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Review: Aerannis

Sep 22 // Jed Whitaker
Aerannis (PC)Developer: ektomarch Publisher: ektomarch Released: September 15, 2015MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel Core i7-3930K @ 3.2 GHz, 32GB DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, Windows 10 64-bit, Intel 750 SSD After receiving an email from one of the developers stating you play as a transgender character, I couldn't help but give Aerannis a chance. I was rather surprised how well the Kickstarted game was able to mesh the adventure genre with a stealthy metroidvania. Traversing different parts of the cyberpunk world to find and complete missions -- mostly consisting of either stealthy sneaking, hits, or investigating -- was pretty satisfying and never felt dull.  The formula is overall pretty simple: Talk to your robot buddy / boss / NPC and receive a mission with directions, follow the directions till you find an arrow in front of described building, do the mission, rinse and repeat. The world isn't exactly huge, but save stations allow you to fast travel between them, thankfully cutting down on dull backtracking that many games in the same genre suffer from.  Missions are all relatively similar even if the goal at the end can be a bit different: Going from point A to point B while hiding or blasting enemies until you reach the goal. But thankfully new mechanics, weapons, and enemies are introduced along the way to keep things interesting, such as the abilities to hang from ledges, jump off walls, and drop varying types of bombs. In a few levels you'll also be tasked with taking down giant boss monsters, which are always satisfying and unique.  [embed]311778:60469:0[/embed] As someone who typically hates stealth sections in games, I actually found the stealth missions fairly enjoyable as they are a bit more action-oriented than games like Hitman. I found myself never having to wait more than a few seconds for an enemy to mill about allowing me to either sneak by or grab them from behind with the decision of instantly killing them or taking them hostage, with any option being equally satisfying.  Politics: this game has them and we have to talk about them. Seeing as you play as a transgender female in a world where men don't exist because... well... the game doesn't really ever explain this, nor does it explain how trans females exists with no males. Are babies born male and forced to be female? How are babies born? I feel like the developers had some kind of agenda with the game's story but never truly make it 100% clear one way or another, which is probably intentional. I imagine that players of every belief will be able to feel like Aerannis story falls into what they think if they wanted.  For instance, one section has you enter a part of the city known as TERF Turf, where radical feminists are in control and rally against "snowflakes" as they call them, a shortened version of the pejorative "special snowflakes" which is often used to slur transgender people. TERF is an acronym for "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists" by the way, so it makes sense that the sign outside their part of town says "you must be this cis to enter" with a picture of a tampon. The game treats TERFs as the main villains even going as far as referring to them as Nazis, though without directly saying the word. So many people will take this as meaning "excluding trans people is bad" while others will surely interrupt it as "all feminists are bad," a distinction that is never directly made. My biggest gripe with the game is it never really says anything. Sure it talks about feminism, transgender people, and diversity, but what is the message it is trying to convey? In the end the whole thing kind of feels like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist who finds the most radical outlier of a group and makes an example of them for what a said group must be like, when that isn't necessarily true. I have a hunch the developers' intentions was to try to hide a wolf in sheep's clothing or apply gotcha tactics by having players play as a transgender character while preaching to them about the dangers of feminism -- insert laughter here -- and it really just never works, mostly because the writing is less than great and the message isn't clear. For a game having two endings, neither really had much to say or made sense to the context of the rest of the game. One ending has the main character reveal a secret twist they had been keeping the entire game, which would be fine if their internal dialogue wasn't presented at times, which made the ending feel jarring and disconnected from the rest of the experience. The other ending just goes completely off the rails that had me audibly exclaim "What the fuck!?" Maybe that is part of the beauty of Aerannis -- aside from its crisp pixel art, matching soundtrack and solid gameplay -- is that it is like staring into the abyss of the mind of a conspiracy theorist, or any random internet hive-mind; it might not make much sense, it might be completely off kilter with the real world, and it might be the complete opposite of what I believe, but it was still good for a laugh. Aerannis is a beautiful, diverse metroidvania with solid mechanics mixed in with some tin-foil hat madness, and regardless of your political views you should give it a shot; you might just enjoy it, I know I did. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
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The trouble with games media -- and indeed most news-based media -- is that it's predominantly reactionary. If there is action in the industry, the bloggers and journalists can react. Conversely, without action, there can be no reaction. During SimCity's launch, Electronic Arts and EA Maxis made all sorts of statements and promises -- activities we could react to, in order to keep the story going and add to the pressure being applied to the companies involved.  As soon as EA and Maxis keep their heads down, however, the story largely goes away, almost instantly. After all, most of the information comes directly from the companies, so if they stop giving out, there's nothing to take. A number of outlets can continue to ask for comments from these companies, but with launch period over and a reduced need for promotion, the chances of getting a response start shrinking at a rapid pace. Rock, Paper, Shotgun learned this -- it's attempted to get a comment repeatedly, but to no avail. 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As negative coverage dries up, these tactics begin to succeed, rewriting the narrative to shut out the criticism and portray a story where only positivity exists. People like me, who covered the debacle extensively, get referred to as harmful individuals, out to personally injure the studio for some vindictive agenda. This is the second major problem with covering these kinds of controversial games -- do it enough, and publishers start to paint you as a lunatic.  We saw this recently with Peter Moore, responding preemptively to its "victory" in The Consumerist's Worst Company of America competition. Moore, having already guessed EA would clinch the prize, wrote a blog demonizing EA's critics, suggesting that most people who dislike the company are homophobes angry about Mass Effect's same-sex romance, or irrational maniacs upset over certain athletes appearing on Madden box art. While EA maintains total silence over legitimate complaints -- such as knowingly launching a game that would be broken by design -- Moore pens self-serving fan fiction in which EA's raked over the coals exclusively by bigots and bedlamites.  The real kicker is, if you want to keep these stories alive, if you care about industry bullshit and feel it's too important to simply forget, you have no choice but to reinforce the publisher's narrative and look like a vindictive crackpot. After all, if publishers are staying quiet, if they're ignoring your requests for comments, what can you do? At that point, your options are limited, and mostly involve inventing new articles from whole cloth -- be it a no-news post that simply reminds people a certain problem still exists, or finding some contrived way to pen a "fresh" op-ed on things people already know about. At that point, you end up becoming the very fanatic publishers say you are.  Most writers don't want to do that. They don't want to become some raving demagogue, and I do find it hard to blame them. Some games writers want to just write about the software and blot out the seedy surroundings -- and I get that. Hell, many readers want that, and I understand it completely. In fact, if you cover a topic too many times, most readers will start a backlash, which is another issue that cripples one's ability to keep the pressure on.  A cat may love being petted, but if you do it to the point of over-stimulation, they start to bite the hand that's stroking, and no matter how passionate gamers are about a subject -- they will grow tired of it in time. It's a natural reaction, and one that I can't blame anybody for, especially in an age of information overload, where news moves quickly and no subject can stick around for long.  Once a reader has had his or her fill of a topic, the backlash begins. The shitstorm surrounding SOPA was exciting to most people for a while, but it required a lot of coverage to truly communicate how vile it was, and a lot of coverage -- in the Internet age of aggressive apathy -- is too much coverage. It didn't take long for comments to go from intrigued to lethargic, with calls for Destructoid to "let it go" and "move on" and "just go back to talking about videogames." Be it about online passes, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Electronic Arts or harmful legislation, I've been told to "get over it" more than I can adequately remember. I've gotten told to "get over" almost everything I continue to care about, and I dare say it's a familiar phrase to anybody who's talked about a certain controversial subject for a long enough amount of time. Sadly, that's exactly what publishers bank on. It's just what they're waiting for. All they have to do is batten down the hatches, erect the flame shield, and wait for the community to turn on itself, to split between those who have gotten over it, and those who need to get over it. Eventually, apathy wins, everybody gets over it, and the publisher can hype its next unfinished piece of shit, that the cycle may begin anew.  So what can be done? Nothing, probably. Just keep on keeping on. However, I do hope that those who do "get over" these things, and angrily demand others join them, understand that they're essentially a brick in the publisher's stonewall. Nobody is obligated to be angry and indignant -- I would not be so arrogant as to demand any reader or fellow writer take up arms for a cause they don't believe in, and more than likely don't think matters. However, I do ask for an understanding equal to mine -- an understanding that it's equally arrogant to demand others stop caring about something, just because you don't care. There are many who continue to give a shit about SimCity, Aliens, and all sorts of other nasty industry crap, and they're having a hard enough time keeping the discussion alive with publishers attempting to drown them out and snootily dismiss them as a "vocal minority." And that goes double for the "game journalists" of the industry. Those whose job it is to cover the industry and serve the readers, yet tell other writers to get over it, to stop whining, and to just talk about videogame press releases. Those journalists who call angry gamers "entitled" and dismiss their complaints. Those journalists who join publishers -- often publicly laughing with them -- and sneer at anybody with a criticism. You know who you are. I know who you are. And I know Electronic Arts is not your friend, no matter how much you cuddle up to them.  It should, really, go triple for publishers themselves. It should be said that they'd be best served not looking like decadent aristocrats, smugly dumping on the "vocal minority" and boasting about how much money they've made, as if raking in ill-gotten dubloons is an automatic invalidation of any complaint, rather than a fallacious use of argumentum ad populum. It should be said, but what's the point trying to squeeze blood from that stone? After all, these are the words of a lunatic from the fringe minority, who really should get over it. But won't.
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