Release your rage: A critical analysis of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” (2019)

Well tonstant weader, we did eventually beat “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” and we stand by our earlier assessment. To be fair, I have yet to play “Devotion.” Also, “Slay the Spire” would now likely beat “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” for second place… but I digress.

“Sekiro” was a good game, and more than that, a truly fascinating one. I cannot think of a title released in recent years that was as engaging in terms of both gameplay and story, which is a key combination. One can argue whether other contemporary games had more compelling or complete narratives; on its surface, “Sekiro” is just about an undying shinobi trying to recover his young master in war-torn feudal Japan, decapitating all manner of human and inhuman foes to do so. But underneath that, “Sekiro” has a host of philosophically intricate and psychologically profound themes at play.

One of those themes concerns processing poisonous emotions like hatred, regret and anger. In “Sekiro,” those emotions are natural outgrowths of war, violence, maybe even human existence itself. We give them credence by clinging to them, and it is perhaps only by releasing them that we, as individuals, are able to move beyond the negativity that chain us to the past. Not only does this theme tie together a number of “Sekiro’s” narrative and gameplay quirks, it also ties into the game’s notorious difficulty.

This theme of emotional processing is most directly stated after the battle with the mounted samurai Gyoubu Oniwa. Once that boss has been felled, once horse and rider have seemingly dissolved into ash, once Sekiro has apologized, Sekiro can turn to a nearby building. Inside he will find an elderly woman with a lamp who is given no name but refers to herself as an “old hag.” She notes that Gyoubu is a corpse, but that “changes nothing.” War and violence don’t stop, and that’s not the only thing that can’t be quelled by battle. “Where’s all that hatred go?” she asks. “Haven’t you ever wondered?”

On the same grounds where you fought Gyoubu, an endgame boss called the Demon of Hatred will eventually spawn. This is the final unfortunate form of the Sculptor, an old man who was haunted by his own violent past. He attempted to find release through religious devotion, specifically by devoting his life to carving and (presumably) establishing statues of the Buddha throughout the area. However, his efforts disappointed him. “No matter what I do, any Buddha I carve is an incarnation of wrath,” he tells Sekiro. “Thus is the fate of those who owe a deep karmic debt. You’ll understanding when you try carving one for yourself one day.”

Interestingly, what has been noted by the fandom is that the sculptures resemble less any particular image of the Buddha and more the multi-armed ashuras (conceptual descendants of Hindu asuras), supernatural entities that, depending on the tradition and on their own stage of spiritual development, are troublesome anti-gods or the wrathful aspect of the transcendent Buddha.

As the Demon of Hatred, the Sculptor succumbs completely to a kind of ashura self. If karma is understood as destiny, then his has been achieved: wrath, hatred, however that negative emotion is understood, it has erased his identity this life cycle. Fittingly, “Sekiro” is a game that encourages replays, and so encourages similar trips through a narrative cycle of being, each playthrough subtly influenced by the last.

The concept of negative emotions and karma as something that can be inherited is present in the game mechanic of Spirit Emblems, paper dolls that can be collected from the dead and power Sekiro’s prosthetic arm. In some flavor text, the Emblems are referred to as manifestations of regret, which is held and utilized by Sekiro as a shinobi: “Those regretful of their vile actions are haunted by many Spirit Emblems. Shinboi who have killed many must bear the physical toll of those sins.” Elsewhere: “Shinobi who have killed many must carry the burdern of their sins in their heart.” Elsewhere again: “Inheriting the karma of those they’ve killed is also part of being shinobi.” Regret is not simply feeling bad about something. It is karma, cosmic destiny given individual weight, and it can be passed on to others.

The emotion that is most frequently passed on to the player is anger (for confirmation, check out some “Sekiro” rage compilations). The difficulty of the game was questioned, even criticized, by some who felt the difficulty was a form of elitism or gatekeeping, or else it excluded disabled players. Conversely, the difficulty had its defenders, those who saw victory after intense challenge as subsequently more rewarding. They also cited the difficulty as part of the game producers’ artistic vision, although this seldom seemed to go deeper than tying into FromSoftware’s overall narrative philosophy of gloomy, brooding decadence. Perhaps there was a greater lesson about patience or humility, but the goal of such personal virtues were always connected to the first point: achieving victory following a difficult game felt more earned, and therefore, more rewarding.

However, recognizing those exact virtues through repeatedly playing – and dying and playing again, itself a game element through “Sekiro’s” resurrection mechanic – is connected directly to the game’s themes of inherited emotion through lifetimes. What emotion does a player inherit while playing through the cycles of Sekiro’s lives, deaths and rebirths? If it is gamer rage, then they have failed to heed the lessons of the old woman and the Sculptor, and their karma both drags the down and is dragged down with them. Ultimately, “Sekiro” is a Buddhist parable in both narrative and gameplay, a reflection on achieving emotional equilibrium – not merely gamer victory – in order to pass through this life cycle free from burdens.

Bosses are the only enemies that won’t repeatedly respawn after death, but some do leave behind key items called memories – battle memories of “extraordinary foes,” as the flavor text puts it. Memories can be processed at sculptor’s idols, where they become remnants – still battle memories, but now recalled in such a way to enhance Sekiro’s attack power. Apparently one answer to the old woman’s question is that the hatred experienced in battle lives on after the death of the body in the form of memory. Whether that hatred keeps us locked in a moment where we cannot release negativity or a moment were can pause, reflect upon and release, and resume the cycle enlightened, is up to our own powers of patience and perspective.

The ghosts of guilt: A critical analysis of “Otogi: Myth of Demons” (2002)

This blog got the Xbox exclusive “Otogi: Myth of Demons” by accident. I saw an ad for the game in an issue of Detective Comics and got the impression I’d be playing as The Crimson King – a muscular gentleman with black armor, a skull face, red fright wig and ibex horns. When I received the game as a Christmas present, it turned out Crimso was a demonic foil to Raikoh, a skinny kid with a pale face, girly hair and antique samurai armor. This was his story, as it turned out: a redemptive and undead romp through a mystical take on feudal Japan.

Despite the mix-up, I played straight through New Year’s.

My notice and subsequent fond memories of the game were not joined by a broad swath of humanity. “Otogi” never seemed to capture the collective gamer unconsciousness, and it rarely makes retrospective reviews (although it can happen, for better or worse). In my modest attempt to add something to our mutual memory, I offer this analysis of the game. “Otogi’s” otherworldly storyline and cast subtly (and not so subtly) cover a host of subjects, including loyalty and freedom, truth and falsehood, purpose and existence, the natural world and human authority, and dreams and reality. This blog begins here by interpreting “Otogi” as a cryptic fairy tale, but we conclude by considering it as a meditation on the lingering and dehumanizing power of guilt.

To interpret “Otogi” as a fairy tale is more than fair. The word otogi appears to mean fairy tale. However, the interpretation goes beyond translation. Many fantasy stories begin by laying groundwork, which in narrative terms is called worldbuilding: sketching maps, penning a glossary, devising a concise history of events up until now. Fairy tales eschew this model. Everything in a fairy tale is taken for granted. There is no reason to ask why the cat can talk or the ogre rules the castle. They always have and, until things change, they always will. This gives fairy tales a more playful quality than other forms of fiction. They are fluid, flexible and formative, and they easily lend themselves to creation myths and just so stories.

The world of “Otogi” does not feel like a creation myth. It feels like a post-apocalypse, with its crumbling architecture, overgrown forests, hollowed out canyons and reality warping weather (in one level, clouds that cover the moon bring out malevolent spirits; in another, winds threaten to blow Raikoh off the landscape; all throughout, the sky is rarely the right color), not to mention the copious amounts of demons. However, just so storytelling is not inappropriate for an apocalypse. In fact, after the end has come, it’s hard not to take things for granted.

Without the extensive narrative worldbuilding other fantasy stories would rely on, “Otogi” is free to lean on developer FromSoftware’s legendary environmental storytelling philosophy. In “Otogi,” everything in the environment points toward guilt, guilt of all kinds. For exampe, the concept of imprisonment figures into the mechanics of several levels. Most of the first half of the game sees Raikoh smashing the fully destructable objects and architecture to “free” elements – gold, water, wood and fire – which have been spiritually sealed in the environment (in doing so in one level, Raikoh inadvertently also frees the Crimson King, who had been imprisoned for crimes against the Imperial Court); a level in the second half has Raikoh paying the opposite role, hammering in giant, magic nails to keep Nayuta, a chittering, multi-armed demon god, chained to a wall. Many of the level settings also hints at something darker. Those decaying mansions, settlements and cities were not abandoned without reason. Someone is at fault.

The Imperial Court seems to have caused much of the suffering (tellingly, the Court held sway directly over the above demon god’s prison: power built on imprisonment; the guilty literally lording over the guilty). The Court utilized a supernatural Seal to separate the realms of humans and demons (a move not without its discontents, since it required moving the old capitol). However, during its rule, the Court banished many individuals beyond the Seal. There, they were either devoured by monsters or mutated into monsters themselves, embittered and wracked with pain. In short, the Court had much to answer for, and it could be seen as a kind of poetic justice when its Seal was broken by the rogue sorcerer Michizane, an action that destroyed the capitol.

The punishments of the Court did not have to be supernaturally grotesque or cruel. Raikoh was the Court’s executioner, a role that saw him bring much death to the world, or so the Princess tells us. The game manual backs this up. Raikoh’s family served the court as executioners before the collapse, but Raikoh himself was always “bothered by the task.” The only hint at what bothered him is that his final job, executing his father, saw him so rattled he abandoned his post. If the Court had no problem pitting son against father, one can only imagine what they’d do to those outside their circle of loyalty.

Still, Raikoh’s guilt remains ambiguous, since he is guilty of abandoning his duty and performing it. Either way, Raikoh is unclean, and his penance is to purify the demons haunted world, a task not without its own guilt. This penance is directed by the Princess, who vicariously seems to seek forgiveness or salvation through Raikoh. She is certainly connected to the great demons he is tasked with felling. When Raikoh purifies the Soul Caller, a waterlogged entity haunting a nexus of bridges, the demon cries foul. “You were the one that put me here in the first place,” she says, presumably directed at the Princess rather than Raikoh. Later, if Raikoh kills the giant centipede Kurada above the floating tomb, the great worm is initially stunned before recognizing someone: “I see. It is you, Princess. I remember you.” If nothing else, the Princess is guilty of association.

Kurada’s last words are actually: “But where is… Lord Mi…” referring to Lord Michizane, the Princess’s guiltiest association. Her perhaps partner seeks godhood, which is presented as another kind of penance. “Human beings have limitations. Certain sins cannot be erased,” he says during a ritual among the stars. “The limits of humanity shall no longer bind me. I am a god.”

Guilt is a force that toys with humanity, literally. After being found guilty by the Court, wrongdoers were exiled, where their state sanctioned guilt saw them mutate into demons (the Yasha Raven King being the prime example). In order to escape guilt – which he labels “sin” – Michizane casts off his humanity. Even Raikoh, in order to purify his guilt, must remain in a state between the living and the dead, the human and the spectral.

Godhood and purification, demons and ghosts, these are all euphemisms. They obscure the true subject, guilt, and that is the most devastating observation “Otogi” offers. Guilt needs no context or clarification to cause its suffering. All it needs is the crippling sensation of purpose to serve as shackles. The Princess herself has perhaps the most profound statement on the matter. Tucked away as a bit of dialogue only accessible while visiting the in-game shop, she says: “One who hides his tears and punishes himself in silence means to cloak his guilt from the eyes of others.” Notably, she speaks this unseen, seated behind a translucent screen.

An elegant mess: A critical review of “Otogi: Myth of Demons” (2002)

Ten years ago this month, the broodingly Gothic and punishingly difficult RPG “Dark Souls” was released in Japan (the worldwide release staggered out the following month). That makes this a perfect time to talk about the game, so naturally this blog will be talking about everything but it. Well, two other games really, but they’ll all be related. The second game will likely require no introduction, but the first can use a little more help.

Even if “Dark Souls” presents a particular dark fantasy vision, the Souls series as a whole was not born in a vacuum. Some of its ancestors are well covered: the olde European style, spatial structure and obscure difficulty of “King’s Ques”; the design choices, foggy plot set up and blunt failure screen of “Lost Kingdoms”; the Armored Core games because, uh, Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki worked on some of them, I guess.

One game that never seems to get on that list is 2002’s “Otogi: Myth of Demons.” In fact, “Otogi” never seems to get on any lists. Every now and then there’s a retro review that hails it as one of the original Xbox’s most underrated exclusive titles, but even that’s not quite right. Contemporary reviews of the game were positive, and sales were just strong enough to warrant sequel. Nossir, “Otogi” is not underrated. It is a classic in search of a cult.

“Otogi” tells the stately tale of Raikoh, a silent executioner who shirks his duty right before something mystical wipes out the Imperial Court. Raikoh is apparently killed (we don’t see it happen; we get everything through a narrative crawl) but then seemingly brought back by an enigmatic Princess, unseen and known only through her voice. She tasks him with killing the demons that have overtaken the ruins of the imperial capitol, although her motivation for doing so remains unclear.

The philosophy of presentation in “Otogi” is very close to “Dark Souls.” Both games have a dark fantasy atmosphere (feudal Japan in “Otogi” and medieval Europe in “Souls”), with the emphasis heavily on atmosphere. There is painstaking attention paid to visual scale and weird flourish: towering landscapes, crumbling megastructures, twisted enemies, outlandish weapons and very uncomfortable looking suits of armor. These impressive images come at the expense of coherent narrative, leaving the stories (both seemingly about reinstating a golden age of humanity) to be told through the melancholy environment, as well as cryptic hints from characters.

Where the games diverge is in gameplay. At its core, “Otogi” is a hack and slash with fairly light RPG elements. No open world either. There is a central hub, but it’s a menu screen, giving the game an arcade-y feel. Before levels, Raikoh can be equipped with different weapons, magic spells and stat-balancing accessories; however, there’s no armor, so you can’t cosplay as an onion or a giant yellow spoon or whatever other weird crap you’re into. Also, the stat upgrade system is automatic, so there’s no control over how Raikoh levels up (although the effects are gradual, which feels very Souls-like).

If there’s anything else that’s especially “Dark Souls” about “Otogi,” it’s the difficulty. The game is neither easy nor fair. It starts Raikoh off with a fraction of his eventual health, which is pretty standard for an RPG, but there’s more. Raikoh also has a gauge for his magic, which is used to cast spells and dash and regenerate health… to a certain degree. Raikoh’s health is measured in discrete chunks. Take too big a hit and lose a chunk for the rest of the level, which magic won’t regenerate.

Magic is constantly decreasing too, although it can be replenished by killing enemies. If Raikoh runs out of magic, he starts to lose health instead (I guess his reanimation was not completely successful). This leads to some interesting scenarios, like an infamous boss battle that concludes with a lengthy posthumous monologue, where you risk dying after you’ve beaten the level simply by standing around while your life drains out.

Another early game kneecap is Raikoh’s starter weapon, his family’s ancestral sword. It’s powerful, but it’s also saddled with a mountain of damage that needs to be repaired. The gold required to do so will take a lot of grinding. Raikoh picks up weaker but more less damaged weapons pretty early on, so it’s not a problem, but this blog can’t remember seeing that mechanic anywhere else. It’s interesting. Not bad, interesting. It feels in line with the show-don’t-tell storytelling. More on that later.

Regardless, combat is probably “Otogi’s” weakest element. Raikoh only has a handful of spells and combos, which lends itself more toward button mashing than complex strategy. The spells, which are balanced around a mystical understanding of the cardinal directions, never get more involved than rock, paper, scissors. Weapons are even less dynamic, typically devolving into “sharp thing make bad man go away.” To be fair, Raikoh moves like a dancer while he gracefully beats the snot out of stuff, and he does so with an impressive selection of weapons, but they all fall into four basic categories and rely on the same mix of light attack/heavy attack combos. Simple to learn, simple to master. Even at the time, the combat was hailed as “repetitive.”

The enemies at least reflect this. They are not particularly bright, and their difficulty comes from them absorbing a ton of damage, turning some fights into twitchy wars of attrition rather than thoughtful showdowns. They can also hit hard. For added color, they’ll smash Raikoh through the all the nice Heian antiques, which risks flinging him off certain maps but at least gives you environmental destruction points.

So if gameplay isn’t necessarily a highlight and story is firmly in the backseat, why did “Otogi” get impressive ratings back in the day? Why would anyone want to play it now? One word: style.

There’s the art direction: colors and lighting focused on making the Xbox go pop. There’s the soundtrack: both the croaky and clangy sound effects, and the score, which is a mixture of traditional wind, string and percussive instruments and modern electronic and orchestral flourishes, all done to dissonant perfection. There’s the monster designs: mutated raven-men, twisted worms with baleen mouths, vegetables that resemble bloated corpses, all grotesques inspired by Japanese mythology rather than taken directly from it. There’s the landscapes and architecture: moody, imaginative, ethereal and fully destructible. This might have been the first game to use destructible environments as a selling point. Some people complained that a few levels in the second half were reskins of earlier ones, but I never cared (except for maybe the one that became an escort mission).

It’s almost 20 years old as of this writing, but “Otogi” still looks gorgeous. Of course it’s a little rough around the edges compared to today’s slick visuals, but the game’s focus on a singular stylistic vision has helped it retain an elegance and intrigue that more mainstream titles from its era now clearly lack. “Otogi” honestly feels like no other game, and it should probably be mentioned with the likes of contemporaries “Ico” and “Okami.”

I think I’ve spent more time reviewing this game than previous ones, but I am both fond of it and saddened by the lack of information about it online (publisher SEGA has long since axed its “Otogi” webpage; FromSoftware still has a page, which offers proof the bizarre Otogi/Brittey Spears advertising campaign actually happened). At the very least, the Internet deserves more “Otogi” content.

“Otogi” didn’t come out in the States until a year after its Japanese release. If memory serves, it was covered by the gaming magazine GMR in the same issue as action RPG “Fable,” although “Otogi” might have been a blurb and “Fable” a preview (that would make more sense with the timing, but I’d have to actually find the paper copy to confirm). It’s an interesting footnote because “Fable” was supposed to represent the big revolution in RPGs, with a dynamic world that both responded to the presence of the hero and shaped his adventures. However, while “Fable” was well received and spawned a franchise, it was also infamous for failing to deliver on a number of forward-facing fronts.

Curiously, it was “Otogi” that signaled coming change. It was a few years out, but the offbeat import pointed the way toward “Dark Souls” and the whole subgenre of Souls-like games that would dominate the next decade. “Otogi” is now, as it was then, an elegant mess: frustrating, cryptic, stunning and beautiful. Rather than old fashioned or cutting edge, it might be timeless.

The allure of lore: A critical review of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” (2021)

A confession, tonstant weader, and feel free to stop reading at the end of this paragraph if you think me unqualified: I haven’t played this game. I have watched a bunch of videos, both playthroughs and the thoughts of others. Given the nature of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus,” I think that’s a decent substitute. It’s a sorta sequel of a visual novel, except with even less game stuff this time around. All I would be doing if I bought the thing would be reading or watching someone else’s videos so I could find out how to unlock the secret stuff, so I’m just cutting out the middleman by watching videos of someone else reading it to me. I’ve also thought a bit about the original game, so I hope I have something worthwhile to say about this incarnation. With that out of the way…

It would be a bit senseless to relate the plot of “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” It is the same plot as the original, at least the main game is. There are side stories and a new flight of background info opportunities courtesy of an email/music player/kitchen sink desktop screen. This replaces the original game’s habit of forcing curious players to dive through game files to pick up narrative extras. It’s a notable change, and the general consensus is it was done to allow console users a way to navigate mechanics that were designed for a PC crowd. It’s also a move toward simplification, which hints at some of what lies ahead.

First the strengths, of which there are a few. The music is still good, perhaps even better, with a new composer brought in to flesh out the original soundtrack. The resulting tracks are lively but mindful of what came before. The art style is in tact, and while there’s not a lot of new art, what’s there is the same as the music: reflective, expansive and respectful.

The new material, the side stories, are well-written… for the most part. Whenever the girls are talking, everything’s great. Like the original, it is a lot of writing, but also like the original it’s appropriately complex, with language and actions informing psychologies both directly and subtly. For example, someone calls out always upbeat Sayori for trying to be everyone’s friend. The game is acknowledging Sayori’s overly chipper attitude in a mature way, and it’s hinting at her neurosis – some people with personality disorders come on strong, like they’re your best friend in the world, the second they meet you. Brilliant. Likewise, Monika mulls over her desire to step in and fix other people’s problems. Again, a mature handling of her alpha gal stereotype while also slyly hinting at her willingness to do bad things in different settings. It’s all very nice.

Unfortunately, it’s the narrator that cocks things up. There is no player character, so narration has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It’s fine when it’s taking care of stage direction, but when it creeps into characters’ heads, then it feels intrusive. That both adds text to an already text-heavy game and feels like hand holding. The characters themselves do a decent job of revealing their flaws and motivations with their own words. I don’t want a narrator – especially one who isn’t a character – to spell it out for me. It’s unnecessary.

Unfortunately, “unnecessary” is a word that could describe a lot of the game. There are some new music cuts and pieces of art, but those are mostly integrated into the side stories. The original game is just the original game, which has been kicking around online for free since 2017. The side stories are, again, mostly well-written, but they’re even less gamey than before. Without a player character, there is no one to write poems or choose between Doki girls, so there are no minigames or branching paths. It’s all just click to read. There aren’t any horror elements there either, no unsettling atmosphere, not even any goofy jump scares to spice things up. The side stories are squarely in the slice of life genre. I get that these decisions were made in the interest of the narrative, but it raises an interesting question.

Why does this game, this updated edition, exist? Is it an excuse for lore? Those who are interested can hunt down secret time-locked emails to uncover a story about simulated realities and trial-and-error multiverse theory. It’s satisfying enough, especially since this blog privately theorized that the original game might have been a kind of digital stress test that went wrong after running the same simulation too many times. That’s intellectually vindicating, I suppose, but it’s not as interesting as the psychological insight the original offered with its neatly crafted narrative outside of the ARG treasure hunting. I am not a fan of lore, Tonstant Weader, at least not when it distracts from the story.

Arguably, the lore in “Plus!” comes at the cost of character development and compelling gameplay-narrative structure. Look, I’ve seen the Game Theory videos. I know the hidden stuff is blocked off by clever puzzles and written in distinct voices. I admit it’s all smart and thoughtfully put together. But why did that intelligence have to be titled toward a digital scavenger hunt? Why couldn’t it have been titled toward a script and structure that considered something about human nature or the ethics of gaming or the structure of reality, even if parts of it had to be more conventionally presented?

Also, instead of making a literal meta-narrative in the form of behind-the-scenes puzzles, why not let the meta-narrative exist in the abstract, where it would reward thoughtful players who like pondering the psychologically dense character, and the nature of story and gaming? I know the conspiracy theories and incomplete breadcrumb trails in the first game got a lot of people hyped up about the secrets to be revealed this time around, but I’m already on the record for saying I didn’t care about that. I was much more invested in the psychological/philosophical “aha!” moments than the puzzle-y ones.

There’s another, much more cynical, reason this game could exist. It might be a cash grab. At (the price as of this writing, which is) about $30, it can certainly feel that way. A price tag like that might be enough to convince some people “Plus!” would be a grand sequel or sprawling with new content, instead of this rather conservative offering. A digital download that costs that much ought to have a lot of something. You would think.

I suppose we can console ourselves with the fact that money spent on “Plus!” will go toward developing the next game from Team Salvato. That’s fine. I still welcome it. But whatever it is, I’d like it to be more than breadcrumbs, both in terms of gameplay and narrative. I know this dev is capable of thoughtful, insightful storytelling, and I’d like that to married to at least slightly compelling gameplay.

That is the the allure of lore and the danger of relying on it too much. There are interesting ideas here, but they are poorly developed. The psychological impact of the new gameplay material is dulled by a style that lacks interaction and feels rushed. The philosophical pondering of the meta-narrative is left unexplored, no doubt to give it the necessary mystery for a game of narrative connect-the-dots.

Ultimately, “Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!” is a good story clumsily told. If it’s gathering resources for deeper games to come, so be it. But if it’s pointing the way toward the future of narrative gaming, then I want a refund.

The bare bones: A critical review of “Skeleton Crew” demo (2021)

What a boon to the world of thriller has been the term “skeleton crew.” Although it started in the military and only likely entered the civilian world in the early 20th century, its spookily suggestive nature has ensured it inspired the name of a 90s sci fi shooter, a Finnish slasher movie, and a handful of novels and short story collections in the mysteryscience genre – as well as that one. You know which one I’m talking about. I’m not even going to say it.

Add 2021’s game demo “Skeleton Crew” to that… crew. It’s a dark-ish fantasy 2D platforming brawler with a Halloween vibe. Like some of the other demos we’ve touched on this summer, there is a retro shroud hanging over “Skeleton Crew,” but interestingly it doesn’t come from its design, which wouldn’t look out of place in any game released in the last 15 years. Rather it’s that mashup of platforming and multiplayer brawl.

The story of “Skeleton Crew” is, at least, a little deeper than the average old school brawler. Humanity is in constant war with the hordes of the undead. The Yeomen Eldritch Extermination Team (YEET, get it?) use lances, magic wands, pumpkins, whatever they can get their hands, to defend the dwindling human settlements. Actually, that’s kinda it for now, at least as far as this blog understands it. I think there’s some song and dance about the team’s nucleus disappearing, and presumably there’s a dark and existential threat on the horizon, but nobody’s likely here for the plot.

Wait, that might not be the case. As in “Trigger Witch,” there’s a hint of depth here, but it’s a cooler customer than that game. There is a certain degree of mystery. Notably, some text is written in past tense in “Skeleton Crew,” as if we’re witnessing events after the end has happened. It’s intriguing, but unforutnately, it’s about the only intriguing thing here.

“Skeleton Crew” does not sell itself as a narrative-driven game. One look at the trailer promises goofy fun, not psychological insight or philosophical discourse. It’s about slamming into undead critters and crushing them along a fantasy themed obstacle course. The characters have small bodies and big heads and Halloween-Gothic features and the word “butt” is thrown around. This feels like a party game, as close to the local multiplayer feel as I’ve seen in a while. The problem is, it’s not much of a party.

It’s not a pain though. The controls are fairly responsive, easy to pick up, and there’s a flash of accomplishment one feels after executing well-timed kick. Occasionally I’d get stuck somewhere if I picked the wrong hero to play, but the game world is simple to navigate, levels are easy to restart, and I could always die, return and tool around somewhere else.

The presentation is fine too. As we’ve alluded, there is a certain visual flair, which recalls both Halloween decor and chibi art. The characters – a black-clad knight with an epic beard; an ice elemental witch who can double jump; the guy from “Bloodborne” – are all right for the game. The music is Adams Family appropriate. It’s all fine, but it’s exclusively fine, even excessively fine.

About the worst thing one can say about a piece of media is that it’s just OK. “Skeleton Crew” does not make me happy, angry or confused. It doesn’t stick. It’s a time sink at best, pleasant enough to pass time but forgotten shortly after the engagement is finished.

As usual, there are plenty of ways we could be wrong. Perhaps we weren’t switching heroes often enough. Different hero characters with disparate abilities could access new areas, giving things a Metrovania-ish quality. The counterargument to that is it does not take long to get used to a particular character – the play styles are somewhat similar anyway – so experimentation never felt like natural.

Alternatively, perhaps we should have just been playing with more people, but I ain’t got friends, so that’s out from the get go.

Accordingly, my advice to the developer is going to sound a little strange. The thing I liked most about the game right now is its presentation – the visual style, the mixture of goofy horror and toothy fantasy. The thing I thought might be the most interesting was the suggestion of a deeper, darker story. So I can see this going one of two ways: Either streamline a lot of things to get me out of the hub room of heroes and busy work of saving peasants, and get me into beating zombie faces into jack-o’-lanterns to keep me engaged… or else slow things down and develop the plot to keep me hooked. There isn’t a lot of opportunity to expose plot in a demo, particularly for a gameplay-driven game, so you can guess which option feels like the more organic direction.

Figuring out who should be expectantly waiting for this game’s release is even more baffling for this blog. As we said, this feels very much like a party game, the kind that has been kicking around consoles since the 1990s. Experiencing its strengths – the sorta gross humor and slick presentation – and gliding over its weaknesses – the repetitive gameplay, the simple story and the occasionally getting stuck because you have the “wrong” hero – will be much easier in a group, perhaps one benefited by a few adult beverages. For my own part, I run a blog that covers shitty thrillers. I don’t have friends.

A promising read: A critical review of “Black Book” demo (2021)

I have long had a soft spot for Irish comic Dylan Moran. Although he’s been in a couple of bleakly amusing kinda-thrillers – “Shaun of the Dead,” “Calvary” and “A Film With Me In It” – my appreciation for him came from a BBC series where he played a misanthropic book shop owner and failed writer, nursing a crippling drinking habit and a string of failed relationships. Not sure why I’d find that relatable…

Oh, wait, that’s “Black Books,” as well as a setup for a hugely unnecessary joke. Today we’re reviewing “Black Book,” an RPG/deckbuilding supernatural horror game for Xbox and PC (and probably some other platforms too).

The titular Black Book is not the name of a bookshop but rather the name of a mystic tome said to grant the deepest desires of anyone who can unseal it. Players slip into the leather peasant boots of Vasilisa, a young woman who is going to attempt said unsealing in the years before the Revolution. Her deepest desire is a reunion with her suspiciously suicided lover; as a rookie witch, she’ll risk losing her body and soul to the demonic forces connected to the book in order to make that happen.

The world of “Black Book” is inspired by Russian folklore, and the game proudly utilizes that as a selling point. To its credit, that anthropology studies info is integrated in a way that’s both accessible and unobtrusive. The game leaves many words untranslated, but it gives players the option to expand on a definition in dialogue. Want to know what a zagovor is? How about a koldun? You can either do so directly or try to figure things out through context. I like this system. It doesn’t abandon the player, but it doesn’t force hand-holding either. It’s a nice compromise.

And, to its credit, the “Black Book” demo lets you see a little bit of that world. It’s not as generous as some of the demos this blog has played this summer, but it’s not bad. There’s the initial tutorial, which is followed by a training level that takes you right to a point where it looks like things will open up even more. It’s a teaser, but it’s fine. To be fair, I never felt in danger – I’m not sure about the first level, but it’s impossible to die in the tutorial – but I did feel I got to see a couple sights. This was a weekend trip rather than a real vacation, but it was better than an afternoon visit.

Bad analogies aside, there’s some cool stuff to explore here. The atmosphere is well done, with moody backgrounds, good lighting, appropriate music and Halloween-y demons to battle. Who wouldn’t love the name and design of a demon called the Thirteen Brother? There’s some quality mechanical stuff as well. Travel on the game world map is well handled. Vasilisa travels from individual points that become 2D screens, where she interacts various characters and environments. Sometimes it’s to gather clues or resources for an upcoming card battle. Sometimes it’s to lose or earn some morality points (a “sin counter,” cutely indicated by coffin points, keeps track) by playing good witch/bad witch with the demon-haunted locals. It’s all illustrated in a pleasant cel shaded kinda way.

Naturally, sometimes the game launches into a 3D card fight, and the deckbuilding mechanics seem sound. You’ve got your attack and defense cards, your damage over time, your buffs and debuffs. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but there’s enough of it doled out in the demo to keep me interested. Plus they’re done up in a charming woodblock style.

Unfortunately, the game will also sometimes go 3D so players can explore a screen in adventure game/Scooby-Doo style. Vasilisa controls like she’s been hitting the Stolichnaya a little hard lately, which is frustrating. The game can also start to look pretty ugly. The backgrounds are all still fine, in a blocky, minimalistic way, but the human characters all look like toys. Toys that are dead inside. Maybe that just how it goes in Russia.

Actually, my biggest problems are with the human characters. Not only do they skew toward fugly-looking, the voice acting is all over the place. It’s like the actors couldn’t decide if the characters were from Russia, the United States or Scotland. I hear traces of all that, sometimes in the same character. At least half the dev team is Russian, while I’m just an Irish type who never leaves Los Angeles, so they probably know better than me. Still, even if the accents are spot on, that doesn’t excuse the uneven vocal deliveries – veering between overly-enthusiatic amateur and, uh, unenthusiastic amateur – or the sound bites that pop up in the middle of card battles at weird times.

Something else that I’m not 100-percent sold on is the hint system. Players earn experience by winning card battles, but also by correctly guessing how to proceed in conversations based on their understanding of the folklore. If you’re stuck – or just want to double-check – you can sacrifice half of the EXP earned for a hint. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt like the hints were a little closer to just giving me the answer. I could be doing it wrong. I was probably supposed to be reading all those definitions I was ignoring.

That’s a minor complaint though. Overall, this was a pretty solid demo. It looks like the game actually just released, so my final comments would mean nothing… However, in the interest of consistency, I’ll still offer my thoughts for the developer and potential players.

I’m a sucker for horror card games, so this is an easy sell for me. I’m skeptical of the hint system, but I could be won over. The deckbuilding mechanics I’d need some more time with to really critique, but it seems like, if they keep gradually adding tried-and-true deckbuilding tactics, they’ll be fine. I would prefer the art style to be less blocky and more stylized, and it would be nice if the people sounded like people, but we can’t have it all. The atmosphere and setting might be enough to overcome that. Time would tell.

Who should have been watching the development of this one? For my own part, as I think I just said, the intersection of horror fans and deckbuilding fans. This might not end up being a classic, but it might just scratch that niche itch.

A familiar taste: A critical review of “Death Trash” (2021)

How do you get someone who isn’t crazy about the Fallout franchise to like a Fallout style of game? If that theoretical person is anything like this blog, then it’s done by tossing in copious amounts of horror: cosmic horror, psychological horror, body horror. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s all of them.

If this mashup sounds interesting, Tonstant Weader, then perhaps “Death Trash” will be an easy sell for you too. This yet-to-be-released game has been hailed as a pixely isometric spiritual cousin to the Fallout franchise, and I can see it. Heck, the first Fallout games were isometric anyway, so between that and the postapocalyptic prairie setting, it’s a no-brainer. However, the game deviates from its inspiration in a couple of interesting ways.

The first we’ve already touched on. Even if it does have splashes of body horror, the Fallout franchise is unquestionably sci fi, with all its retro futurism, schizy tech and social commentary. “Death Trash” seems to be taking its cues from H. P. Lovecraft rather than Arthur C. Clarke. In classic RPG fashion, the demo starts off with you waking up with no idea of where you are (I played the default avatar, a blue-haired cyberpunk gal). A little exploring and you realize you’re in some kind of underground bunker overseen by tight-lipped robots. You start with a quick training section, where you learn vomiting is a game mechanic – and I don’t mean funny vomit. This is the painful stuff. After that, you are released to the surface, and that’s where things get interesting.

A horror-themed RPG isn’t something that happens often, and I think I know why. Horror games are about creating tension. They create tension in gameplay by limiting players – taking away or limiting options to make you just weak enough to be on edge the entire time. By contrast, an RPG is about giving players tons of options to mess around with in gameplay: character classes, stats, branching paths. You’re role playing, after all. You need room to experiment and find your groove. Players might feel outclassed in an RPG, but they rarely feel out of control.

That means to have an effective horror RPG, the developer really has to focus on creating tension through atmosphere. Any fan of thrillers knows that atmosphere is hard to do right. Luckily, “Death Trash” pretty much nails it. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in a retro pixel style, so the building blocks are somewhat basic, but it’s still unsettling in the best way.

The surface you encounter is littered with copious amounts of raw meat squirming out of the ground, like this world’s version of landscaping came out of a butcher shop. Some games will throw glistening body parts around and call it a day, but this one takes things seriously. At one point, you have the option of asking someone where all this meat came from. Their response: I don’t know. It’s always been here. Want a taste?

I haven’t even mentioned the Fleshkraken. It’s fantastic. Marry all that to the moody color palette, the cagey NPCs, ambient music and suggestive sound effects, and you have an eerie, spooky, effective pile. There are so many little touches that make the world feel deep and lived-in, even if it’s just a demo. My favorite is how bodies of water will occasionally ripple. It’s such a small thing, but it gives movement to the environment and hints at bigger things bubbling beneath the surface.

The gameplay is fine. Controls are responsive, and my cyberpunk lady moved well. I thought her clubbing doors and enemies was a little clunky, but rifles were pretty straightforward. Actually, another place where “Death Trash” deviates from the Fallout franchise is there’s no RNG when it comes to shooting. You have no idea how happy this blog is about that. When I point a gun at something, I want it to connect or at least land in the vicinity. This ain’t an 18th century musket. Bullets don’t miss because they didn’t feel like showing up for work. I don’t need a dice roll to make things tense. The single shot and slow reload time are plenty to make shooting twitchy and risky.

The characters you encounter are pretty interesting too. They’re all offbeat or secretive or totally onboard with the meat overlords, or some combination of the three. Sure, amnesia is RPG 101 for getting into a story, but it’s psychological horror 101 too, so it all works. The demo also has more to it than the tutorial. What a concept. The game takes the training wheels off, and there are some places in the world to explore, a couple of missions to accomplish, even some characters that feel like they might be important later who you can murder. Any demo that lets you experience consequences is giving you a real taste of the game.

Of course, the thing has been in development for at least five years, so one would expect there to be some content by now… and also that the full game might still be a little ways off.

Presumably the developer is still developing, so here is what this blog would advise. Just keep it up. Plot-wise there’s a decent balance of intrigue and action so far, and as long as there’s a payoff, I’ll be satisfied. The style and atmosphere are perfectly appropriate, so zero problems there. There could be more stuff – more item drops, more conversations, more ways to accomplish missions, more risks, more rewards – but that’s a good sign. There’s already cool stuff here; there just needs to be more of it.

As for who should keep an eye on it, that’s a tricky question. The intersection of Fallout and horror ghouls seems like a good place to start, but it’s probably worth stepping a little outside of that. There are some cyberpunk notes, perhaps not enough to make this taste like a “cyberpunk” game, but fans of that genre might enjoy the flavor too. Either way, if you don’t mind the retro visual style, you aren’t put off by some dialogue trees and you want more literal meat from your RPG experience, then this is one to keep watching.

Fingers still a little itchy: A critical review of “Trigger Witch” demo (2021)

Not too long ago, this blog discussed the idea of media with a concept so high it sold itself. “Trigger Witch” slides pretty easily into that distinction. The game asks: How do you make a world of magic and witchcraft more exciting and dangerous? Answer: Throw in some magnums and submachine guns.

“Trigger Witch” is a retro-style third-person shooter where you play as a witch – like, a pointy hat-wearing broomstick witch – and use both light and heavy ordinance to pump shiny bullets into giant enemies and burst smaller ones like jam-filled balloons. In a way, the game is exactly what it says on the label. Here is a trigger. Pull it, you witch.

In more detailed terms, “Trigger Witch” tells the tale of Colette, who is trying to graduate from the local Witchcraft and Triggery academy (what, no tankery?). Unfortunately for her GPA, she gets caught up in an interdimensional war after a shimmering border between realms is busted down and a mysterious force invades her world. Colette must pick up wand and Smith and Wesson to save the day. At least, I think that’s what it’s about. The Xbox demo is just a tutorial level, so it’s hard to be 100 percent.

The most obvious thing to start discussing with “Trigger Witch” is its sense of style. It is cheerfully old school, and this blog has no complaints about that. Sometimes a retro-style game looks retro for the sake of retro, but not so here. Since the gameplay is based on timed puzzles and frantic bursts of bullets, the look feels appropriate rather than like a nostalgia grab.

Colette seems up for the old school challenge, since she controls well. She’s snappy and responsive, and when the game finally places a gun in her hands, the laser sight featured on every gun du jour ensures that shot placement never feels like a cheat. You know where bullets go, and you have no one but your own trigger finger to blame if they go awry.

Flexibility of combat and enemy design are hard to talk about since there was only a training level. One enemy I can talk about is the camera, which gets me a bit nauseous with its lurching back and forth. It feels like it’s balancing on a tripod encased in a gelatin cube. That’s not fun.

Another thing that’s not as fun as it could be is the sense of humor. It’s not quite there, at least not so far. The concept of guns and gore and adorable witches seems like a great opportunity for some irreverent humor, but the game’s script is surprisingly safe. I also can’t figure out how seriously the game is taking itself. Right next to the idiosyncratic components, the game has background hints of expansive lore and social commentary.

It feels like a strange mix to this blog. A tale of witches and guns could be goofy or grimdark. It could even be both if it was consistent. That isn’t what I’m getting here. The humor exists, so it can’t be ignored, but it exists as light dressing rather than a strong foundation. That leaves things feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is frustrating when the game has its pick of being something more solid, whether irreverent, raunchy or violent. Any of those is a game I haven’t played, and I’d welcome the experience.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s a pixel game about a purple haired witch. It’s for kids. No, tonstant weader. Go watch the trailer. That’s what I was expecting. Blood, bullet hell and 16-bit metal.

It’s a shame, since when the gameplay gets cooking, it sizzles. The demo level is a literal training ground, and as soon as a boss-as-final-exam enters the picture, you get a taste of the gloriously gory and twitchy arcade this game could be. One could complain about the lack of feedback, but most enemies burst into a red stain, which is all the feedback one really needs.

To answer the question of who should be waiting for a full release on this one, here’s what I can say. If you have to ask if it’s for you, then it probably isn’t. On the other hand, if the idea of a cute witch doing shooty things in a retro-style bullet hell feels like the game you never knew you needed, then you’ll know it when you see it. Also you’re likely either Under the Bun or Kenny Lauderdale.

If the developers are still looking for thoughts, here’s what I’d tell them. “Trigger Witch” is fun, but it’s not quite there. Lean into the humor and spice it up. Give me as many puddles of blood and smoking muzzles as the pixels will allow. Again, the trailer makes it look like the goofy, gory fantasy is there somewhere. Make the humor match that and I’ll be the happiest witch in the land. And maybe give the camera some tranquilizers while you’re at it.

Let the games begin: News Aug. 2021, and critical reviews of “Catlateral Damage” and “Lake” demos

There’s going to be a lot of game reviews for the next couple of months on this blog. If that ain’t your thing, I’m sorry, but for the crowd saying “not another black-and-white movie,” this will probably be a nice break. The games will be a bit familiar next month, but for right now, we’re going to make good on our promise of the Summer Games Fest Demo Event.

Can you believe I saw gaming news called “esports” the other day? Like that somehow makes it classier or more respectable? Take note, mystery science fans. Gentrification is in communication.

Anyway, in case you forgot (as did I), the Demo Event was a moment toward the start of the summer when developers let some Xbox demos loose on the Microsoft Store. These demos are allegedly not normal, since they are less a teaser of the final game and more a test to see how players respond. Accordingly, I will be offering our traditional critical review, but also thoughts on what kind of player should be watching the game evolve and some advice for the developer. As if anyone is paying attention to this blog…

To fill out this post more – and for reasons that will soon become apparent – let’s begin today with two demos: “Catlateral Damage” and “Lake.”

“Catlateral Damage: Remeowstered” bills itself as a destructive house cat simulator, which is an ingenious idea unto itself. Anyone who’s owned a cat knows they can be ruinous little beasts, reenacting a barbarous lifestyle on your carpet, drapes and furniture. The game also has the added benefit of being a remaster, so it’s not coming out of nowhere. It has a comically overdone infomercial and everything waiting rediscovery.

The basic plot is: You’re a cat. You jump on things, push stuff over to get points, interact with scratching posts for bonuses and collect items like cat toys. There appear to be a bunch of upgrades and cosmetic unlockables, so you’ve got that too. As far as gameplay, the cat controls are somewhat floaty, as if the animal always has a little more momentum than I wanted. I like that you look up to jump higher though. That’s a cute, very feline touch. The visual style is broad and outline-y, so that’s fun. The music is a little loopy – both mildly trippy and on repeat – so that’s all right as long as you don’t mind it.

All things considered, this is what it says on the label without a lot of surprises. It fulfills the concept and nothing more, but it’s a fun concept and it comes out OK. You want a game where you do cat stuff and unlock photos of cats? We’ve got you covered.

Where the game gets interesting is in the replay, since… for the demo at least there was no replay. This blog played the demo once – which was just a couple of tutorial levels – and immediately it could not go back and play again. The game just kept taking me back to a link to its website. I could not figure out a way to restart it.

Admittedly, the Microsoft Store told me the games would be available for a limited time, but this is an interesting spin on that. I downloaded something, and I guess that was onetime access to the game’s tutorial. That is a digital demonstration in the strictest definition of the term.

A game demo is a funny thing. Historically, it’s more generous than a test drive at a car lot. It’s more like a car rental that’s free, except you can only drive ad infinitum around the same few blocks. The “Catlateral” demo is more like a test drive where once you’ve been around the block you aren’t allowed in the car any more. You can’t even sit in it in the parking lot, only look at a picture of it.

This is very strange to me. It reminds me of my philosophical challenge with “Vermintide,” that I did not have true ownership over the thing I paid money for. In this case I didn’t pay money, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too upset. I did pay in time though, the time I spent sitting on the Xbox while it downloaded the demos and Live updates forever. I suppose we always pay somehow. Someone always does. Everything’s eventual. We get the world we deserve.

Who would I recommend to keep an eye on this one? I don’t know. There wasn’t a lot to go on. There must be an intersection of people who like cats and people who like collect-them-all platformers, rather than platformers based on tricky feats of physics and timed dodges. I’d say they are the ones who should pay attention, although given the previous incarnation of the game I imagine they might already be aware of it.

My advice to the developer would be to let me play the game again before expecting any solid advice. There was not a lot of game to experience, and no way to double-check anything, so what I say won’t be very substantive. The concept, presentation and music all seemed fun, although I wish there was more of the latter. Maybe there is. The controls could be tighter. Maybe that’s all the developer wanted to hear. That’s great, cos it’s all they can get out of me right now.

Oh well. At least things can’t get more restrictive than that.

On to the next demo: “Lake.” When I fired it up, I was greeted with the message: Thanks for playing! Hope to have a full game out by September. Follow us on Twitter!

There was no way to exit that message. I could not start a new game, tweak settings, nothing. OK.

Accordingly, based on my experience, here’s what I liked about “Lake”: The music was pleasant. It was not particularly memorable, but it was very relaxing, and I dug the aquatic sound effects in the background.

Here’s what I didn’t like: There was no game.

Again, I know the demos were only available to download for a week or two in July, but I was not expecting them to be unavailable after I had downloaded them. I thought once they were on the hard drive, I’d have access to them until I deleted them. I invested time into downloading them, they are demos not full games, and I don’t remember being told I needed to be connected to a server to access them. The other demos this blog will be reviewing later in the month still function just fine. I can’t verify if there was something wrong with my download of “Lake” because the demo isn’t available to download now. Even the cat game let me play it once. This is all so strange to me.

I’m afraid I sound like a spoiled child. I’m just trying to express my bewilderment. Is this acceptable for game demos in the modern era? I’m pretty sure I can still play the “Blinx: The Time Sweeper” demo on Xbox, and that’s from 2002. What changed?

All right, this isn’t useful for anyone, not for this blog, not for the developer – who is no doubt glued to the screen waiting to see my final thoughts – and not for you, Tonstant Weader. I was kinda interested in “Lake,” since it was billed as a quirky and character-driven game, and heartily recommended by a number of media outlets. I took the time to look up some videos online of other people playing the demo (maybe it worked better on PC than Xbox?), which gave me a moment to gather my thoughts.

“Lake” is a game about a computer programmer who returns to her Pacific Northwestern hometown to work in the post office one long Labor Day weekend, presumably while dodging some as yet unspecified burnout. It’s also a game where you choose dialogue options, so your mileage may vary when it comes to experiencing it by watching videos. It looks like you drive around, deliver mail to a cast of stock amusing and offbeat characters, and listen to a soulful country/folk soundtrack on your radio. I guess I was expecting something more David Lynch? Whatever. I didn’t play the game, so I can’t really complain about it. The animation looked pretty stiff and oddly similar to old GoAnimate videos, and the writing could be uneven but was always well-meaning. The voice acting seemed acceptable, and the game hit the 1980s card often enough to be noticeable but less often than I was expecting, which was appreciated.

To whom would I recommend this demo? Based solely off the videos I skimmed, this has the flavor of a walking simulator. I didn’t play “Firewatch” either, but I’ve watched more than a few videos about it, and I’m getting a similar vibe off this one: slow-paced, lightly atmospheric, more interested in characters than gameplay, a largely grounded narrative and a slice-of-life feel. So I guess if you like all that, and the idea of a mail truck simulator doesn’t turn you off, then keep an eye on it.

My advice to the developer would be figure out your audience. Are you shooting for Lynchian goofball thriller fans? If so, you’ve got to up the mystery and/or eccentric factor. If not, keep doing what you’re doing with the genial melodrama, but ease off dog whistles like “quirky” and “post office.” Also, a bit more fluidity to the animation and editing couldn’t hurt. But most importantly, maybe include a game with your demo next time.

So long at the pizza parlor: A critical review of “Willy’s Wonderland” (2021)

Every now and again in cinema, there’s an idea that sells itself. In the case of “Willy’s Wonderland,” that sale goes like this: Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. This is, in the parlance of cheap thrillers, an easy sell, assuming you can find the right audience.

Well, this blog is that audience. Seriously, you had me at “Nicolas Cage.” The murderous animatronics just sweeten the deal.

But finding an audience is not necessarily enough. Once located, they must be won over. Offbeat goofball thriller fans are not a bunch of pushovers (at least I hope we aren’t), so it was a natural that “Willy’s Wonderland” would be examined with a cautious and critical eye (by this blog at least). I don’t accept just any man vs. animatronic retro thriller, you understand. But within that lens, “Willy” appears surprisingly fine. Mechanically, it’s a solid and stylish film. However, unlike another movie I can (and will) mention, it feels like there’s something missing from this well-greased machine: something to say.

An energy drink-chugging drifter in a muscle car (Cage, natch) finds his vehicle in need of repair out in the middle of nowhere. A beef-jerky chewing mechanic offers to fix it for him. In exchange, all he has to do spend a night in an abandoned pizza parlor and maybe clean it up – the owner says it’ll be ready to open for patrons again any day now, just as soon as they can get the blood stains off the walls. It doesn’t take long for the drifter to encounter the real patrons of the parlor: the restaurant’s animatronic mascots, which apparently come to life after dark and kill anyone in the dining room. The drifter’s efforts to preserve himself until dawn are complicated by three things: the seeming complacency of the local authorities; a group of scrappy but clueless teens who are trying to burn the pizza parlor down; and his own unquenchable thirst for energy drinks and pinball.

If that seems like a lot of plot for me to cram into one of my little paragraphs, it is. But the movie itself is not shy about what it is, and so I feel no need to be coy either. The film’s intrigue is effectively and exclusively its concept, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

The good thing is no one is going to enter this film and leave feeling misled. It front-loads everything that it is, and delivers no more or less than that. The joy of watching “Willy’s Wonderland” is not observing its complex narrative unfold or encountering its evolving atmosphere. It’s to see Nic Cage punch some fuzz-covered robots, all drenched in a 1980s neon glow. The film does not lack for style. There’s an MTV speed to the editing, and a hyperrealistic haze around the photography and color palette, but even these elements feel like cogs in the concept rather than components reflecting or expanding on it.

Performances follow suit. The main character is Nicolas Cage. He has to be. He has no name and no dialogue, so we are left with the conclusion that this is the fate that has befallen an alternative Nicolas Cage somewhere in the universe. Accordingly, he’s perfect for the role. Could anyone else battle animatronics with such effortless acceptance, clean a pinball machine with such meditative grace, and adhere to so tight a schedule of energy drinks and muscle car repair? Probably not.

Supporting Cage are some goofy townsfolk, of whom Beth Grant as the cranky sheriff is the standout. If there is anything like an emotionally nuanced core to the film it’s her, portraying someone who is almost all duty with just a tiny sliver of shame. There are also the teens, who are mostly cannon fodder. That doesn’t matter too much, since they aren’t all that interesting. Emily Tosta as their fearless leader is probably the highlight, and not just cos she has the most screen time. Most of her action is to stare wide-eyed and confused at Cage, but I accept that. I would probably be doing the same thing in her situation.

In truth, everyone looks like they’re simply playing a part in the pageant. Of course the nameless drifter doesn’t have a name. He’s an archetype, an archetype called badass. Of course the teens are there to be cannon fodder. They aren’t characters. They’re boxes on a checklist labeled “slasher movie” waiting to be marked off. Even the monster robots follow suit. They are weird and twitchy, and sometimes even thrilling in a jumpy sort of way, but they are treated like routine boss battles in a video game. They show up, do their thing, then get plowed by Cage so the next one can take over when its turn comes up (and is it just me, or does Willy himself seem a little underpowered?).

And therein lies the problem with a film that is so completely its – admittedly hilarious and stylishly presented – concept. Not only is there no less to it; there’s no more to it either. There is no depth to “Willy’s Wonderland.” There is no philosophical musing or psychological suggestion to the film. I cannot blame the performances, since the actors are all fine in the underwritten roles and having fun with the overblown dialogue. I cannot blame the direction, by he-took-a-bit-of-a-break pulp director Kevin Lewis. There’s cool stuff there, even if it’s all retro neon decoration. I suppose I can blame the script, by first-timer G. O. Parsons, but it’s a wimpy accusation. I can’t tell you what the film fails to do, only what it lacks, and that can always be brushed away by a defense of “it was never supposed to be there.”

This movie would be easier to praise if we didn’t have “The Banana Splits Movie” already. Yes, I know, this blog didn’t exactly give it the greatest review, but we ended up defending it as one of the more flawed but interesting films of 2019. For better or worse, “Splits” is twice as ugly but three times as fascinating as “Willy.”

The comparison is not hard to make. Both films are comedic horror flicks about animatronic mascots run amok, both have a purposefully retro feel, and both are probably trying to capitalize on the success of the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise. But while “Willy” has superior production values, a brisker script and more thrills, “Splits” seemed like it had something to say. Maybe it failed at fully saying that… thing, whatever it was, but it felt purposeful, dammit. “Splits” will frustrate me, even disappoint me, more than “Willy” ever could precisely because it attempted to engage me with things to think about. That’s something “Willy” didn’t try to do.

While the message of “Splits” was debatable – I came up with something between a critique of nostalgic media and an absurdist drama – there was at least a debate. “Willy” doesn’t have a message, not even a moral message, one of the few boxes on that slasher checklist that’s absent. Some people are killed for having sex or placating the evil machines, but others are killed for admitting their mistakes or trying to do the right thing. It’s very uneven. Maybe there is a message, just a highly nihilistic one. Except a couple of decent people do survive, so that’s probably out too. Maybe the message is, if you’re in a comedy horror film, be Nicolas Cage? And if you’re not, just let Mr. Cage do his job?

Perhaps “Willy” actually does frustrate me, because I can imagine a more interesting film within it. It would require something a little quieter and sadder, but it wouldn’t have to lose any of its offbeat horror. My take: don’t drop the style, but do ditch the kids. Get your action horror kicks from the fights between Cage and the robots, playing up the one-on-one suspense and grotesque monster designs. Create more tension in the sheriff’s office, with her anticipating and dreading the ringing phone. Reveal the town’s sinister backstory in dream-like flashbacks, moody and murky, ala “Point Blank” or “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Create a doomy atmosphere of guilt and fate, of culpability, consequence and regret, stewing over the action. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting take on killer animatronics?

Shoot, what am I talking about? No one would finance that movie.

I’m spoiled is what I’m talking about. “Willy’s Wonderland” is an easy recommendation for any horror fan with a sense of humor and who can take a little splatter. It’s a slick and stylish production, where fun performances and comic flourishes abound, and I haven’t been more entertained by a new release so far this year. I have no one but myself to blame for expecting more from a movie sold as Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. Still, if I’m a fool for expecting more, it’s a foolishness I’m happy to have.