Cuphead Game Review

“Are you a cup?”

-My Mom

Cuphead is a game by StudioMDHR in 2017. It has platforming as well as bullet hell type gameplay, with a heavy focus on boss fights. It’s available on Steam for $19.99.

Thoughts

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This is a fantastic game – truly one of those games that will stand the test of time. I initially was interested in the game because of it’s amazing visuals, and I think that’s true for almost everyone who bought this game. However, while installing the game, I began to see reviews and comments complaining about how difficult the game was, and that had me pretty worried (admittedly, I should have done more research before buying the game…). One of the main reasons I bought this game was to play co-op with my brother, who is *ahem* not the best at platformers. As it turns out, this was a pretty serious issue – if your co-op partner dies, and you fail to revive him or her, then your partner just sits and watches you until you finish your current mission. This, inevitably, made me feel pretty guilty, as my brother often had to just watch me play.

However, when playing alone, Cuphead is a blast. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing the visuals are: the animation, the art style, the cheerful aesthetic… it’s all absolutely beautiful. The cartoony style doesn’t just start and end with visuals either; Cuphead, Mugman and the bosses often transform into different forms, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t for the art style. Bees become planes, planes become moons, but it all makes as much sense as Bugs Bunny cartoons, so don’t question it. I mean, you’re playing as a guy with a cup for a head; nothing makes sense, and that’s how this world works. However, this is THE main selling point and a very well known fact about the game, so I shan’t dwell on it more than I already have. The two other standouts of the game are the music and the gameplay. The music is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in a videogame; I would say that it’s even better than Undertale’s soundtrack, though that’s a very subjective statement. You should check out YouTube and see the making of the songs “Floral Fury” and “High Seas Hi-Jinx,” which really showcases the quality and effort that went into making these songs. Every boss, every stage, every occasion has a new song, and they’re all top notch.

Gameplay

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The wonderful world of Cuphead is explored by a hub world, which allows you to access various stages and boss fights. There are three two types of encounters: Run and Gun, which may include a mini-boss, but is otherwise a standard platforming level, and boss fights. The boss fights come in two formats: you’re either platforming, like in the Run and Gun stages, or you’re in an airplane, shooting at them in a bullet-hell type fight, though bullet-hell is a hyperbole. What’s really interesting about Cupehad is that the boss fights significantly outnumber the Run and Gun stages. I remember playing with my brother, and we were both shocked that we fought two different bosses before we encountered our first Run and Gun stage.

The controls are very simple, but also very responsive. During platforming, you can move around, jump, shoot and dash. You can also parry certain attacks, which negates the attack as well as fills up your super meter, which allows you to do stronger attacks as well as a super move. I really like how the parry system works: you jump in the air, and then you press the jump button again in order to parry an attack. This means that you cannot parry an attack while standing on the ground, and it is extremely difficult to parry attacks that are coming down from above you, since your first jump will result in you just taking damage before you can parry it. I think there’s a slight delay between when you jump and when you can parry, but I’m not sure; either way, you should mostly parry attacks coming diagonally rather than directly from above. This detail subtly makes the game noticeably harder, as attacks go from boring to very deadly depending on your position. One last thing I want to mention in the platforming sections is that you have an assortments of weapons you can choose from. You initially start with the pea shooter, but as you find coins throughout the game, you can purchase more situational weapons, which work better for certain play styles as well as certain bosses.

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“we’re fighting an army of robots… I have a bow and arrow… none of this makes sense”

The airplane levels are also a lot of fun. You initially start with just a bunch of regular bullets, but you also gain the ability to launch bombs in a trajectory later. The dash button transforms your plane into a smaller one that can move very quickly, which is extremely helpful for dodging projectiles, but your bullet range is severely limited in this mode. My only complaint is that the EX moves (stronger versions of attacks that drains your super meter) are very unsatisfying; they don’t seem to do as much damage as they should. Inversely, when your super meter is completely filled up, you can turn yourself into a bomb and do massive amounts of damage to the bosses, which is always extremely satisfying.

So the difficulty… how bad is it? Well, I was able to beat the game, which I can’t say for games like the original Castlevania on the NES or Darkest Dungeon. The main source of difficulty in this game is the lack of healing: except for one boss fight, you cannot gain health. You can increase the amount of health you start the match with, but that’s about it. If you or your partner dies, you remain dead until the fight ends; there are no revives. Practically, the difficulty just means that you can’t beat the bosses on the first try. All bosses have multiple phases, and you usually die when you get to a new phase, since you’re not familiar with their attack patterns. This forces you to get very familiar with and breeze past the earlier phases, so you have as much health left for the later phases, giving you a margin for error and allowing you to experiment and ultimately improve. By the time you master the last phase, you’ll be surprised by how easy the boss has become: after beating the game, I went back to get A ranks on all the bosses, and I managed to pull that off with only a couple of tries with each boss.

That being said, the game does experience some rather extreme difficulty spikes from time to time. Several bosses are significantly harder than others – for me, Dr. Kahl’s robot  and the dragon were the hardest boss, especially the last stages. Additionally, some bosses have attacks that depend on luck, which is extremely frustrating if you’re trying to get a high rank on all the boss encounters. All in all, I enjoyed the difficulty. It kept the game engaging and challenging without causing frustration or crying. Every challenge seems daunting at first, but as you bash your cuphead against the wall, you start to figure out the patterns, and before you know it, you’ll have conquered that beast.

Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion. From what I’ve read by other people’s reviews online, they seem to complain that the game is way too difficult, and I would understand that this amount of difficulty is not your cup of tea. I think I found the difficulty manageable because I enjoy platformers, memorizing attack patterns, evading attacks that require a quick reaction time, and relying on muscle memory. If you prefer a slower-paced game, or a game that depends more on strategy than split second decision making, then Cuphead is not the game for you.

Lastly, the game has some small bugs. One I encountered recently was on the Phantom Express, where the Super Meter rating would always be 0 no matter how well I did in that level. Similarly, the skill rating, which depends on what difficulty you’re playing on (simple, regular, expert), would be different from what it should be.

One last thing I would like to add about the gameplay is the co-op mode. Besides the problem I mentioned earlier, where you have to feel guilty because your partner has to just watch you play if he or she died, the co-op doens’t really make the game easier, just different. On one hand, your team has double the fire power and can revive each other if you’re quick enough, but you also have much more to keep track of on the screen. You have to watch where your partner is, try to suss out what projectiles you have to dodge when there’s already a million of them on the screen, and the bosses become less predictable, since you don’t know if they’re targeting you or your partner. It’s a lot of fun!

Conclusion

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In case you can’t tell, I love this game. The style, the gameplay, the music, and even the story behind its development all make it a shining example of what games can do and what they should strive for. I think one of the best aspects of this game is its simplicity: even if I don’t play this game for a year or two, I can pick it back up and get right into the swing of things, unlike games like Fallout New Vegas or Hollow Knight, which requires you to actually remember what you were working towards. Definitely check it out!

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Top 10 Favorite Witcher Songs

I haven’t talked about the Witcher in awhile, so here are some of my favorite musics from the Witcher series. I think the music gets better every game, so there are a lot from the Witcher 3.

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Final Fantasy IV Game Review

Final Fantasy IV is the fourth main installment in the Final Fantasy franchise. For some of you confused, it used to be called Final Fantasy II in US, not to be confused with Final Fantasy II. It was the first FF game on the SNES and it clearly shows what “next” generation of FF games could bring. It was originally released in 1991, then there were a crap ton of re-releases. Most popular of these are PSP’s 2011 Complete Collection, DS’s 3D remake in 2007, and PCs DS port in 2014. I’ve had the chance to play the PSP Complete Collection as well as the PC port of the 3D remake.

 

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Character Talk: Big Boss

“You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain” Harvey “Two-Face” Dent in the Dark Knight

Oh boy, here is a big one. This is kind of a follow up to last Character Talk about the Boss. He first made his debut as the villain of original Metal Gear back in 1987 release wise. In game’s chronology, he debuted in 1964 in the Snake Eater. He is the greatest soldier that has ever lived and the one every Snake is trying to match.

 

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Hollow Knight Game Review

“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid. “
– Invictus, William Henley
Hollow Knight is a combat oriented platformer developed by Team Cherry and released in February of 2017. It follows the Knight as he explores the post apocalyptic ruins of the once great kingdom of Hallownest.

 

Gameplay

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The game is a metroid-vania, which is a term that is used to describe games that heavily feature exploration and combat, with a focus on acquiring new gear and skills in order to reach new areas.

Exploration

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Throughout the game, you explore every nook and cranny of the great kingdom of Hallownest. You explore the kingdom proper, its waterways, its mines, its very foundations, and much, much, MUCH more. I cannot emphasize just how massive this world is. But it’s not massive in the Just Cause 2 sort of way, where it’s just way too big and becomes meaningless; it’s massive in the sense that even after you beat the game, you have several hours of exploring to do. Each time you explore a new section, which happens consistently throughout the entire game, there are a dozen rooms to explore, many of which contain secrets like hidden rooms or hidden items you can find. Most of the time, you’ll end up finding new sections before you finish the current one you’re in, or find new ways back to old sections you’ve already explored, revealing new ways to get back and forth.

The inter-connectivity of the sections synergies very well with the lack of objectives or clear goals in this game. When you first start playing the game, and even well into the mid to late game, you don’t know what it is you’re fighting for, why you’re here, or what you’re trying to achieve. It seems like the Knight you play as is also unaware of why he does the things he does, so both you and your character do the only thing that those who are lost do: you wander. You explore the environment with no objectives or goals in mind. You take in the scenery and try to piece together the history of the place, what each of the NPCs you encounter say about the world, and ultimately what the Knight’s purpose is in this world. In this way, the game is almost entirely driven by your curiosity, both of the world and its lore, and the inter-connectivity allows you to never run out of things to explore. You will almost never have a “what do I do now” moment, because if you look at your partially filled out map, you can clearly see sections you have yet to explore. Whenever you hit a dead-end or become stuck along a certain path, you simply explore another unexplored area and get lost in the world for several hours at a time. Getting lost in the world is a very fitting phrase for this game, because you are exploring and discovering a lost world – Hallownest has been in ruin for a long time, and most are not strong or brave enough to explore it; indeed, the Elderbug (the first NPC you meet) seems to think it safer to let Hallownest be lost to time. But the Knight? The Knight is brave and far stronger than he looks, and so he will explore, for he must… for some reason you’ll learn later.

The game very much embraces the metroid element of metroid-vania. I must admit the only Castlevania game I played was the original on the NES, so I’m not sure how much exploring using newly acquired skills and items happens in Castlevania games, but that play style is the bread and butter of metroid games. Throughout the game, you learn to dash, wall jump, double jump and even straight up fly (emphasis on the straight part), opening up unreachable sections, as well as allowing you to breeze through previous sections with ease. It’s amazing how quickly you can get around in this game, despite its size, because the interconnected rooms as well as the Knight’s dexterity and small size makes you very hard to physically stop.

As I mentioned earlier, exploration isn’t limited to filling out rooms on the map. The two other main aspects of the game to explore are the enemies and the upgrades. For enemies, there are 151 enemies in the game the last time I played, and you must fully discover most of them to 100% the game (I think 2 of the 151 are considered easter eggs so they don’t count for completion). What I mean by “fully discover” is that not only do you have to find them, you also have to kill a certain amount of them in order to get the full lore about them. This actually produces an interesting moral system that affects the player directly: some of the enemies, like the Mantis, become passive and salute you after you defeat their lords. If you don’t kill enough Mantis before defeating their lords, and you want to 100% the game, you must do the grotesque thing of striking down creatures that mean you no harm. A similar thing happens later in the game, when you revisit an old boss you had to fight: you see a bunch of harmless creatures mourning their dead friend, and they run away screaming from you as you approach. In order to 100% complete the game, you must strike down these defenseless mourners. They do not respawn.

The last aspect I’ll touch on is the upgrades. The primary source of upgrades are in badges, which modifies the Knight like increasing the length of their sword or allowing him to heal more quickly. The badges are spread all over the place, some of which are guarded by special enemies, so just getting all the badges means you’ll explore the vast majority of the game. Additionally, you can also upgrade your nail (basically your sword) four times, and the last three upgrades require you to find rare metal, which again encourages you to explore every centimeter of the world.

Combat

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The combat is very straight forward. It is composed of three parts: nail, spells, and movement. Hollow Knight has great combat because you will need to blend all three together in order to succeed in the later boss fights, as well as get through the gauntlet of enemies during your long journey. My play style relied on the nail doing most of the damage and filling my spell meter, which I would then use to heal myself of damage while using various abilities to avoid damage. This playstyle was very fast paced, since your tiny nail has short reach, requiring you to always be in your enemies reach. However, combat has a great degree of adjustability, which is primarily modified by what badge you equip. For example, a badge rewards players for having less health, resulting in greater risk and reward. Another play style is focusing on spells as much as possible – this means that the Knight will be able to strike foes at a distance more frequently and with greater firepower, reducing risk but requiring patience from the player.

The boss fights in Hollow Knight do a very good job of challenging and engaging the player. The bosses all have very cool designs, and have a predictable, though still difficult to avoid, attack patterns. Most boss fights progress as follows: you decipher their attack patterns, you figure out how to inflict damage, you learn when it’s safe to heal; rinse and repeat until you get to the next phase of the boss. Because my playstyle required me to be very close to the boss, sometimes tanking was a viable option: when you upgrade your nail to do more damage, you can equip badges that increase your swing speed as well as your invulnerability time when you get injured, meaning that each hit you take allows you to dish out massive amounts of damage to the boss before you retreat and heal up. This resulted in very exciting fights, where I would try my best to dodge all attacks while standing very near my enemy, and then punishing them if they succeed in inflicting damage. Lots of adrenaline! This tactic is a blast when you fight the final-ish boss (the one in chains).

I must confess that the offensive spell approach is not my cup of tea; I felt that the spell upgrades were almost pointless, since I never used the base spells anyway, except for healing. However, I can see the relying on spells as a much more valid tactic in Steel Soul mode, in which you have one life to defeat the entire game. I’m probably never going to try this mode; way too much stress, if you ask me.

One last thing I want to touch on is how great the inclusion of the heal spell is. It creates very tense moments in boss fights, where you have to judge when and where is safe to heal yourself in a split second. If you’re wrong, you will end up losing health rather than gaining it, since healing takes a long time. But if you’re right, you can often heal more than one unit of health at a time, which really turns the tide of battle as you are more confident with your increased health. But outside of boss fights as well, healing is a boon to exploration. You can go on very long treks through Hallownest and not need to return to a safe spot to rest since you just heal as you go along. Healing significantly improves the pacing of the game, since you rarely have to backtrack to or from a save point.

Thoughts

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The best way I can explain this game is the gameplay of Metroid crossed with the story telling and atmosphere of Dark Souls and the visual aesthetics of Studio Ghibli. I’ve already touched on the first two points in the preceding sections, but I just cannot emphasize enough just how beautiful this game is. My god, when you meet the White Lady, the room is just so beautiful; and then you get to experience a lot more of it when you go to the White Palace. When you’re in the gardens, the backgrounds as well as a lot of the hidden rooms you find are absolutely stunning. The beauty of the game also stands out because, in the end, this is a very bleak story. You learn about the days gone by, a kingdom that has been brought low and destroyed, how the former inhabitants are essentially rotting and waiting to die. Death is omnipresent in this game, as evidenced by the fact that most of the notable NPCs die in some form – either you find their corpse, you watch them get killed, or they disappear forever after making peace with the world.

Speaking of contrast, one section of the game is absolutely horrifying to me. You enter a region called Deepnest, which is behind a secure door and surrounded by guards. When you break through, you have to fight off what look like cannibalistic pill-bugs that are way bigger than you are, which can burrow and pop-out anywhere, in the pitch dark. They also move very quickly, can climb walls, and have a fair amount of health, and you may have to fight off multiple at a time. Until you upgrade your nail to dish out more damage, these guys are stuff of nightmare. What’s even worse is that these guys are canon-fodder in Deepnest: there is so much god damn weird and creepy and outright terrifying stuff in Deepnest, none of which I’m willing to spoil. But trust me when I say: the game becomes a horror game whenever your in Deepnest, even in the late game. I’ll leave you with this screenshot:

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One last thing super quick: anyone else think the White Palace is just Super Meatboy out of nowhere? Not that I’m complaining; I had a lot of fun; just thought it was funny:

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Conclusion

Hollow Knight, along with Cup Head and Shovel Knight, is an indie game with extremely high production value. Every single aspect of the game is polished to beyond mirror shine – the controls, the music, the visuals, the story, the lore… all of it are absolutely top notch. It treads familiar territory, being a metroid-vania, but executes it with perfection. I cannot recommend this game enough; I have 42 hours of game time for my first play-through, and will play again soon since they just released a bunch of new content. It’s only $15 on Steam! Get it!!!

Random Thoughts: Sequels

Ironically, this is sequel to Random Thoughts: Prequels.

In some sense, I feel that sequels are harder than prequels. The sequels have to live up to the original movie, usually meaning higher stakes and grander scales, and that doesn’t always mean good things.

This is going to be a long one.

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Wolfenstein: The New Order Game Review

“so many people forget that the first country the nazi’s invaded was their own”

– Dr. Abraham Erskine, Captain America: The First Avenger

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game developed by MachineGames, and published by Bethesda in 2014. It is a sequel to Wolfenstein (2009), and follows the adventures of William Blazkowicz… though the word adventure may be too optimistic of a word; maybe it follows the “experiences” of Blazkowicz?

Synopsis

The Nazi’s are at it again: they’ve come up with another way to bolster their forces with seemingly supernatural means, though this time it’s with extremely advanced technology. Blazkowicz leads a last ditch attempt mission to try to stop the Nazis from steamrolling the world, but suffers a severe head injury, leaving him in a vegetative state for 14 years. When he regains the ability to move (with next to no muscular atrophy, apparently), he discovers that the Nazis won, and the rest of the world has surrendered to their might. Blazkowicz then joins a small rebellion and helps them harass the Nazi regime.

Gameplay

I really don’t have much to say about the gameplay. It’s a very well done typical first person shooter, which I say as a complement. You can dual-wield guns (and knives, for some reason), pick up health and armor (with very limited health regeneration), run and slide around the battlefield, etc. The only real interesting thing to mention is the welder tool: you use it to cut open special walls and cut chains and chain-link fences, but it can also be used as a weapon by changing it to firing mode. I say it’s worth mentioning because it has a surprisingly large amount of thought and care put into it, and it’s clear that the developers really like this gun. It has a bunch of upgrades for it, and you need to use it all the time to progress through the game. It feels like a shoe-in gimmick, but it becomes incredibly useful later in the game. You can get an upgrade for it that lets it discharge however much energy it takes to kill an enemy all at once, which essentially allows you to empty an entire magazine on one target in an instant, almost always instantly killing the extremely well armored human enemies.

There’s also a really weird stealth component to the game. You can put a silencer on your gun, and throw knives that silently kill targets, but it’s clear that the game was not made for this type of gameplay. You can’t tell how loud you’re being, or how far the enemy can see, or how slim or bulky your character actually is, so it’s not great. Fortunately, from my experience, the stealth isn’t forced or done long enough to get annoying; it’s a nice little trip away from the shooting. It’s also a valid approach if you’re unsure of enemy positions or low on ammo, so I appreciate that the option is available.

Thoughts

I played Doom (2016) before this game, and for whatever reason I thought that these two games were almost exactly the same before I played them. Maybe in Wolfenstein you have less futuristic weapons, and shoot Nazis instead of demons, so basically the same, right? Well, I should have know better, since they have different developers, but I was surprised to find how different they were. The two main differences are the combat and the plot.

The combat in Doom is much more fun. Playing that game is like a direct injection of adrenaline and dopamine right into your brain: you feel so fast and powerful, and it makes perfect sense that the demons are scared shitless of you, even when you’re in hell with them. But Wolfestein is much more like Call of Duty, in the sense that you have to take cover, you have to wait for your health to regenerate, you have to reload and crawl around to find ammo and armor, basically all things that slow down the pace. Unlike Doom, jumping blind into a room full of 30 enemies guns blazing will get you killed instantly, which was a rude awakening for me. So, basically, the combat in Doom is better.

However, I was amazed by the plot of Wolfenstein, which completely caught me off-guard. Doom relishes in how little care it has for it’s plot. Doom basically stomps its own plot into the ground and says “who cares just shoot demons or something.” I went into Wolfenstein expecting the same carefree attitude, only to be met with very human, caring and earnest characters trying to cope with the nightmare that is their life in Nazi ruled territory. It has a several emotional gut-punches that I totally did not expect, and really opened up my eyes to all the things I take for granted. I’ll talk about one of such experiences in the game (spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph): near the beginning of the game, during your suicide mission and before your vegetative state, you have to choose to save one of two characters. If you save Wyatt, then later on you will meet a character who goes by “J,” an African American musician that is part of the rebellion (and also apparently this reality’s Jimmy Hendrix). When the two of you first meet, J is openly hostile to Blazkowicz because J sees Blazkowicz as the embodiment of the USA. Blazkowicz, and I must admit I did too, assume that J hates the USA because of its subservience to the Nazi regime, and so points out how he, as well as many American soldiers, bravely fought the Nazis up to the suicide mission at the beginning of the game. Blazkowicz paints a picture of how America was free and proud, and valiantly fought against the Nazis and their ideals. J, upon hearing this, scoffs and points out how, when he was in America, he wasn’t allowed to drink from the same fountain as Caucasians. He goes on to point out how, really, America and the Nazis are quite similar, as both sides oppress and continue to oppress those that are considered “undesirable,” except that America has a much longer history of discrimination. Blazkowicz, enraged at the comparison, attacks J, but J forgives his outburst and asks to play music together. For me, this was when I realized that this game had a lot more depth than I initially gave it credit for.

Another part of the game that sticks out to me, and how it separates itself from other modern shooters, is the part where Blazkowicz goes to a forced labor camp. The resistance learns that one of the people responsible for the Nazi’s super technology is currently in a forced labor camp, and must send someone to get information out of this person. Blazkowicz eagerly volunteers to go undercover and contact this person, and the game jumps to following Blazkowicz as he first enters the camp. Blazkowicz, after being branded with a serial number and patch that tells him what part of the camp he’s in, has a monologue about how foolish he was for jumping into this mission. He reflects how arrogant he was for assuming he would be able to operate like he always had in a forced labor camp, despite the atrocities he would see every day. At this point, he does a breathing exercise that he does several times throughout the game: breathe, count to four, breathe, count to four. He first does this when he’s trying to get a panicking private to calm down, and does this exercise when he is under extreme psychological pressure. I really appreciate this inclusion, as it shows how Blazkowicz tries to cope with the never-ending barrage of tragedies and suffering that is his life. It really shows just how human all of these characters are, even the main character: he’s not above his feelings, or being human.

The tone in this game is kind of all over the place, but it’s done in a way that’s fitting for Wolfenstein. Deathshead is so insanely, comically evil, but at times gives impassioned speeches that show he truly believes he’s doing the right thing. The entire concept of super technology, like killer robots and a Nazi moon base, make the game seem lighthearted, but the game also does a good job of showing how absolutely horrific and miserable a Nazi ruled world would be. I think the most flagrant example of tonal shift would be the sex scenes, that come out of freaking nowhere and are incredibly awkward, but at the same time hilarious for the same reasons. Lastly, the game transitions very quickly: a character would mention that they need to get to the moon, and then the next scene you’re already on a space ship. They say you need to be in another country, and then you find yourself on a train going to that destination. The extremely quick and jarring transitions are quite endearing, in my opinion, because, like the tonal shifts, they’ve got a certain charm to them. I found it pretty easy to just roll with it.

Conclusion

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a perfectly serviceable, high quality first person shooter with surprisingly strong world building. The characters are profoundly human, and the game does a good job of making you invest in this alternate world. The gameplay isn’t as high-octane as Doom (2016), but it makes up for it with it’s endearing characters and deep moments. I would definitely recommend it to both fans of shooters, as well as those who want a game with characters they can genuinely route for.