundering of a previously vibrant franchise (though I will preemptively rate the next Elder Scrolls installment with 5 stars and squeal like an adolescent girl at a Beatles concert the first time I see it on store shelves).
In short, the goal is to review a smaller number of games over a longer period of time in order to produce high quality evaluations. I hope it will find an audience beyond those of us writing for it, but if I get a couple of great tips like Valkyria every year I'll consider it worth the effort even if no one else is reading it.
Joining If you'd like to contribute please contact me or any of the other writers linked in the masthead. We will rotate posting duties so plan to periodically be on the hook for collecting submissions, formatting, publishing and defusing the resulting letter bombs that arrive at the Mighty Corrente Building.
Review: Fat Princess The Controversy
So there's this college kid who never touches a drop of alcohol. He isn't a scold with others, is perfectly happy to be around them while they are drinking, is enjoyable company as they do, but never touches the stuff himself. One night his buddies decide they're on a mission to get him drunk. They take him out to a bar, plead, badger, cajole, encourage and finally he relents and starts drinking. At the end of the night they drop him off at his home. As he stumbles away to his room his mother informs his friends that her now-departed husband was a raging alcoholic who caused no end of grief and sadness to the family.
His friends could easily protest that they had no idea of his history. For most young people a night out drinking is usually no big deal and indeed a lot of fun. But I think most people would say it was wrong of them to do what they did. The point being, we often act without the benefit of a fuller context - and actions that we are 99.9% certain are harmless may be anything but.
That's what comes to mind with Fat Princess. It was first announced over a year ago at the 2008 E3 conference. Kristin Kalning nicely covered both the controversy it kicked up as well as the high praise it garnered. My first thought was that the game designers had a great marketing sensibility, because a game titled "Fat Princess" is almost guaranteed to drum up controversy. I don't remotely believe producer Chris Millar's claim that "we were caught off guard by the amount of attention the game got just for someone eating a lot of cake and getting big." Dark Star Industries might not have known who would react or just how intense it would be, but they surely knew it would generate some buzz. I'd have found it more believable if someone had said "yes, we knew it would cause at least a little fuss, but we figured we could defend it and in the process drum up the kind of publicity money can't buy." It kind of insults our intelligence to play the wide-eyed innocent, doesn't it?
Anyway, as (probably) expected it was harshly criticized by feminists, Melissa McEwan foremost among them. At this point my thinking was, the "fat princess" is a fairly obvious play to drum up controversy, and while it's not the most politically correct thing in the world the worst thing you can do (if you don't like it) is to rise to the bait. Ignore it, dismiss it, don't give the issue any oxygen. But the reaction to it (see Kalning), as well as McEwan's follow up - which as of this writing has an astounding 2,400 comments - changed my mind. There are clearly lots of people, at least an extremely vocal minority, who really do extrapolate real-world meaning out of silliness like this - or at least see it as confirmation of a pretty deeply ingrained world view. McEwan hit a nerve with her post. Many of the responses show a belief that overweight women deserve to be held up as objects of ridicule.
Which really pisses me off because, among other things, it forces everyone to be hyper-vigilant about anything that anyone might find offensive. There are people in this world - let's be super creative and call them "assholes" - who actually believe the noxious stereotypes most grown ups understand are nonsense. No one can stray the slightest bit from corporate handbook since there are assholes walking among us who will take it to heart and see it as confirmation of their warped beliefs if we do. It turns the world into one big Human Resources seminar and it sucks and I hate it.
Even if you don't agree with the above and think McEwan's objections are just the severe admonishments of a stereotypically humorless feminist, there is still something else to consider. I think most people can treat a game like this as basically insubstantial; not something worth thinking about too much. But as Sunnyhello pointed out, there's no way of knowing who's going to see it, or what everyone's state of mind will be as they encounter it. Incomprehensible though it may seem, there are probably at least a few people who take it to heart. A girl struggling with body issues might see this as yet another reinforcement that she is inadequate. We can't just assume everyone will see this game the same way we do, or that those who don't just need to lighten up. That's something to keep in mind when we (metaphorically) think about dragging our teetotaling friend out to the bar.The Game
Considering all that I debated whether to even bother reviewing it. I'm going to because I don't think its offensiveness is beyond the pale - you can probably conjure up ideas for games that would be too objectionable to mention, even if only to condemn it, and I don't think Fat Princess is in that league. Also, video games already have a history of controversy. They may be this generation's version of comic books - entertainment for kids that causes parents to fear for the corruption of their children. Many of them traffic in sensation, provocatively combining visceral thrills with (at least arguably) subversive or antisocial subtexts. Fat Princess is just the most recent one to push our buttons.
So how is it as a game, then? If it's terrific the average gamer will be more forgiving of controversy. A first rate game has more license to try everyone's patience in the same way that...never mind. Unfortunately it's not as good as I'd hoped. When a game sparks this much controversy it almost seems like reviewers reward it on that basis alone (does anyone really think Bully is as good as its rapturous reception?) and this is no exception. Now, I played it as a standalone game and not cooperatively on the Playstation Network so I'll freely admit I might be missing out on the key selling point for it (though Russ Fischer thought "the core design, which seems so elegant at first, leads either to quick decisions between teams of unmatched skill, or long slogs worthy of a Russian winter campaign." I may not be missing so much after all.) Anyway, as a standalone game it's got some good points. The ability to switch classes - from ranger to cleric to mage to fighter and so on - literally at the drop of a hat is fun, and maybe the best part. You can play all of them, figure out which one is best in each situation, and learn how to get the most out of them. That's very cool. So is the "no die" feature. If you run out of life you're player respawns at the start after a five second pause. The levels are geographically small enough for that to not be a killer if you're well along, but it's enough of a pain to get back that it's a powerful incentive to stay alive.
It's got enough strategy to keep you engaged too. There's a builder class that can harvest materials, and when you've got enough of them build up you can upgrade the classes or construct little extras like catapults and ladders. If you want to build something in the shadow of the enemy's castle, though, beware. You can only create these little projects with the builder character. Trying to get this relative weakling all the way over there, and then spend the nerve wracking time as the building progress slowly moves towards completion, is a challenge. How badly do you want that ladder along the wall, anyway?
The good doesn't outweigh the bad, unfortunately. One of the biggest problems, and it's an emerging one with all DLC, is instructions. Since they don't come with a printed manual you have to read them on the screen. Televised instructions are harder to navigate than printed ones, and something about the instant gratification of the idiot box makes even those skimpy guidelines hard to get through. Moreover, once a game is in progress are you really going to try to find your way back to the help? In short, trying to port a printed manual to electronic-only is tough, and even the relatively simple rules of these early downloadable games need something more than what's delivered. Fat Princess tries to compensate by having a little princess pop up at the bottom of the screen occasionally with a helpful tip in a text box. It is spectacularly unhelpful because in order to read it you have to take your eyes off of the freaking action! Let's see what that helpful hint has to oh hey look at that I need to respawn thanks so much. If those same messages were auditory instead of visual it would have been actually helpful. DLC help in general needs work and I feel like those of us playing at the start of this new delivery system are kind of guinea pigs.
Two minor problems. I mentioned the levels aren't too large, but maps would still be nice. Being able to see where you've been and where you haven't matters to those of us without a photographic memory. Fat Princess is another one of those games that makes you basically grope around blindly for no good reason. For anything beyond a 2-D side scroller there really should be something available. Your allies' AI is a second irritation. You can get a few of them to follow you, but overall they don't seem to work with any rhyme or reason. If I turn into a fighter, tap a few other fighters and fly into battle it would be nice if the rest of the team took some notice - maybe send a cleric or two for healing, a ranger to help from a distance, that sort of thing. Nope. Over and over it was the Charge of the Light Brigade. Following didn't help either; no one ever took charge. It just never felt like all those players could pull in the same direction. After awhile it just felt sort of aimless and random. Once I was off to the side chopping down a tree and suddenly the YOU WIN! screen popped up. That my friends was some epic lumberjackery.
Finally, the actual princess, fat or otherwise, doesn't play much of a role in the game. She's the object of the first and last missions, and in between is mostly off stage. It's almost like a tell from the developers that they wanted it more for publicity than gameplay. If you really want the game to be about the fat princess, have her in it throughout and find different ways to work her in. Give her some ways to dispense powers or direct battle (even from afar), have the player actually play her for one level, maybe with a low life level but extra stealth or speed, whatever. None of that happens, which is why I suspect it was all just to get people talking. Which it did, magnificently. Mission accomplished.
So there you have it. For all the heat it really is a below average download. There are some good bits, but overall it feels like the studio exhausted the better part of its creativity on figuring out how to get folks riled up. Maybe next time Titan Studios will spare a little more for the game.