I wish the Deus Ex series didn’t leave me feeling so cold

Some developers would kill for a set-up as strong and impressive as the modern Deus Ex franchise . Seriously. There are tick marks for what Square Montreal have done with 2011’s Human Revolution and last year’s Mankind Divided almost across the board.

Interesting setting? Sorted.

Excellent atmosphere? Check.

Politically and currently relevant themes? Uh-huh.

Incredible soundtrack and audio? Yup.

Decent and varied stealth-based gameplay? Indeed.

The ability to punch through walls? Che-heck.

It feels like the series is practically begging to be adored, almost like it’s at pains to show you how good its ideas and groundwork is. Problem is that it can’t detract from the fact that both Human Revolution and Mankind Divided have the same problem; they’ve dropped you into an engaging, conflicted world, and created interesting, varied playgrounds for you to explore, sneak around or bash your way through. But there’s nothing emotive or interesting to tie you to it.

Adam Jensen: so cool, so smooth, so…..ehh.

Part of the problem is the fact that Adam Jensen, star of HR and MD, suffers from what I’ve taken to calling Geralt-itis. Both Deus Ex and The Witcher 3 present you with male leads that aren’t really customisable; ok, you can give the White Wolf a sick haircut and fancy armour, but your only real means of making Jensen or Geralt your own is through the story-related choices that you make and the dialog options that you’re constantly presented with. Sure, my Jensen can be altruistic, caring and even thoughtful when he wanted to be, but he’s still pretty gruff, fairly blank and he’s about as emotionally expressive as a sodden pancake, much like his silver-haired counterpart in CD Projekt Red’s title. There may be story-based reasons for making these characters so stoic, but particularly with Jensen, in such a cold, metallic and oppressive environment, it’s tough to really feel connected to him, much less like him. You need a character that you can latch onto to provide a bit of warmth, or substance, and it’s simply not there.

Plus, he constantly wears sunglasses indoors. Why, Adam? Why? Why are you shutting the world out?

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the narrative that runs through these games wasn’t so thoroughly rooted in faceless conspirators and needlessly convoluted intentions, but it is. Human Revolution threatened to provide some sort of emotional connection to Jensen and the story in its early offing by apparently bumping off his other half, Megan, and critically wounding him. But my first viewing of that game’s ending was the start of Mankind Divided in their handily-placed recap of the series’ previous entry, as my interest in whatever the hell the Illuminati were up to in Human Revolution had dissipated long before the credits rolled.

Deus Ex loves to spin yarns about puppet masters, manipulation and human advancement, and it’s not like it fails in that regard. The games can really excel when it comes to the latter, and the whole set-up for Mankind Divided was you investigating….something against a backdrop of constant, visible and audible oppression against people with cybernetic limbs and augmentations in Prague. Whilst you walk the streets, you’ll run into people desperate to flee the country, lest they get thrown into the infamous slums of Golem City. You’ll run into grandfathers that just wish to be reunited with their families after scaring them away when their augmentations were on the fritz as a consequence of HR’s cataclysmic Aug Incident; there’s refugees paying to have themselves smuggled out of the city in an attempt to escape the persecution, and they’ll beg you not to muck up their escape plans. There’s even local augmented artistes struggle to cope with the weight of their own worlds crashing down inwardly as the local police get more and more violent.

If all of that sounds interesting, then that’s because it is. Mankind Divided and Human Revolution both know how to tell small, emotional and effective tales that feed into their primary narratives, with a beginning, middle and an end. Especially in Prague, each of them feels like a reaction to the Aug Incident, and they reinforce the constant oppression that Augs face. It’s in every little detail, especially around the subway; you’ll frequently get stopped for ID when you exit a train, get scolded for riding on the non-Aug carriage or sneered at for daring to go through the turnstile reserved for ‘normal’ folk. Even if Jensen himself doesn’t suffer any truly significant problems as a result of your augmentations, the effects of the oppression are everywhere, and you feel part of it. You feel like an outsider, like you don’t belong.

This is a regular occurrence in Prague: regular patrols targeting Augs help create a constant air of oppression. 

And that’s why Square’s lack of desire to take their games into a space where conspiracies aren’t the focus, where some sort of emotional connection is allowed and where Jensen isn’t so oppressively wooden is so frustrating. All of the ingredients are there; the music, the gameplay, the vision of this futuristic but problematic world are all there, but there’s nothing worth fighting for. There’s nothing to latch onto that gives you a reason to see things through to the end, other than your own determination. I failed to finish Human Revolution and Mankind Divided at fairly similar stages; the story had failed to grip me, side content had dried up and I found myself stuck in a heavily guarded environment with no real reason to complete my objective. So I didn’t.

And you know what? That’s a gigantic shame. Outside of their main narratives, Detroit, Hengsha and Prague are all excellent hubs with interesting stories and distinctive visual appeal. Michael McCann’s incredible soundtrack is frequently absorbing, using elements of ambient and electro music to reflect Jensen’s state depending on whether he’s mooching, hiding or shooting the crap out of stuff, and has the ability to place you into the world instantly. It’s evocative and powerful, and listening to it as I write this up, I can mentally place myself into Jensen’s shoes, sneaking around vents in banks, helping out wayward folk or relaxing in his dimly-lit digs.

Don’t get me wrong; recent news that Mankind Divided’s sales have underwhelmed to the point that the series is now indefinitely on hold is a blow, because this series has plenty to offer, and I hold out hope that it will eventually have a tale to tell that matches up to everything else that it’s got going on. But for now, it sits as a series characterised by potential that doesn’t quite pay off.





Resident Evil 7 scares well, but it pulls a few big punches in the process

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There’s a moment early on in Resident Evil 7 where protagonist Ethan Winters (he of tremendous pain threshold and general blank slate) runs into his long-assumed missing wife, Mia. Said wife hasn’t been heard from for three years, but Ethan tracks her down in a dilapidated plantation and the pair quickly try and escape. Problem is that she has no memory of what’s been going on in that time, and eventually gets possessed by a terrible rage that forces her to, amongst other things, stab her husband through the hand with a knife (and then a screwdriver shortly afterwards), cut that same hand off with a chainsaw and then slowly stalk him with that same item around an attic floor, all the while snarling, shouting and absorbing mortal blows like they were going out of fashion. During this ordeal, Ethan is encouraged to pick up his missing body part and walks up a flight of stairs, gently panting as he clutches his squirting left stump. It’s visceral, it’s bloody and it’s a pleasingly bold move for Capcom to take with their flagship franchise.

But give it a few minutes, and you’re left wondering what the Japanese developer is playing at. It’s impossible to suggest that the weight of seeing Ethan lose his hand isn’t irretrievably lessened by watching it being stapled back on a few minutes later just before you settle down to dinner with the Bakers, and it highlights Resi 7’s greatest fault; it’s filled with a desire to take risks, and harks back to its past nicely, but it can’t help but pull a couple of its punches in the process.

Going back to that hand, which will surely go down as one of the most abused appendages in gaming history, the reason that losing it is so powerful is that it’s so rare for a game to make you feel that vulnerable from the off. There’s an impact on gameplay instantly; Ethan shambles around slowly as a result, and can only reload a handily placed pistol one-handed, which makes the subsequent encounter with chainsaw-toting Mia even nervier. But then you subdue Mia, Jack knocks you out and the next thing you know, some softly-spoken Southern lass is stapling your hand back on.

Given how keen Capcom were to show Ethan being brutally wounded within the game’s opening hour, it feels like an odd choice to duck out of it. On a practical level, why not leave him with one hand? So much of Resi 7 is designed to unsettle, to constantly challenge any notion that you have of safety or comfort, and making it clear that these people are capable of permanently injuring Ethan beyond inconsequential video game death would have made that so much worse.

Or better, if you like that sort of thing.

There isn’t much time to consider just how in the hell your hand was reattached so adeptly (my explanation was Because Video Games), because there’s a plate of human bits in front of you that you’re being encouraged to eat. It’s the first and last time that you see all of the Bakers in front of you; there’s clearly-wayward-and-up-to-no-good Lucas in his hoodie, losing his forearm after throwing a plate in your face thanks to his Dad, Jack. He’s shoving a knife in your mouth because you wouldn’t have a polite nibble of your supper. On your right is Marguerite; she’s encouraging you to tuck in having shoved a bug that was creeping around her hair into her gob. Lovely bunch, it must be said.

In all honesty, the Baker family are great, and feel like game’s manky old heart. The slightly creepy, but mostly unremarkable Molded may act as a more frequent threat, but even when they shamble at you from out of nowhere, it’s nothing compared to the fear that running into Jack in the game’s first few hours provokes. Where the Molded are predictable, and have the sole remit of slashing you to bits, the Bakers are a human threat that can’t be reasoned with. They’re not stupid; they still have enough sanity to spout unsettling and violent diatribes at you, they’ll stalk the halls of their extended homestead looking for you and won’t go down easily if you decide to engage them. Sure, any threat sounds intrinsically more threatening when it has a thick Southern accent; that’s just science. But they’re great at just being scary.

That threat is exacerbated even further by the fact that you’re in such a well-constructed, decaying environment. Their house is falling to bits, covered in various pieces of filth and dimly lit, which makes coming into contact with Jack and his family even less palatable. It’s also varied enough, and of sufficient size that it doesn’t feel too small, thanks to a few well-placed outhouses and it does a good job of encouraging exploration. As a setting for the Bakers, their unspoken cannibalism and general air of being terrible, it’s excellent, and mirrors them perfectly.

But both the house and its owners get the rough end of the stick by the time we get to Resi 7’s final third. There’s a strong sense that Capcom weren’t quite sure how best to tie up this narrative, as Mia’s reason for being here in the first place, and Eveline, the game’s actual big bad are revealed. A quick scene showing a with-it and placid Jack explaining Eveline’s influence over his family, and how she turns them into the beasts we’ve become so familiar with at this point is necessary to explain what the hell’s been going on, even if it undercuts their strength as antagonists. Problem is that Eveline then takes centre stage, and things never really recover from that.

It’s galling to switch the action from the Bakers and their home to Eveline and a derelict tanker, mostly because the former are barely used as the game reaches its crescendo. After navigating Lucas’ murderous trial just prior to entering the tanker, he’s never seen again. Marguerite and Jack are also dropped in favour of shoving Eveline into the spotlight in a dull, repetitive environment. With just the Molded to worry about as you stomp around the tanker, Resi 7 then becomes more of a task to play than it should. Eveline’s template is tried and tested; young girl created with supernatural powers gets out and does bad things. We’re used to it. It has little to surprise us with, and whilst there’s no denying that the Bakers and their home are hardly innovative creations, they’re presented so well that their absence as the game comes to a close is felt even more.

Oh, boy. This exploration of a dilapidated building is definitely going to go well. You can tell.

It’s handy that plenty of Resi 7’s other aspects work so well, then. The switch to first person and abandoning of the series’ recent penchant for action are welcome, and the bonus video tape levels on offer are all excellent. Mia’s stealth section, Lucas’ macabre deathtrap and the chronicles of a hapless film crew…they’re often so grim and stressful that they trick you into wishing that you were back in Ethan’s presumably blood-soaked shoes. And then you finish them, the action switches back to him, and you remember that he’s trapped in a murderous homestead with folk that want to gut him.

It might seem a bit ridiculous to criticise Resident Evil 7 for not taking more risks, given that it’s clearly shaken up the series’ formula substantially by returning to its old penchant for puzzles, inventory management and even manual saves. It’s still a game that is worth pushing yourself through; it’s an exciting statement from a series that needed a refresh, and it’s much closer to being an excellent horror experience than a hot mess. But it stops itself short of being anything more than that.