Alice O: Jazztronauts sends us ram-raiding Steam Workshop levels in an interdimensional tram to steal furniture, fixtures, fittings, trash, and even walls at the behest of cats who live in a dimensional nexus of a bar. Now that’s a video game premise.
The true wonder of this mod for Garry’s Mod is that, aside from the hub and a bit of story framing, the whole game draws from maps and characters uploaded to the Steam Workshop for other purposes. A giant telly in the bar flicks through random levels, showing only the name and thumbnail, then when we like one we lock it in, hop aboard the tram, and head down the windy road between worlds, downloading the level automatically.
When we arrive, it’s time to steal. Whacking certain types of bits in the level with our baton will summon magical scientsits to suck it up and whizz it away. Tables, chairs, crates, lights, lamp posts, trees, plants, food, trash, vending machines, rocks, telephones, doors, microwaves, kettles, sofas… depending on how the level is built, we can steal all sorts of things. Eventually we can buy upgrades to even steal walls, ripping them out with a groaning shudder to reveal the pink and cat-filled glimmering raw fabric of the universe. This is: 1) great fun; 2) all sorts of daft; 3) a delightful ripping-apart of the reality of games.
Jazztronauts revels in how fake this all is. A ‘Mewseum’ in the hub teaches the basics of how Source levels are built, teaching what we can and can’t steal, and houses a menagerie of the NPCs we yoink. Video game levels are fake as heck, and Jazztronauts wants us to tear them apart. We get tools to steal more, steal faster, and warp through walls. The paper-thin reality is shredded but peeking behind the scenes only makes it more delightful, getting to explore places we weren’t meant to see.
While the cats can be a bit sarky about some levels, Jazztronauts delights in how damn weird player-made levels can be, the range of things players want to see – and the range of skill they have to make them. As a fan of mod readme files, I’ve hugely enjoyed ram-raiding random levels. Cities built for roleplaying modes, Counter-Strike levels, recreations of real-world houses and schools, test levels, bugged levels, race tracks, RTS maps, places from Star Wars and Harry Potter and Spongebob Squarepants, waterparks, playgrounds whose purposes I cannot fathom… I adore this way of flicking through the Workshop.
Flashes of other players’ reactions appear too, with Jazztronauts drawing random comments off a map’s Workshop page to appear on monitors in the bar and adorn the side of the tram. I laugh every time I see someone furious, baffled, spamming creepypasta stories that I must read to the end or I will DIE, or mourning the closure of a swimming pool.
Jazztronauts also captures that classic “How do I make this damn thing work…” often felt when trying to play mods and custom levels. While it’ll download the level automatically, the map won’t necessarily come with all the resources you need, sometimes leading to pink and black checker textures on a surface or a model replaced with the word “ERROR” in metre-high red letters. In Jazztronauts, this doesn’t ruin a level, just makes it more psychedelic and strange.
Perhaps you’ll visit famed magician school Hogwarts and return home with only scrap wood, some fruit, and several hundred error messages.
Oh, yes, I didn’t mention all that. When we’re done with a level, having collected randomly-spawned gems and stolen our fill, we call the tram to pick us up. It will punch a hole in the level, smashing through dynamically in a way that still makes me smile. Then, back at the bar, we get to pull a lever and have our haul totted up as it rains from a chute like the boobie prize on a game show. This, obviously, is great.
And I shouldn’t forget that the framing of these crimes is wonderful. The writing is sharp and funny, the cats varied and delightful, and I’ll always chat with everyone (yes, it’s kinda a visual novel sorta thing too) when I return to the bar.
And it’s ridiculous shenanigans when playing cooperatively with pals.
Jazztronauts reveals the artifice of video games in a fun and clever way while celebrating the enthusiasm and absurdity of people who build things for them. Video games are wonderful and daft and so are we all.
Dave: When I first played the beta for Dragon Ball FighterZ and had a starting lineup of Goku against Frieza on Planet Namek, I was treated to an in-game recreation of the famous scene in the Dragon Ball Z anime where Goku first becomes Super Saiyan. It’s not the only time the game directly recreates the series, as finishing the fight with Goku against Frieza on a destroyed Namek with a heavy attack gives you the climax of that same fight, and even relatively minor characters Yamcha and Nappa have a fun Dramatic Finish in the Wasteland stage. But seeing that scene, beautifully rendered in the game and given a modern shine, brought back memories and gave me goosebumps.
I’m not massively into anime. For every My Hero Academia out there where I enjoy the premise, there’s another like Attack on Titan that I just find impenetrable. Don’t get me started on why the very thought of Sword Art Online brings me out in hives. So it was a surprise to me that I became a fan of the most Shonen of Shonen Jump manga – Dragon Ball Z – when a friend forced me to watch it.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is not just a pretty face however, as it has everything that I’d hoped for from Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite but which never materialised. The Dragon Ball FighterZ roster has the characters I was largely expecting, for example, but each one has movesets that fit their character. Piccolo uses his stretchy limbs, Frieza has the destructo-disc that comes back and can hit himself if he’s not careful, and so on.
It mimics the anime in heavily featuring screen-wide beams of energy, but it also has a combo system that’s accessible for those who want to get into it and challenging enough for experts to find new ways to get that extra slither of damage. This in turn makes the 3v3 fights frantic. Dragon Ball FighterZ is a lot more technical than any of the Dragon Ball Z tie-ins that have come before it, and more fun for it.
If I had one thing to knock against it, it’s that the story mode drags on way too long and feels like some weird fanfiction someone made with all their dream fights in one place. That said, taking breaks from the story mode to either square up against others online, or have a run through the challenging arcade mode more than makes up for it.
For a game that’s as much fun as it is, the number of players on the PC version is criminally low. Presumably there are more players to be found on the console versions of the game, which remain the traditional home of fighting games. However, even if you don’t ever fancy putting up your dukes against another player, Dragon Ball FighterZ has more than enough stuff to play around with.
Alice O: Chin up, friendo. You’re transporting cursed video tapes which are narcotics at best and a dreadful power at worse, you’re in hock to some real shady figures, the city is near-deserted, crows peck at bodies in the streets, and The Man is on your back, but it could be worse – yours could be one of the other two stories this first-person vignette ’em up jumps between.
Paratopic ties together three overlapping stories from three people (or… does it?), a hiker, a courier, and an assassin. We jump between them in time and space, often with only subtle hints that we’ve changed. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we drive, sometimes we chat, sometimes we… ah, you’ll see. It’s a bit Thirty Flights Of Loving though at a less hectic pace, especially in scenes where we can linger or chat.
I do like chatting to people. Paratopic’s dialogue is often sharp, with menace, humour, and chat all coming across well. I especially like that one option to say we’re not interested in a giant ball of twine is explicitly marked as a lie; a twist of a familiar branching dialogue tool shows us more of who we are. I like the garbled Killer7-ish voices as well, especially while listening to the talk station on the car radio.
OH. I LIKE THE DRIVING. Driving through this sinister city is splendid.
I dig the 90s 3D look too, another edge of unreality, and it looks real pretty at times. Having wee doodads to fiddle with around the game–stubbing out a smouldering cigarette, squirting ketchup, and of course a camera to snap away with–is grand as well. Love those fiddlebits.
Paratopic reminds me of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, dark stories with a dreamy edge where the precise logic and sequence of events isn’t nearly as important as the tone, feeling, and reactions they spark.
In video games, I’d point to North (one of our favourite games of 2016 and all, that one). Both place us in cities which are recognisable and familiar yet alien enough to be so very wrong, feeling concrete and not ‘wacky’ or ‘weird’. In North we’re a refugee with no understanding of the rules governing this place (play North; it’s great) but here we’re a native, paying no heed to the shadow people eating at the diner or the sheer emptiness of everything. That’s just how it is.
Even when the Definitive Cut arrived in September with small new sections that did kinda sorta explain a thing or two, it didn’t lorebomb away mystery, just drew me in deeper. What a curious world this is. What wonderful first-person… notquitehorror? Paratopic is a first-person unsettler.
Also: it’s short. Wander and drive through this world for 45-60 minutes, experience a good thing, and move onto that pleasant phase where parts of it live on the back of your head, friendo.