#REVIEW: Days Gone (PS4)

After spending a couple of months playing almost nothing but Sekiro, and hitting yet another boss– the very last one I have to beat– and getting stuck for several days again, I decided that I needed to take a break and go back for the last few achievements later. Enter Days Gone, a game I’d been aware of for months and months but which poor reviews (and, well, Sekiro) had kept me from picking up. I found it $20 off and off to the races.

And, well. I beat it last night– or at least the credits rolled, although there’s still some stuff to do– so I might as well talk about it a little bit. As it turns out, Days Gone is damn near the Platonic ideal of the 7/10 game– a game that has enough good things about it that I beat it, but enough obnoxious things about it that I’m complaining about something almost the entire time I’m playing it.

Interestingly, this means I have more to say about it than I might have had I really enjoyed it, because the ways this game fails are as fascinating as they are ridiculous. So I may rattle on for a bit. We’ll see.

Let’s start with the good stuff– the game’s basic feedback loop (go here, shoot something, rinse, repeat) is fun. There’s a decent variety of weapons and craftable items, and the game does a pretty good job of making everything useful in some scenario or another. Toward the end of the game, where you’re taking on huge hordes of what the game calls Freaks and everyone else on Earth calls zombies, there’s a great frenetic poetry to the way you have to set traps, use the environment to your advantage, and know when to best use everything in your inventory. The largest hordes have 450+ zombies in them. Taking them all out is awesome.

Okay, so, it’s a zombie game, right? What else is it? Well, really, not much, except for the inevitable post-apocalyptic Maybe The Humans Are The Real Problem shit. You shoot an equal number of people as you do zombies, if not more, although you don’t see the hordes and people tend to shoot back rather than just chase you forever. You play as the rather extravagantly named Deacon St. John, a biker. Now that you know he is a biker and that he is the protagonist of a video game you know his entire personality. At the very beginning of the game, you see St. John put his injured wife onto a helicopter, give her a ring, and tell her that he wants it back. The game then jumps ahead two years; the apocalypse has apocalypsed and Deacon never found his wife. Insofar as the game has a plot, it’s “Deacon tries to find his wife.” It’s one of those games where you know from the jump that there’s no way they won’t be reunited by the end; it doesn’t even count as a spoiler to me because it’s so obvious from literally the first few minutes of the game.

An interesting thing: the zombies may as well be aliens. There’s constant talk about a virus, but at no point during the game do any of the characters display even the slightest concern about becoming a zombie or contracting the virus. There’s no concern about blood, or being eaten, or being bitten, or really anything at all, and you never come close to that zombie apocalypse trope where you tearfully shoot someone in the head to keep them from turning. There are a couple of points where people burn bodies to “keep the freaks from getting them,” but there’s not a moment of concern about anyone catching the virus, ever. It’s weird. There’s a brief scene near the end where (this also will not surprise you) Deacon’s wife figures out that her company had something to do with the apocalypse starting, but it’s so underwritten that it’s barely worth taking seriously. How Everything Started gets barely any attention at all.

The game also has a major problem with Idiot Plot, where characters keep secrets from each other for no particular reason other than that the writers thought they should, and it never makes any damn sense. For example, this is a decent look at Deacon’s neck:

He has his wife’s name, Sarah, on one side of his neck, and the word Forever on the other side of his neck. Late in the game there will be a scene where Deacon joins a militia camp where he believes he might find his wife. He gets into a conversation with a character about his previous life and they discuss his wife. The other character asks him her name.

“Beth,” he says, after transparently thinking about it for a moment.

Dude you have the phrase “Sarah Forever” tattooed on your fucking neck.

Not only will no one ever mention this to him, once he finds Sarah, neither of them tell anyone they’re married, he continues the “Beth” thing, and the fact that her first name is Sarah and they are conspicuously associating a lot never comes up. Plus, the guy he’s talking to in the first conversation is wearing the ring that he gave Sarah, a fact that he does mention to him once but which does not receive anywhere near the follow-up that you think it might.

A compliment: the game has amazing facial animation, and watching Deacon and Sarah in particular have conversations is incredible. The voice acting is pretty good except when it isn’t– I’ll get to this in a bit– and while the load screens before the copious cutscenes are obnoxious the direction, for lack of a better word, is generally pretty compelling. The score and the sound effects are quite well-done as well. Again, I’m complaining, but I did put 30+ hours into this thing before I beat it, and chances are there’s still gonna be a few more hours before I get tired of killing hordes.

(Also, and I’ve never said this about a video game before, and I wouldn’t even mention it had the game not commented on it, but … Sarah has an amazing ass. Like, there are a couple of cutscenes where you have to walk behind her for a while. They put some work into animating this woman’s posterior. Forgive me; it needed to be said.)

Let’s see, what else? I mentioned the voice acting. If anything, the game’s biggest gameplay weakness is that damn near every mission boils down to “Go here, and kill everything that moves.” Every mission. Sometimes you’re killing Freaks and sometimes you’re killing people, but it’s every mission. Now, I play lots of video games, and I’m used to the notion that the main character in every game is going to have killed thousands of people by the time the game is over. Days Gone does this thing with Deacon, though, where by about the 1/3 point of the game I really felt like someone ought to have sat him down and had him retire to gardening for the rest of his life.

Deacon is really really angry, guys, and he really likes murder. The shit that he mutters to himself while he clears out an ambush camp or a Ripper enclave is fucking creepy, and I’ve never played a game where I so fervently felt like the main character needed serious psychological intervention. He talks about murder so much, while murdering, that it just keeps driving it home to you that, most of the time, these are people he’s killing, and it creates this weird sort of guilt about all the killing you’re doing. Yeah, yeah, I know, just a video game, but … man, this guy really likes murder. And not in a fun slapsticky sort of way.

(I spend five minutes trying to find an appropriate YouTube video, and fail, but check this out.)

Also, you spend far too much time having to listen to far-right political nut job bullshit than I want to have to do in something I paid for. Way, way too much time.

Anyway. I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but once it’s down to $19.99? Grab it if you’ve got a hole in your gaming schedule you want to fill.

#REVIEW: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING, by Rebecca Roanhorse

trail-of-lightning-9781534413498_hrHere’s a one-sentence review of Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, that ought to tell you basically everything you need to know:  I started it Saturday night at 10:30 PM, reading before going to sleep as I always do, and I had finished it by dinnertime the following day, and I worked from 11-5 on the day I finished it.

I woke up at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and rather than roll over and go back to sleep I grabbed a cup of coffee and took this book out onto my back porch to read outside for an hour or two before it got too hot.  I realized after I’d been out there for an hour that I’d left my phone sitting next to my bed.  Do you have any goddamn idea how rare it is for me to be more than ten feet from my phone for an hour?

(Okay, yeah, you probably do, but still.)

If that’s not enough, and if that gorgeous cover isn’t enough, how about the genre?  Trail of Lightning is Navajo post-apocalyptic urban fantasy.  And hard core Navajo, to the point where I feel kind of bad saying “Navajo” and not “Diné”.  There are words in this book that contain letters that I don’t know the names of, guys.(*)  A pronunciation guide would not have gone unappreciated.

Right, the story.

It is The Future.  Global warming and sea level rise has gone way way worse than anyone imagined (it is hinted, but not explicitly stated, that something supernatural may have happened to make it worse) and as a result huge swaths of what used to be the United States– like the entire midwest– have drowned and Dinétah, the Navajo nation, is an independent nation-state on its own again.  Maggie Hoskie is a social outcast who hunts monsters.

There are monsters, by the way.

I’m no hero.  I’m more of a last resort, a scorched-earth policy.  I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags.

That paragraph is from page 2.  It was at that precise moment that I knew I was in and this book was going to be something special.  Maggie is a bit of an asshole, so if you’re not the type to like abrasive first-person protagonists this may not quite be your cup of tea, but watching her hunt monsters and argue with trickster gods and do magic stuff and navigate the fascinating world that Rebecca Roanhorse has created was absolutely one of the biggest pleasures of the year so far with me.  Trail of Lightning joins two other debut novels by women of color– Jade City and The Poppy War— that are guaranteed to be on my top 10 list at the end of the year.  Roanhorse’s prose is clear and accessible and the book absolutely flies; this is the kind of novel that I want to write as much as I want to read it.

I’m just not going to try and read it out loud.  🙂

(*) hataałii, for example– I have no idea what to do with that L–, or yá’át’ééh, which has accents and apostrophes.  No italics for the Navajo words, either, which is great, unless you’re scanning for words you don’t know and don’t have that to help you.  (**)

(**) Audio on the web is inconsistent, but the ł may be pronounced like a W.