Friday, December 1, 2023

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Sore Thumbs





PlayStation 4

Most historical war games put you in the combat boots of a lone super-soldier, capable of single-handedly taking down the entire enemy army, one headshot at a time. Valiant Hearts takes a different approach, presenting you with four characters reluctantly drawn into the events of World War I. Karl is a German, forced to leave his French wife when he’s drafted into the German army. His father-in-law, Emile, is then drafted by the French and quickly becomes a POW. Freddie is an American who fights for the French after his wife is killed in a bombing raid, and Anna is a Belgian student who becomes a battlefield nurse when her father is kidnapped by the Germans. None of these characters is destined to become a one-man army. In fact, they each tend to negotiate their way through each conflict with stealth and puzzle solving rather than bullets.

The art style consists of hand-drawn, 2D animation, with all the characters’ eyes obscured by hats or hair, like cartoon sheepdogs. The aesthetic is both striking and charming, contrasting the innocence of our avatars with their war-torn backdrop. The characters speak to one another in vaguely accented gibberish, leaving much of the story’s heavy lifting to an unseen narrator. And it’s a genuinely involving story, containing both moments of levity and heartbreak, but getting through it can feel like a chore. The solutions to most of the puzzles are obvious from the outset, so you’re tasked to simply go through the motions of throwing a rock to distract a guard or placing dynamite on an otherwise impassable obstacle. Valiant Hearts excels as both a history lesson and as an examination of war’s effect on the average people who only wish to get on with their lives. But as an interactive game, it leaves much to be desired.

blueboxBLUE ESTATE   (M)


Focus Home Interactive

PlayStation 4

There have been a lot of on-rails shooters over the years, and the targets in these shooting galleries have typically been bank robbers or zombies. Well, the developers of Blue Estate have decided to mix things up by making our targets into offensive racial stereotypes. The game’s ill-advised attempts at edgy, dark humor also aim their crosshairs at women and overweight people—ensuring that Blue Estate can only appeal to the sorts of immature, white, adolescent boys that probably designed this game in the first place.

shovelboxSHOVEL KNIGHT   (E)


Yacht Club Games

Wii U

Shovel Knight could easily be mistaken for an unreleased game from 1990. The armor-clad, garden-tool wielding warrior has the look of a medieval Mega Man. In between sidescrolling levels, he navigates a Super Mario Bros. 3-style map screen, and he traverses deadly obstacles by pogo-jumping on his shovel—a move identical to that of Scrooge McDuck in Capcom’s classic, Duck Tales. One could justifiably criticize Yacht Club Games for blatantly pillaging so many of 20th century gaming’s best ideas, but Shovel Knight implements these tried-and-true mechanics so well, it’s probably a better idea just to enjoy them.

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