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There and back again: an Assassin’s Creed tale

Have you ever noticed that in Assassin’s Creed, the constant drive for new cities and times means you never feel… at home?

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Assassin's Creed: Origins DLC

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the world of Assassin’s Creed doesn’t quite feel like a world?


To celebrate the release this Friday of Assassin’s Creed: Origins we are going to explore the series and its weird and wonderful world. Whether it be foible, folly, or flourish, we will look at the worlds, the ideas, and the studios, to revel in a decade-long franchise that’s shifted the gaming landscape.  For more AC Week articles, go here.


Despite the po-faced accretions of the overarching plot, filled as it is with boilerplate sci-fi nonsense, Ubisoft has with Assassin’s Creed a whole world on its desk. One imagines some besuited bigwig, presumably of various faiths and beliefs, with a glorious topographical map of the world: pinned, demarcated, annotated with thoughts like, ‘perfect for DLC,’ or perhaps, ‘ideal territories for episodic chapters.’

And sure enough, like some benign East India Company, much of the earth has been captured, negotiated, and co-opted; great cities of history are brought to assiduous life, ports on the Ubisoft Ocean. It’s odd then that when you boot up an Assassin’s Creed, any of them, it doesn’t feel as if you’re a part of that world.

If you think of the one Rockstar has shaped, it’s a very different story. The whisper of an old name is enough to invite tingles of excitement; mentions of familiar events and allusions to other places pull the disparate threads together like the snippets of the Shroud. There lingers the idea that over the very tide that laps against Liberty City, across the waters of code, is Vice City – a glimmering jewel in the distance you might even make out with the right eyes.

Assassin's Creed

But why? Is it the unmistakable magic of Rockstar’s imprimatur? Maybe… Probably, but it isn’t as though Ubisoft is short of talent, and it isn’t only Grand Theft Auto that gets this right. Is it the way Assassin’s Creed is assembled annually with the rapid-fire precision of an F1 pit crew? It can’t help, and certainly they had to take a year out to stave off stagnation. But no, the answer is simple: In its world-building exhibition, Ubisoft neglects to make the return journey.

Blithely committed to pushing back the frontier, the developer is keen to assimilate newer and newer ground into the fold. From the dusty clay streets of 12th century Damascus to the red brick houses and patterned porticos of Victorian London; from the boardwalks and byways of Boston, to the far-reaching sapphire of Black Flag‘s seas: there is a tremendous will toward the unconquered.

The refusal to re-tread old ground is admirable in its way, and certainly a team as big as Ubisoft’s has the resources not to have to, but there are advantages to cooling the itchy feet.

In a game with no shortage of thrills, the real moments of excitement in Yakuza 0 come by way of walking down old roads. Set in the 1980s, years before the first Yakuza in 2005, it plays on your kinship with Kamurocho – one that’s been built up across all five main entries in the series. Noticing out the corner of your eye the alley where you whooped the tar out of some Shimano clan heavies – or rather, where one day you will – is the kind of texture you can’t buy.

Assassin's Creed

Similarly, architectural shifts are there to beckon the digital tourist. Kamurocho’s pride and joy, Millennium Tower, is a vacant lot in 1988; Club Sega, the blinking, fluorescent sinkhole of lost hours is now branded Sega High-Tech Land. It’s like holding translucent blueprint paper up to the Olde Towne map, every street a vector of memory, of that archaeological sense of uncovering, changed yet the same.

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Consider the way Rockstar has re-framed its work in side-stories and revisits. Liberty City Stories rewound to 1998: motorbikes, conspicuous in their absence from GTA III, now scream down the streets – yet to be banned by the city council; Tony Cipriani, the oedipal Soprano stand-in, is now the protagonist, so you’ll spend more time in districts like St Marks and Harwood because it’s Leone family turf. It’s home now.

In San Andreas, set in 1992, the mission ‘Fly to Liberty City’ asks of you just that. It cuts a square mile out of St Marks and cordons off the edges, encasing you in a time capsule. When you get there, something so simple and so small changes the way you see the streets. It’s snowing. Such a detail might seem trivial, but seeing it for the first time in such a familiar snow globe was an odd little joy.

Assassin's Creed

It isn’t all open-worlds either. Characters across different games, times, and linear settings can be wed together by events and their connections to geography. Resident Evil is a series where each game is linked through connecting tissue: the psychic scars left by the fallout of Racoon City. You can feel the effects like the waves of heat off an infected wound.

Characters course its streets across different games; they hurtle through its surrounds in a train. It was instrumental in the downfall of a feared corporation; and it altered a man’s career trajectory, sending him one day to a village in Spain. A picture of the Raccoon forest hangs on the wall of a plantation house somewhere in Louisiana, years later.

It helps that these series don’t stretch back too far in time – they are close enough for familiar characters to come and go. Assassin’s Creed on the other hand bends toward the power of its premise: with the animus it can go anywhere, anywhen, often making leaps of not tens but hundreds of years.

Still, is it any wonder that the most cherished games in the canon, II and Brotherhood, tarry in renaissance Italy, shepherded by that rare thing for this series: a protagonist with likeability and longevity? The map of Rome in that game was completely new, but the sensation of being in Italy during that time, coupled with Ezio’s winsome blend of bravado and humour made us feel, for the first time, part of something cohesive.

Assassin's Creed

The underrated Revelations makes the pilgrimage to Constantinople with an older Ezio, peppered with wry cynicism and salted with grey hairs. His weary determination and weather-beaten posterior made him the perfect chaperone for this new trip. It helped us frame the Ottoman Empire and its discontents against ground we had trodden before.

It speaks to the incredible untapped potential of the Animus: through ‘memories’ and ‘synchronisation’ it bound the series’ trinity of protagonists, bringing Desmond, Ezio, and Altair in concert with one another across generations. It can be used to make a night sky of history, pointed with characters like twinkling stars in one all-encompassing belle époque. But Ubisoft never went back.

And so with Assassin’s Creed: Origins we turn forwards to the past, to Egypt, and let’s hope to stay a while. Let’s hope, even, to revisit it after we leave. “You can’t go home again,” says Tom Wolfe. And he’s right insofar as it won’t be the same home you remember. Sometimes, though, that’s a beautiful thing.

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Josh is a freelance writer. You’ll find him banging on about the vertices between games and film and music and poetry and books, but don’t let that put you off. He likes games. He likes writing. He also gets the biscuits in.

Features

How lockdown opened up Jackbox Party to a massive new audience

In their GDC Summer talk, Mike Bilder and Brooke Hofer from Jackbox Games speak about the highs and lows of gaining new players during COVID lockdown.

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Jackbox Games - GDC Summer
Jackbox Games

In their GDC Summer talk, Mike Bilder and Brooke Hofer from Jackbox Games speak about the highs and lows of gaining new players during COVID lockdown.

The Jackbox Game Series has quietly become one of the most popular party game franchises on the market. It’s found success through a range of well-designed games – Quiplash, Drawful and Guesspionage are all classics – and a focus on accessibility. No matter which gaming platform you use, players can quickly take part using nothing more than a smartphone web browser. The result is a series of games that are inclusive and immediately fun to play.

Despite the world lurching its way through a global pandemic, the video game market has continued to thrive. Titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Doom Eternal and The Last of Us Part II are massive hits, and, with much of the world entering lockdown, multiplayer-focused games are also popular. The Jackbox Party series is one such beneficiary of these strange times.

Jackbox Party Pack 6

Since 2014, Jackbox Games has released six Jackbox Party Packs, each containing five individual games. The series has grown in popularity year-on-year, so far totalling over 430 million individual game sessions.

Although the franchise is an obvious fit for local multiplayer, the low barrier to entry has also seen it develop a dedicated follow on Twitch, an audience that marketing director Brooke Hofer says was unexpected. Up to 10,000 people can “play along” with selected games, and new features and functions have been added to support this audience.

“We put a lot of attention on really growing those communities of streamers,” says Hofer. “Around launch and the holiday season, we also support this community by sharing pre-release or post-release codes, and we do our best to amplify any marathon or charity streams that are happening and involve our games in some way.”

The nature and behaviours of the traditional family audience have also been surprising.

“Typically, what happens is that the gamer in the family hears about our games, and introduces them to their family members,” Hofer explains. “They are the advocate, and then when the family members that have tried the games want to go and play on their own, they have a lot of questions.”

To help, the studio has developed a series of guides, blog posts, and emails to explain the features of each game and reduce confusion. The content is wide-ranging, even going so far as to explain what Steam is. (Now that is useful.)

“We basically have to break down every step of the process to make sure their consumer journey is a smooth as possible.,” says Hofer.

Making the Jackbox series approachable for Non-US players has also been a challenge. Flaming Hot Cheetos, to use one quiz solution as an example, are not universally known. To help, recent games have included a US-centric content filter and a standalone PC version of Quiplash 2 is now available in French, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Nurturing each of these audiences helped the Jackbox franchise reach an impressive 100 million players last year. And then came COVID 19.

Jackbox Party Pack Screenshot

Like most businesses, the studio had to quickly adopt new working practices. Despite the disruption, development on The Jackbox Party Pack 7 has continued and all employees are now working remotely, communicating via video conferencing in discipline-focused teams.

In “normal times”, progress on the new game could continue as planned. However, along with the global pandemic came a sudden, unexpected influx of new players. In April, there were so many visitors to the Jackbox Games online store that the studio had to change hosting providers to cope with the increase in traffic and customers.

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“We had people hack our store. We ran out of Steam code inventory. We had to rewrite all of our store copy to speak to a new audience,” recalls Hofer. “It was an intense experience, to say the least.”

The knock-on effect of so many new players was a huge increase in controller and server traffic. Daily activity was consistently higher than the peaks usually experienced around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

“We can certainly anticipate a few big holiday weekends each year, and we can prepare our infrastructure that increased traffic,” Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder explains, “but what we didn’t anticipate was daily traffic at that level. So, we had a few, big outages.”

Despite these growing pains, Jackbox titles reached over 110 million players between March and June, more than in the entirety of 2019.

Jackbox Party Pack Screenshot

Video conferencing has become a familiar aspect quarantine life, and it has also contributed to the recent success of the Jackbox series. Games are now being played en masse across Zoom, Whatsapp, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts It’s something the team actively supports.

“Since quarantine, we’ve consistently updated and added to our Remote Play blog,” says Hofer. “We’ve also added sections to our website to make it more easy [sic] to funnel to helpful content on our blog. And we’ve created video tutorials for playing games remotely on various video conferencing solutions.”

Interestingly, the fastest-growing audience demographics, post-COVID, are players in the 35-54 age, and those who identify as female.

“It means we have a lot of new people exposed to our games, and for some of these people we are finding that it’s their first exposure to gaming in general,” Hofer says. “So a lesson we had to learn was that if you have thousands of new audience members, you’re also likely going to get thousands of questions from them.”

With over a thousand support tickets raised a day, the studio has expanded its customer service team and rolled out a chatbot to help direct players to the right support information.

Although COVID has been a double-edged sword for the studio, the nature of the game – and its inherent streamability – has also been put to good use. Through the Celebrity Jackbox: Games & Giving Initiative, the studio has pledged over one million dollars to various charities that support frontline COVID work. Well-known participants have included Charlize Theron, Olivia Wilde, and Jack Black.

“Jackbox was fortunate to find some success, obviously, through this time, says Bilder. “It’s a very trying time for most people, and we’re very happy that folks can find some much-needed laughter and social interaction with our games. But, we wanted to give back, and we’re proud of the work we did with Celebrity Jackbox: Games & Giving.”


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Every licensed song and cover on The Last of Us Part II soundtrack

Here’s every real-life song – original, licensed recording or cast-recorded cover – featured on The Last of Us Part II soundtrack.

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licensed songs covers the last of us part ii soundtrack
Naughty Dog

Here’s every real-life song – original, licensed recording or cast-recorded cover – featured on The Last of Us Part II soundtrack.

The Last of Us Part II must’ve been a licensing nightmare. There’s that official Taylor 314ce guitar, for one thing, before we even get to the tunes. And we’ve already seen how rights expiry can disappear games from sale, so when Naughty Dog told Sony’s licensing team they wanted Pearl Jam and a-ha (among others) on the soundtrack? That was probably not a popular decision.

But in addition to Gustavo Santaolalla’s original score, there are a whole bunch of licensed songs that made it onto the Last of Us Part II’s soundtrack. (We only wonder what didn’t make the cut, given some of the massive names that did. Let us know if you didn’t get any songs you pushed for, Neil.)

Some of the licensed songs on The Last of Us Part II soundtrack are the original versions, played as background or incidental music. Others are covers, played in part or in full by characters in the game. What’s really neat is that the voice actors behind Ellie and Joel, Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker respectively, played guitar and sang the vocals in the motion capture studio. There’s no sneaky session musicians or dubbing going on here.

So, here’s the full list of every licensed song and cover on The Last of Us Part II soundtrack.

Spoiler warning: This article will contain general location, character and story spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.

Through the Valley – Shawn James (original recording)

It’s super quiet and difficult to make out, but Ellie listens to this on a Walkman in a flashback scene right before Joel gifts her the guitar.

Bonus: This is also the song that Ellie sings while playing the guitar on the trailer for the game from the PlayStation Experience event in 2016.

Future Days – Pearl Jam (covered by Joel, Ellie)

Here’s an interesting one. You first hear Joel playing Future Days for Ellie as he gifts her that beautiful Taylor guitar, then throughout the game, you’ll hear snippets of it, played by Ellie. It includes the lyrics “if I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself” which is thematically appropriate for The Last of Us Part II. So far, so sensible.

But did you know that Future Days appears on Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt album, which was released on October 11, 2013? That’s interesting because “outbreak day” – when the Cordyceps brain infection struck – happens on September 27, 2013. So in the fictional universe of The Last of Us, Pearl Jam never actually got to release Lightning Bolt.

So how does Joel know a song that was never released? Game director Neil Druckmann has the answer:

I mean, sure, it sounds a little like a retcon, but it technically works.

Bonus: There’s a poster for Pearl Jam’s Lighting Bolt in the music store Ellie visits with Dina in Seattle.

Take on Me – a-ha (covered by Ellie)

In a game filled with violence (spoiler warning on that article) and the bleakest parts of the human character, there are a few small moments of light. They’re pretty few and far, and they decrease as the game goes on, but one of the nicest comes just after Ellie and Dina arrive in Seattle.

In the aforementioned guitar shop, Ellie finds an acoustic guitar that’s locked away inside a hard shell flight case. She pops open the case, tunes the guitar, and sings a song for Dina. That song? It’s a beautiful acoustic rendition of 80s pop anthem Take on Me, by Norwegian synth heroes a-ha.

For a game that’s split the discourse so heavily, it probably speaks volumes that this – a hands-off cut scene, of characters having a pleasant singalong – is my favourite bit of the game.

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Hydrogen – M|O|O|N (Hotline Miami soundtrack)

When Ellie is looking for Nora at the hospital, she happens upon a member of the WLF who is playing on her PS Vita. Ellie interrogates the girl at knifepoint and, ultimately, kills her when she fights back. But the game she’s playing? It’s hyper-violent shooter Hotline Miami. (A game that asks, “do you like hurting other people?” which can’t be a coincidence, given The Last of Us Part II’s themes.)

But the song that’s playing is the thing, here, and that tune is Hydrogen by M|O|O|N.

It Was a Good Day – Ice Cube (original recording)

This is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Ice Cube, but you can hear this classic tune playing in the WLF hospital as Ellie listens in on Nora being questioned by other WLF soldiers looking for Abby.

The Winding Sheet – Mark Lanegan (original recording)

The brilliant Mark Lanegan – vocalist for Screaming Trees and latterly with Queens of the Stone Age – released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, in 1990. The title track from that album appears on the soundtrack for The Last of Us Part II. You’ll hear it on the boombox at Owen’s aquarium.

Christmas Wish – Roberts, Fletcher, Sturrock (original recording)

This modern Christmas tune is playing during one of Abby’s flashbacks at the aquarium with Owen.

Rock Around the Christmas Tree – Fiddy, Burdson (original recording)

Another Christmas tune from the aquarium flashback at Christmas.

Ecstasy – Crooked Still (covered by Ellie)

Ellie plays this one as part of one of the guitar minigames when she’s having trouble sleeping, at the farm with Dina and JJ.

Little Sadie – Crooked Still (original recording?)

This is the song that’s playing at the dance, during the flashback where Ellie and Dina kiss for the first time.

(We’ve put this down as “original recording?” with a big question mark because it’s not clear if the performance in the game is supposed to be just the original record, played over a PA system, or if it’s supposed to be a “live” band at the party.)

Ain’t No Grave – Crooked Still (original recording)

This is the song Ellie puts on with JJ when Dina requests some tunes to wash up to. Or, more specifically, this is the track on the B-side of the LP, where Ellie starts the needle. The album is Crooked Still’s Shaken By a Low Sound from 2006, and Ain’t No Grave is the seventh song on the record.

But what’s interesting is that a bunch of other Crooked Still tunes crop up in the game’s credits, but this appears to be the last time we hear them. So where are they, exactly? If you go and dance with Dina straight away, they’ll move to the backyard to hang out laundry and the music will end. But if you don’t interact with Dina immediately, you’ll also hear…

Ecstasy – Crooked Still (original recording)

The eighth track on Crooked Still’s Shaken By a Low Sound.

Mountain Jumper – Crooked Still (original recording)

Track number nine on Shaken By a Low Sound.

Railroad Bill – Crooked Still (original recording)

Track ten on Shaken By a Low Sound by Crooked Still.

Wind and Rain – Crooked Still (original recording)

The final track on Crooked Still’s Shaken By a Low Sound.

Young Men Dead – The Black Angels (original recording)

You’ll hear this one playing on a stereo as you battle the Rattlers in Santa Barbara.

Helplessly Hoping – Crosby, Stills & Nash (covered by Joel)

This is a tricky one because it’s not in the game’s credits. Presumably, the snippet of fingerpicking is so short and with Joel not singing any of the lyrics, licensing wasn’t a concern. But in the game’s final flashback between Joel and Ellie, Helplessly Hoping is the song you hear him playing on his front porch when Ellie disturbs him.

Unknown – Unknown (covered by Ellie)

The final song that Ellie plays – or, at least, attempts to play – in The Last of Us Part II is pretty unrecognisable. She lost two fingers on her left hand in the final fight with Abby and can no longer form those chords.

It’s a safe bet that it’s probably Future Days by Pearl Jam, given the chord progression Ellie’s trying to follow and the song’s significance to the story, but it’s hard to say for sure. (And that’s exactly the point, right?)

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Wayfaring Stranger – Johnny Cash (covered by Ellie and Joel)

This is the song that plays for the final few minutes of the credits for The Last of Us Part II. But don’t give up that easy – there’s still a post-credits surprise (of sorts) after the end of the trailer.

Bonus: True Faith – New Order (covered by Ellie)

This is the song that Ellie plays on the TV spot for The Last of Us Part II.

It’s also something that Naughty Dog got into trouble over, because it’s very clearly inspired by (if not directly copied from) Lotte Kestner’s 2011 arrangement of the New Order classic.


Forgotten what happened in the original The Last of Us? You’ll want to read our comprehensive story recap. Found this guide useful? Please consider supporting Thumbsticks or buying us a coffee to say thanks.

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Is Paper Mario: The Origami King worth playing?

Although some fans are ready to tear up Paper Mario: The Origami King, it’s always wise to measure twice and cut once.

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Paper Mario: The Origami King - Nintendo Switch
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Although some fans are ready to tear up Paper Mario: The Origami King, it’s always wise to measure twice and cut once.

Critics agree that The Origami King is no spiritual sequel to Thousand Year Door — the series’ oft-lauded GameCube RPG. But, they seem to be split on how much that matters.

Here is our pick of the game’s reviews.

Paper Mario: The Origami King review round-up

Eurogamer

“There’s plenty I’d recommend about The Origami King, a journey generous with its humour, its spread of locations, its continual sense of adventure in Mario’s bid to defeat the evil Origami King (a clever conceit which lets Mario befriend regular paper Goombas and Koopas while also letting him battle evil origami Goombas and Koopas). Its final section especially, while brief, is thrilling to watch unfold. But each time the game changed settings, every time it swapped in a new party member, whenever I cleared another boss, I expected it to grow the shoots it had begun to set out and dig in a little deeper. For all of the game’s sense of personality and place, it never grows into anything weightier.”

Not scored – Review by Tom Phillips

IGN

The Origami King is a truly likeable game despite the shallowness of its new spin on gameplay. Its characters are winsome, its visual design is gorgeous, its world is fun to explore, and its storytelling is outside the box and playful. At the same time, however, it could be so much more. Combat is largely unfulfilling, and your journey as a whole lacks meaningful choices. For a series with RPG roots, that’s a real shame.”

7/10 – Review by Cam Shea

GameSpot

“The one area where both the world and combat do suffer is how they leave little room for the ensemble cast to flourish. While you do pick up a few party members along the way, they’re mostly an afterthought in combat, throwing out an extra attack at random. There are a handful of great and surprisingly heartfelt moments here, but most of your party members don’t stick around long enough and don’t have enough great moments for you to form a bond with them. This puts a large emphasis on your journey with Olivia across all of The Origami King‘s worlds, and with Mario being his usual mute self, it feels lonelier than it should.

It’s a concession I’m willing to take, though, since just about every other part of Paper Mario: The Origami King works so well. With a newfound combat system that steals the show and offers a novel take on turn-based combat, its winking, nodding, and adventuring shine all the brighter. Its world and characters might not be the series’ best, but it’s still able to consistently throw left turns, good gags, and smart surprises at you.

Each piece of The Origami King elegantly fits into its whole, taking its irreverent flair to new heights. The Paper Mario series has recently shown that being clever and being smart are two different things, but thankfully, it’s once again managed to be both.”

8/10 – Review by Suriel Vazquez

Ars Technica

“New concepts are introduced and discarded so quickly that there’s little in the way of orderly progression. Origami King‘s best gameplay ideas are gone before they can be missed or developed into something that feels more substantial than a mere tutorial. It’s RPG by way of Mario Party: unable to focus on one type of gameplay for too long.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. For children or families looking for an inventive and colorful good time—or a fun and friendly introduction to a whole lot of shallow gaming ideas—you could do worse than Origami King. Players looking for the usual depth and progression of a full-fledged Japanese RPG, though, should look elsewhere.”

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Not scored – Review by Kyle Orland

USgamer

Paper Mario: The Origami King is an action-adventure game, not an RPG, which is sure to disappoint Paper Mario fans waiting for The Thousand Year Door‘s second coming. If you refuse to touch a Paper Mario game that’s not an RPG, The Origami King will leave you dry and irritated, like the hands of a paper-folding master. But if you’re OK with Paper Mario’s turn to action, you’ll find an enjoyable game packed with humor, secrets, and unique boss battles. The Paper Mario team is clearly learning how to make these distinct Mario games more appealing.”

4/5 – Review by Nadia Oxford

Game Informer

“As a series, Paper Mario constantly explores new concepts and mechanics, which is exciting, but that comes with plenty of risks. Origami King’s biggest chances don’t pay off in a satisfying way. I enjoyed Mario’s hijinks and all the misfits he encounters, but the new ring-based action needs refinement. I hope Paper Mario’s next twist on combat can rise to the same level as its humor.”

7.75/10 – Review by Ben Reeves

Polygon

“The game is a delight most of the time, and is often too simple as I spend my time running around, talking to other characters, and giggling at the silly wordplay expected from a Paper Mario release. But the 10% or so of the game made up of combat encounters and boss fights makes me absolutely miserable. I’ve made it about halfway through the entire game at this point, and I dread the next boss fight, both because of the time commitment and the frustration I’m sure to feel, based on everything that’s come before.

I’m sure I’ll muddle through it, confused and frustrated, but still kicking, and get back to the jokes about paper products and pounding crumpled-up Toads flat with my hammer. It’ll be silly and funny again, and I’ll almost forget my frustration. But then another boss battle will make me want to fling my Switch through a window.”

Not scored – Review by Jeffrey Parkin

Other publications

  • Trusted Reviews – 4/5
  • Nintendo Life – 8/10
  • VG247 – 4/5
  • VGC – 3/5
  • Destructoid – 8/10

Title: Paper Mario: The Origami King
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: July 17, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch


Visit our new releases section for more on this week’s new video games.

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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.


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Is Ghost of Tsushima worth playing?

Ghost of Tsushima is an ambitious open-world action game from Sucker Punch Productions. But does Sony’s eighth generation console go out on a high note?

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Ghost of Tsushima - Playstation 4
Sucker Punch Productions

Ghost of Tsushima is an ambitious open-world action game from Sucker Punch Productions. That studio’s track record and the game’s release window have positioned it as a swan song for the PS4. But does Sony’s eighth generation console go out on a high note?

Sucker Punch Productions has produced hits for Sony since the early days of the PS2. The studio came on the scene with Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, then as Sony’s teams moved away from the mascot platformer in the PS3 era, Sucker Punch transitioned to the gritty superhero series, Infamous. It has been six years since the studio’s last game, Infamous Second Son, helped launch the PS4 — releasing a few months into the console’s life. But, has the studio put the past half-decade and change to good use?

Here is our pick of the game’s reviews.

Ghost of Tsushima review round-up

GameSpot

“Ghost of Tsushima‘s story hits hard in the game’s third and final act, and ends in spectacular fashion. It left me with the same kinds of strong emotions I felt at the end of all my favourite samurai film epics, and had me eager to watch them all again. The game hits a lot of fantastic cinematic highs, and those ultimately lift it above the trappings of its familiar open-world quest design and all the innate weaknesses that come with it–but those imperfections and dull edges are definitely still there. Ghost of Tsushima is at its best when you’re riding your horse and taking in the beautiful world on your own terms, armed with a sword and a screenshot button, allowing the environmental cues and your own curiosity to guide you. It’s not quite a Criterion classic, but a lot of the time it sure looks like one.

7/10 – Review by Edmond Tran

The Washington Post

Ghost of Tsushima is disappointing if you’re going to compare it to some of the greatest cinematic works ever made. But as fallout from this misguided ambition, Ghost is also a wonderful culmination of the best ideas of open-world adventures of the last two console generations, all wrapped up in very pretty, albeit superficial, samurai clothing. It’s a great Xbox 360 game, and I mean that as a compliment.

Not Scored – Review by Gene Park

Game Informer

“Most great games stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. Ghost of Tsushima unabashedly borrows many of its strongest features from other open-world adventures, and executes on them with skill. The game owes a tremendous debt to the Assassin’s Creed games; in many ways, Ghost of Tsushima feels like an entry in that franchise set in Japan – something that fans have longed for. But it’s unfair to paint Sucker Punch’s immense samurai epic as a copycat. By tapping into Japanese art, history, and culture, as well as the samurai film tradition that followed, Ghost of Tsushima finds a wholly original tone within the gaming landscape. Across an especially vast adventure, players are treated to a tale about the contradictory ideals of honor and revenge, and one in which tense katana duels and quiet moments of reflection claim equal focus.”

9.5/10 – Review by Matt Miller

Polygon

“Ghost of Tsushima has a distinctive aesthetic, after all, but it’s only skin-deep. The core game underneath that alluring exterior is a pastiche of open-world game design standards from five years ago; it lacks a real personality of its own. Ghost of Tsushima offers a lovely world to explore, and there’s value in that, but it should have been so much more than a checklist of activities to accomplish.”

Not scored – Review by Carolyn Petit

The Guardian

“Ghost of Tsushima offers some elegant solutions to the superficial problems with huge, open games like this. Instead of little icons and mini-maps cluttering up the screen and making you feel like you’re playing a satnav, brushing a thumb across the controller’s touch-pad summons a wind that ripples the long grass and guides you to your next destination. Instead of map markers, you can follow golden birds towards interesting places – that is, if they don’t get stuck up against a building or a cliff and disappear.

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Other, deeper problems remain, however: repetition, bloat, and boredom. Ghost of Tsushima follows a dispiritingly familiar trajectory of a frustrating first few hours, where enemies are powerful and everything is difficult; an exciting middle act where the game feels thrillingly conquerable; and a tedious latter half where enemies fall like skittles before you. Later-game character upgrades let you automatically parry sword strikes or stagger enemies in a couple of swipes, with the counterproductive consequence that the longer you play for, the less skill is required to prevail. Before very long, I was thoughtlessly tearing through 10 Mongols at a time instead of thinning them out carefully before confronting the final few in a true samurai stand-off.”

3/5 – Review by Keza MacDonald

Videogamer

“I am pleased to report that there were days, in the last couple of weeks, on which I woke excited at the prospect of playing—at dipping back into the fantasy. If your adventuring eyes are tired, I recommend it as I would a cold towel. You’re never as happy as when you’re lost in the early languor—which blankets the most enticing open worlds like a mist, before burning off under the hissing pressure of a plot. The game may never have been as sweet as it was in the first of the three main areas, but, to its credit, that’s because I was swept along by the story.”

8/10 – Review by Josh Wise

Vice

“It’s a game where so many individual components feel really good, but it’s all dropped into outdated structure.

Fans of photo modes (and HDR) will have a field day with Ghost of Tsushima, but its striking world masks an otherwise derivative take on an open world style we’ve seen a lot. The pieces that work—the tragically underused and very intense duels, a markedly good combat system (especially by open world standards), the wind gusting as a travel guide—provide a glimpse at a different game that might have found a way to weave everything together.”

But it frequently doesn’t, falling into the category of a pretty good one of those whose longterm appeal likely has more to do with your affinity for its setting than anything else, even as it occasionally tosses a smart idea your way that makes you think it’ll turn a corner.

Not scored – Review by Patrick Klepek

Other publications

  • IGN – 9/10
  • Trusted Reviews – 4/5
  • PlayStation LifeStyle – 9/10
  • VGC – 3/5
  • NME – 4/5

Title: Ghost of Tsushima
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release date: July 17, 2020
Platform: PlayStation 4


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The Last of Us Part II, violence, and the problem with pursuing prestige TV

Are AAA video games – like The Last of Us Part II – right to model themselves on prestige TV, or will they be forever chasing maturity and legitimacy?

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Are AAA video games – like The Last of Us Part II – right to model themselves on prestige TV, or will they be forever chasing maturity and legitimacy?

Warning! The following article contains serious spoilers for the following video games and TV shows:

  • The Last of Us Part II
  • Red Dead Redemption II
  • Game of Thrones
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Walking Dead
  • Westworld

First, a very extended metaphor

Imagine, for a moment, a wedding. You’ve almost certainly attended at least one in your life. Perhaps you’ve even planned one? If you have, then you understand the sort of cerebral gymnastics required to make a table plan work.

You have to figure out how to get dozens, possibly hundreds of people into a room together. Some of those people are alone, others have partners, some have children. For some arbitrary reason, you have to alternate seating by gender. (No, we don’t know why. It’s a whole thing, though.)

To do this you need to fill round tables of around 10 people per table. Sometimes more, sometimes less. You are responsible for making sure that everyone has a good time based on who they’re sitting with but – more importantly – that they get along. You can’t sit those two on the same table because they used to date and it’ll be awkward. Those two families don’t get along so, not only can they not be on the same table, they need to be at opposite ends of the room. Grandpa can’t sit with, well, anyone remotely different because he’s racist and homophobic.

The Last of Us Part II sales

It’s like that fox-chicken-bag-of-grain brainteaser, but you have a hundred variables to juggle and, unfortunately, everybody has to stay in the boat. The only universal variable is that nobody wants to sit with children. They certainly don’t want to sit with anyone else’s and, often, they don’t want to sit with their own. Going to a wedding is a chance to dress nicely and drink and dance and just not be a parent for a few hours.

So the solution is obvious: You have a kiddies table. Aside from the “top table” rules, it’s one of the only universal things about wedding seating plans. But then you end up with a new problem: What about the “older” kids, the teenagers and such? It’s unfair to sit them with the toddlers, but the grown-ups don’t want them at their table, either.

Now imagine that the entertainment industries are planning a wedding. Maybe TV and Cinema can sit together, but they won’t want to sit with Netflix. They hate each other. The Music Industry has the same beef with Spotify, so we’ll put the streaming services together on one table. We’ll sit the Authors and Poets and Artists together because they have lots in common, while the other entertainment industries might find them a bit boring and pretentious. Musical Theatre gets along with everyone but they’re really loud, so keep them away from the top table.

That all seems to be going fairly well until we get to Video Games. All the other entertainment industries would like to sit Video Games on the kiddies table, with Cartoons and Comic Books and Wrestling and Tik Tok. But in this (very laboured, thank you for sticking with it so far) analogy, Video Games is a teenager. While the other, older, more-established industries still see it as a child and they don’t want to sit with it, Video Games earns a lot of money, is more mature than its detractors give it credit for, and believes it should get to sit with the adults.

As a result, Video Games starts being demonstrative. It goes to great pains to prove how mature it is to everyone else. Sometimes it acts out and has tantrums when it feels it isn’t getting the respect it deserves. It is a mature medium and it wants to be treated like one.

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It tries to demonstrate it is as mature as its older siblings, Cinema and Television. And that’s where the problems come in.

Cinema sins

For years, the video game industry has been copying cinema. Rockstar simulates Scorsese. Kojima cribs Cameron and Carpenter. Remedy lifts Lynch. We used to have a weekly column about it, that only ended because the writer took another job elsewhere. Even now, two years on, we’d be finding new examples every single week were he still with us. (You should read it, it’s really good.)

But as games have grown in scope, so too has their graphical fidelity. Take The Oregon Trail and Red Dead Redemption 2 as a for-instance. Both games feature a group of settlers in the Old West, looking for a safe place to call home. Both games have a strong narrative core with a morality-versus-necessity theme and a decision-making component. Both games involve struggles with food, money, health, death and, yes, violence.

But where The Oregon Trail was a text-only adventure when it was first developed in 1971 – the graphics were added to the Apple II port of 1985 – Red Dead Redemption 2 is a cinematic monster, a sprawling spaghetti western that rides on the coattails of John Ford, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Particularly Peckinpah, whose stories eschew the black and white hats of old for a distinctly greyer roster of antiheroes and sympathetic villains. They tug at the thin line of conflict between values and ideals, something Arthur Morgan struggles with in the wake of Dutch’s drive for “freedom”, leading to an ever-escalating cycle of violence, loss and, ultimately, futility. They called Peckinpah “Bloody Sam” after his – for the time – extreme violence; it’s no surprise a Rockstar western follows his fierce and fearsome formula.

red dead redemption 2 sam peckinpah

But Red Dead Redemption 2’s metronomic violence, interspersed with treacle-slow travel through painterly landscapes, is as much a sign of the creative times as of the classic films it clearly idolises and lovingly imitates. Far removed from the impish Bully or the vaseline-smeared stylisation of Vice City and San Andreas, this is a game that was born of Grand Theft Auto V, of Trevor’s nihilism and brutality, and that torture sequence. It was around the same time that prestige television changed tack, too, from the likes of Six Feet Under, The West Wing and Mad Men to Breaking Bad, Westworld, The Walking Dead and, of course, Game of Thrones. These shows still allow themselves to burn slow like their forebears, ponderous even, but when the moment comes? Holy shit, it comes.

Which brings us neatly onto the current discourse, the video game that is trying so hard to prove its maturity, and the one that everyone is tearing strips off one another over on social media: The Last of Us Part II.

Kill your darlings

I’m not going to lie: I didn’t sleep well after I played the opening few hours of The Last of Us Part II. Like Ellie throughout the course of the game, I was haunted by the sights and sounds of Joel’s horrific, violent death. The abrupt shotgun kneecapping. The repeated torture with the golf club. His screams from down the hall, Ellie howling at him to get up. The gruesome final blow.

It’s a sequence straight out of Benioff and Weiss’ playbook, a blueprint for Game of Thrones moulded into something new and interactive, yet painfully familiar. Meanwhile, the precise manner of his death – with sporting equipment as a weapon and his face bloodied, contorted and crushed – is almost a carbon copy of Glenn Rhee’s baseball bat brutalisation in The Walking Dead.

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Picture the hollow, numbing inevitability of Ned Stark’s beheading. Mix in the raw, unkempt violence of Oberyn Martell’s death at the hands of The Mountain. The guttural, bone-chilling shock of the Red Wedding, the brutality of the attack on Talisa Stark’s unborn baby and the callousness of what followed. The senseless death of Shireen Baratheon on the funeral pyre, which served no one and changed nothing, the poster child for the futility of violence.

All of these things, like the death of Joel, were shocking and violent in the extreme. They also all kept me awake at night, unable to shake them from my consciousness, unable to escape them as I slept. You might argue that the fact I couldn’t sleep meant the scene did its job, to shock, to horrify. I would counter that I need all the sleep I can get, thanks.

I won’t argue that the death of Joel was uncalled for, that the story played out in The Last of Us Part II somehow disrespected a beloved character. It’s not my place to second-guess another writer. It is certainly not the place of fandom, no matter how fervent their belief that they somehow own or control these characters, these stories. Down that road, madness lies; just ask Mass Effect or, more recently, Star Wars. (Though I might caution writers in general that the answer to the question, “why do you keep fridging female characters?” is not simply to fridge male characters in their stead.)

But the manner in which Joel was killed? The viciousness, the specificity, the graphicness of it? Given that it’s giving me nightmares, that might just have been overkill.

What else could they do?

The primary argument in favour of the violence in The Last of Us Part II – because let’s remember, it’s not just the violence against Joel; that’s merely the start of it – is that it serves as motivation for the player. That they need the initial shock as impetus, then repeat exposure to violent stimulus to keep the momentum going, to keep driving you forward on your search for reprisal. You can almost set your watch by it. After a certain amount of slow-burn time passes you’ll either run into something horrific done by someone else, or be forced to do something horrific yourself to progress the story.

(And don’t even get me started on the ludonarrative dissonance of it all. In spite of all its efforts to motivate the player through and into violence, Naughty Dog is well aware that players might have bailed out at various opportunities for the safety and sanity of Ellie and her loved ones, and takes that option off the table entirely at every turn. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The Last of Us Part II - Ellie

This conveyor belt of violence and reprisal is another trick utilised in Game of Thrones, where Arya Stark’s arc follows a remarkably similar path to Ellie’s in The Last of Us Part II. After the brutal death of her father, she travels halfway across the continent several times, with a list of people to exact her vengeance upon and a small sword with which to do it. Or in Ellie’s case: After the brutal death of her father figure, she travels halfway across the continent several times, with a list of people to exact her vengeance upon and a small flick knife with which to do it. The Last of Us Part II even features an awkward, somewhat aggressive sex scene; another Game of Thrones staple that’s carried over in video game form.

But you don’t have to be as explicitly violent (or violently explicit) as Game of Thrones to get your point across, to shock your audience and motivate both them and your characters for retribution.

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Breaking Bad was filled with many brutal deaths, including the decapitation of Tortuga, the explosive mutilation of Gus Fring, and the box-cutter and bathtub incidents, but it was the sudden murder of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea Cantillo and the long-foreshadowed (but still shocking that it actually happened) killing of brother-in-law DEA agent Hank Schrader – both at the hands of the neo-nazi gang that takes over the blue meth operation – that serve as the biggest motivators for Jesse Pinkman and Walter White respectively. Neither is gory or explicit, like the majority of the “motivational” deaths in Game of Thrones or The Last of Us Part II. Both are just excruciatingly sad. But both hurt just that little bit more than all the others and are upsetting enough to serve as a driver for the narrative, the characters, and the audience.

The same is true of The Walking Dead, which is filled with too many gruesome and explicit deaths to recount, but it is the quiet ones – the loss of Sophia, of Lizzie and Mika, of Dale Horvath, of Merle Dixon, of Beth, of Siddiq – that hurt the most. In Westworld, where beloved characters can be violently raped and murdered over and over for the entertainment of its patrons, the sudden execution of Dr Robert Ford or the desperately sad (5748th) death of Teddy at the hand of Dolores or the cold obsoletion of Maeve carry more weight than the others combined. Even Bernard Lowe finding out his true origin was more devastating than the countless violent deaths in the park.

You can cry “motivation” all much as you like, then, but the mature themes in The Last of Us Part II  – and video games in general – are as much about pursuing prestige TV, about legitimising that claim that video games are a “mature” form of entertainment by brimming them with “mature” content. Even now, with an enormous audience and countless revenue, video games are still determined to prove that they no longer deserve a seat at the kiddies table of the entertainment world.

But there’s a danger in aggressively pursuing that agenda, in protesting too much your legitimacy, your maturity. The teenager at the wedding, angry and hurt by not being seated with the grown-ups lashes out, looking more childish than ever. And when you draw attention to it, with top-of-your-voice arguments trying to counter accusations of immaturity, you just end up proving them right. It’s a zero-sum game,  the Streisand Effect at work and, quite frankly, it is very effective at making you look foolish in this specific scenario.

The actions of a mature medium

So where do we go from here, then? The way I see it, there are two options:

The most mature course of action would be for the video game industry to stop focusing on what cinema and TV are doing, trying to legitimise itself by their standards, and focus on what it does best – innovation and interactivity. After all, as a wise friend and former colleague once told me, “the medium is not the message”.

The other option? If we must mimic movies or parrot prestige TV, if there is genuinely no other way to legitimise ourselves amongst the “grown-up” mediums and get off the kiddies table, can I suggest, for the love of everything we hold dear, can we start watching some different shows?

the last of us part ii riders in the snow

Imagine how much more “grown-up” video games would seem if they stopped being preoccupied with being “mature”; if instead of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead they put The Leftovers or Chernobyl or Russian Doll on a pedestal? There’s still plenty of room for murder (Killing Eve) or violent uprising (The Man in the High Castle) or oppression (The Handmaid’s Tale) or adult themes (Sex Education) or misery (Fortitude) or mystery (Dark) or all of the above (in HBO’s Watchmen). But the point is, there are options. There are other ways this can go. Exercise a little choice and agency and discretion, for once, instead of just banging on about it as a sales technique.

As for me? Ellie may have finally exorcised her demons in The Last of Us Part II – by the end, at great personal cost – and she can remember Joel in life again, rather than being tormented by him, twisted in death. I only wish I could say the same.


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Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.


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