Through an entirely unplanned sequence of events, I'm currently playing two big action adventure games that couldn't be less alike. One is God Of War, a big, serious dadventure epic about an emotionally distant father trying his darnedest to connect with his (at times very irritating) son. The other is Kena: Bridge Of Spirits, an altogether more wholesome adventure about a young girl cleansing a lush, forested mountainside from a serious case of bad vibes and helping lost ghosts pass on to the other side.
About the only thing they have in common is that they both have what one might call 'cute' NPC companions. Dad Of War is joined by his eager archer "BOY!" Atreus, while Kena has her gaggle of black, fluffy Rot friends (above, right). According to the widely accepted law of big googly-eyes, I should find the Rot absolutely adorable and thus beyond reproach. Atreus does not have big googly-eyes (they are merely wide and naive), but he is certainly a lot cuter than God Of War's other main companion, a talking disembodied head. And yet. Even though Atreus has now reached that stage where he's doing all his adolescent whining and rebellion and "I know you are, but what am I?" nonsense in the space of about two hours, I would much rather have this sulky pre-teen by my side than the interminable Rot. Let me explain.
Listen, I'm not saying the Rot aren't cute. Just look at those gooey Ghibli eyes and gurning little smiles on their faces. It's like they exist for the sole purpose of being turned into plush, squishable childrens' toys and squeezed so hard that those aforementioned Ghibli eyes pop out of their round, tufty heads. In the war for ultimate hug-ability, they'd have Atreus beat.
But they are also completely useless. All right, they're not completely useless. They do serve an important purpose distracting enemies every once and a while when I sic them on big, rocky tree things in a swarm of googly-eyed horror, but only once I've whacked enemies enough times with Kena's glowy stick so they're brave enough to do it. I do also like how they can power up Kena's bow with an extra explosive punch, but the same awful charge rules apply here as well. As such, I have come to resent both the Rot's unwillingness to engage in battles from the off, and the fact I have to direct them to do it with a squeeze of a trigger and an additional button press. Atreus, by comparison, mostly just gets on with fighting under his own steam, and even his directed arrow shots can be done with a single tap of X a lot of the time.
My main beef with the Rot, though, is that they are mostly just a vehicle for furthering a lot of Kena's pointless busywork. Kena is a beautiful-looking game, but it is also very empty and quite boring. You will find lots of tinkling wind chimes and blue luminous fruit that will burst little blue gems at you if Kena sends out a little energy pulse with a squeeze of your controller trigger. You'll also find lots of shrines with knocked over animal statues, or shrines with big horrible gunge on it that needs purging. These, too, reward you with sacks of blue gems for tidying them up. Every incidental puzzle is designed to spit blue gems at you, nothing else, and I've had enough.
I literally cannot move for blue gems right now.
What purpose do the blue gems serve, I hear you ask? Technically, they're the game's currency, but the only thing you can buy in this literally deserted ghost town are hats for your Rot pals. HATS! Sorry, did this game come out in 2009? To make matters worse, the hats don't even make your Rot more powerful in battle. They're all purely cosmetic. I am about two thirds of the way through Kena at the moment, and so far I have collected just over 50 Rot (for they, too, are hidden around the environment because they're too darned scared to be out in the open). That's 50 pairs of googly eyes all staring up at me, demanding I buy them a half a strawberry or acorn shell to place aloft their squishy brows. To my shame, I have bought them all a stupid hat for ten blue gems, but only because I have literally thousands of these things stuffed in my back pocket collecting dust.
It is a vicious cycle. The game encourages you to find more Rot because d'aww, aren't they sweet!? But all you're really doing is using your Rot as a burgeoning cheap labour force to carry, lift and prop up objects to find yet more gems and pairs of googly-eyes, all so you can clothe them all in yet more pointless headwear. The Rot don't offer any other utility in the wider world, and man alive, that is not cute. That is just plain annoying.
Atreus, on the other hand? Incredibly useful. He helps you with puzzles, translates ancient languages, does that weird rune thing with the sand bowls, he's a handy fighter, he doesn't really need me to tell him what to do most of the time, and the stuff I'm able to buy him is also always materially beneficial to me as well. He is the best kind of NPC companion, and I am more than happy to stomach his frequent temper tantrums because of it.
So more pals like Atreus, please, video games. I beg you. Don't fall into the cute, googly-eyed temptation of the Rot. It will only spell disaster (although if a future update suddenly gives all the hecking Rot hats some tangible stat boosts that make them actually worthwhile, I will retract this entire article and issue a heartfelt apology). But seriously, more Atreus please. He's a very good boy between all the angst and the whining.