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‘Ground Zeroes: Metal Gear Solid’s Darkest Hour

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In a series where cyborg ninjas can tear through robots, psychics can read players’ memory cards, and a man can kill his father twice without dwelling on the logistics of said act, the relatively grounded Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes still manages to end up the single strangest entry in the franchise, in large part thanks to its complete tonal dissonance with the rest of the Metal Gear saga. While Metal Gear Solid has never shied away from dark material, consistently depicting at least one torture sequence per game, its levity was ever present to ensure the situation never became overwhelmingly dark. Whether it be from characters joking around, over the top set pieces, or just lighter moments to allow the main cast to decompress, there was light among the darkness. Without a single light-hearted moment in its main plot, Ground Zeroes takes a much bolder, and muted, approach to Metal Gear storytelling. It doesn’t necessarily make for a more mature narrative, but it does solidify the almost oppressive tone that would carry over into The Phantom Pain.

Although the nocturnal setting isn’t unique to Ground Zeroes, most notably with the original Metal Gear Solid taking place in the evening and ending at sunrise, the addition of rain to Camp Omega makes for an inherently downtrodden atmosphere. It’s one thing to stealth through what is effectively a concentration camp, but a downpour in the dead of night creates a hostile tension where the elements are working for and against Big Boss’ favor. Contextually, the premise for GZ is far darker than anything seen in the series prior. Camp Omega as a setting alone is far more sinister than the likes of Shadow Moses or Arsenal Gear, but a rescue op for a captured child soldier and a former defector stand out as all the more impactful in a franchise where just about every entry thus far has revolved around stopping a nuclear strike. The scope is smaller than ever as a result, but it’s perhaps because of this novelty that Ground Zeroes’ storyline feels all the more dark.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground ZeroesThe newfound darkness is only heightened by the fact that Ground Zeroes is directly following Peace Walker, the lightest story in the franchise. It tried to delve into Big Boss’ psyche regarding his relationship with The Boss, but it’s also the same game that has Big Boss fighting monsters from Monster Hunter, admitting to believing in Santa Claus, and holding up soldiers with a banana. It’s a level of silliness that’s appropriate for Metal Gear Solid, but using it as a jumping off point for the darkest game in the franchise leads to a jarring juxtaposition, though one that isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, the tonal shift from Peace Walker to Ground Zeroes is one of the smartest decisions Kojima makes in the the second half of the series.

Every game after Snake Eater suffered in maintaining the tone, themes, and quality of the early series on account of being sequels to a series that had already ended twice, more or less. Along with Metal Gear Solid V dropping the Arabic number convention in favor of Roman numerals, Ground Zeroes almost feels like a soft reboot of sorts. With a darker tone, a more intimate premise, and an effective makeover for the franchise, Ground Zeroes promises a breath of fresh air for Metal Gear. This is best seen in the usage of Ennio Morricone’s and Joan Baez’s “Here’s to You.” Originally covered by Harry Gregson-Williams and Lisbeth Scott for Metal Gear Solid 4’s credits theme, the song returns as the opener and closer for Ground Zeroes. While the inclusion of the song is certainly odd, as the series has previously done a good job at giving each game its own musical identity, its presence serves more as a perversion of what the song represents than anything else.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

“Your favorite song… Nicola, Bart – immigrants, wrongly executed… But their deaths served as a message to others: that ours is a society that murders the innocent. Do you, too, believe that your sacrifice will change the world?”

In Metal Gear Solid 4’s context, “Here’s to You” is an ode to Solid Snake and the end of his journey. It is a tribute to everything he’s had to go through and a call to rest for him. Skull Face’s monologue adds an element of mockery to the song as he effectively taunts the audience, through Chico, about the nature of sacrifice. “Do you, too, believe that your sacrifice will change the world?” The idea of sacrifice is one that has always been at play within the Metal Gear narrative, and having Skull Face break it down so coldly removes much of the glamor of sacrifice from the series. Will Chico be able to change the world if he sacrifices himself? Most likely not. It’s made all the worse in hindsight when remembering that Solid Snake’s plan to sacrifice himself at the end of Guns of the Patriots would have been for naught. His sacrifice would not have changed the world. This idea is explored even further at the end of GZ when Paz sacrifices herself to save Big Boss, but she commits the act far too late. The Phantom Pain does play around with this idea more, but its disjointed narrative does not allow for the theme to reach a conclusion, essentially rendering its worth to Ground Zeroes alone.

It’s, unfortunately, this recurring connection to The Phantom Pain that ends up taking all of Ground Zeroes goodwill and smashing it to pieces. As strongly as it sets up a new era for Metal Gear, and as appropriately dark as it initially seems, it’s held back by the fact that it is simply not a full game. Ground Zeroes is to The Phantom Pain what the Tanker chapter was to the Plant chapter in Metal Gear Solid 2, and that is an enormous problem narratively. In splitting GZ and TPP in two, there is a lack of thematic cohesion present where arcs are set up in the former with the promise of payoff in the latter. It might not be a poor idea in theory, but it does mean both stories end up holding up poorly on their own. What’s worse, The Phantom Pain’s incomplete nature means much of the setting up Ground Zeroes does go to waste. In that case, can Ground Zeroes be enjoyed on its own? To an extent, but it cannot stand on its own as a proper narrative.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground ZeroesFor starters, there is not a single complete arc present, whether character or narrative, because there cannot be. An hour is simply not long enough to tell a compelling Metal Gear Solid story, and Ground Zeroes is already little more than a prologue for an actual game. This is the first time in the Metal Gear series where the protagonist of the game does not develop. Snake didn’t have an arc in the Tanker chapter, either, but the Tanker chapter was attached to Metal Gear Solid 2 as it should have been, because prologues should not be separated from their stories. Otherwise, they lose the connecting thread necessary in making a prologue compelling in the first place. Big Boss doesn’t even meet Skull Face, Ground Zeroes’ and The Phantom Pain’s antagonist, until the next game. The central villain of Metal Gear Solid V does not interact with the hero once. Protagonists and antagonists don’t need to interact often for their dynamics to be interesting, but in a game where Big Boss and Skull Face have no thematic or narrative parallels, it’s quite obvious he’s only here because of his role in The Phantom Pain.

This is ultimately Ground Zeroes’ greatest flaw: it lives in service to a lesser story, and one that struggles to connect threads either due to The Phantom Pain’s unfinished nature or the simple disconnect between both games. The saddest part of Metal Gear Solid V, though, is the realization that MGSV wouldn’t be much better with a Tanker-Plant split like Metal Gear Solid 2’s. The Tanker chapter existed to trick players into believing MGS2 was a straightforward sequel while also setting up the themes, arcs, and plot of the Plant chapter. Playing the Plant chapter also recontextualizes the events of the Tanker chapter, forcing audiences to pick up on details they may have missed the first time around. There is no such relationship between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain. GZ certainly dresses itself up as a Tanker-esque storyline, but it sets up little more than the concept of sacrifice. There are no arcs at play, the plot of GZ feels irrelevant save for its ending, and The Phantom Pain goes in a completely different tonal direction.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground ZeroesAll this leads to Ground Zeroes feeling out of place within the Metal Gear canon. It is arguably the most important game in Big Boss’ saga after Snake Eater, but it lacks the same weight and attention as Portable Ops and Peace Walker, two games that were basically filler. By the end of Ground Zeroes, the majority of Big Boss’ forces are wiped out, his home base is utterly destroyed, and he’s finally in the coma the franchise mentioned so often. This was an actual missing link to Big Boss’ story and it did not get the time it deserved to be fleshed out. It is baffling that 75% of Big Boss’ narrative is dedicated to retreading the same old ground, while the first game to actually move away from Big Boss’ turning point is relegated to an hour long tech demo that does little more than establish the fact that Skull Face is a villain and there’s going to be a time jump. Even worse, the plot threads Peace Walker ended on are, as a result, ignored. MSF is supposed to be Outer Heaven now, but that never gets brought up and MSF gets destroyed by the end of the game. Big Boss is no longer sporting his bandanna and threw away his old code-name, but the game still refers to him as Snake in his introduction. Ground Zeroes had what it needed to move away from the problems plaguing Portable Ops and Peace Walker, but it utilized nothing in favor of a flimsy setup.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a broken promise more than anything. It’s refreshingly dark and it moves itself away from Portable Ops and Peace Walker, but it moves itself too far away. Those games were derivative, but, in a story committed to the finer details of Big Boss’ life, they should not be ignored. Ground Zeroes essentially did to Peace Walker what Peace Walker did to Portable Ops. Those games still happened, but it clearly doesn’t matter much that they did. More importantly, Ground Zeroes just isn’t that strong as a prologue. It has strong concepts and a strong tone, but the actual plot meanders until the ending and the connection between Big Boss and Skull Face is tenuous at best. Ground Zeroes promises a breath of fresh air, but it brings with it gray skies even The Phantom Pain refuses to touch.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Cal McCormick

    April 30, 2018 at 9:54 am

    My favourite bit is when Skull Face forces a child to rape a lady prisoner, a story tidbit revealed via a cassette tape that Snake can listen to, and then it’s literally never mentioned again. I mean, I know the vagina bomb – or arse bomb, I don’t remember – kinda drew attention away from it, but you know, if you’re gonna go there, at least do it for a reason, and not just because lol ooh dark.

    Absolute shite.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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