Malik  (10/7/04)

Why Do Reviews Go Bad?

For those who are up to date on my daily postings, you might had noticed that I went a little insane on Wednesday night (that being 10/6/04) over a review that I saw at (that I first found from a posting at Penny-Arcade) for Shadow Hearts 2 (yes, I know it's Shadow Hearts: Covenant, but I'm going to opt for the SH2 abbreviation, so I'm keeping the confusion down...I'm trying to undo the confusion that bad reviewers have already created). This got me to thinking about the nature of game reviews and about the state, in particular, of RPG reviews. For those who don't follow RPG reviews all that much, it's been a long standing problem that these reviews are devoid of actual content and are usually rather shoddy imitations of complete reviews. 

The problem comes down to the nature of the reviewer. To be precise, there tends to be three types of game reviewers (this applies to all genres), and this is where the true issues are formed. Some people would argue that I'm being picky, but when you look at a review for a platformer, a review for a sports titles, a review for a puzzle game, and a review for an RPG, there is one thing that will usually be seen; the reviews are almost always complete and somewhat unbiased, with the exception of the RPG review. That's because this review will only tend to talk about either the lack of inspiration found in the game design (you'll never see that said about...let's say...a Madden title, despite how the game play is static year after year in all sports titles) and how the game is actually of rip off of (it's almost always) FFX, or you will see something said along the lines of how innovative a certain feature is and then how the rest of the game is a rip off of FFX. The reason is those three reviewer types I was about to get into; 


First up is the uber-geek reviewer (or the 1337-geek). I'll start here since it's the least bitchy subject for me in terms of reviewers...I especially can say that since this is the category that I fall into as a reviewer. The uber-geek is the type of person who is so familiar with almost every genre and generation of gaming that they can have their facts straight on things. For example, when a reviewer might say that SH2 is a rip off of FFX, the uber-geek can see that what is actually meant would be along these lines; the game uses realistically designed visuals that are heavily based on CG cut-scenes that try to blend the standard game play and the cinematic scenes together, the battles are more along the lines of a turn based RPG, there are dungeons with strong puzzle elements, and that the game uses a standard set of game menus. However, it is not said that FFX is not the first game to use all of these features, or to use them all together. In fact, FF7 would be the first to put all of these together (and most RPGs were called FF7 rip offs until FFX came out as the more mainstream of RPGs). However, even FF7 was not the first to have any of these (with the exception of the visual style). For turn based battles, we could look back to a day when FF games were not even around. I can think of numerous old PC titles that used turn based combat, and then with console games, I know Phantasy Star did it before Square did. Also, the menu system was found long before FF games came about in many of the same ways. I won't even go into where some of these elements first came into being since it's safer to just say that turn based combat and user-friendly menus have been staples in the RPG world since the beginning of RPGs becoming entertaining and visual and not just text based games (like I said...Uber-geeks knew the games and the generations). 

Also, the puzzle based dungeons have been around as long as games like Zelda have shown us that puzzles are fun in dungeons. From that time, it was seen that the standard dungeons of old school console RPGs like FF, PS, and Dragon Warrior could stand with something new to help bring about a greater sense of involvement and lower the tedium of just blindly navigating a pointless tunnel in search of treasure and plot progression. This is when the adventure game puzzle element was able to be introduced as the perfect solution in RPG dungeons. Thus game like Lufia 2 (not the first to use puzzles in a dungeon, but definitely one of the all-time best) came about with highly RPG based exploration and combat and plot, but a twisted form of dungeon-crawling that involved pulling some attention from the gamer to make them work through the puzzles. 

Also, another important fact that uber-geeks can tell you is that an RPG is usually rated in all the wrong ways. Typically, a review will talk in great depth about the quality of the visuals, the orchestral quality of the audio, the superb voice acting, and the action packed combat engine being the most important elements of a quality RPG. However, the real meaning behind an RPG is the plot and how you uncover the plot. This also, I should add, includes character development. For example, if FFX was really the end-all be-all of RPGs that the non-uber-geeks say that it is, then the plot would have to be greatly reworked. In FFX, the characters don't really develop any (they might reveal why someone is depressed, but the character will never actually grow). Plus, the basic plot of FFX is a pretty sketchy one that never gets deep enough to be anything more than shallow and forced. In fact, despite how many gamers will be pissed at hearing this, FF games have never been the 1337 plot masters that they are heralded for. FF games have always represented the most mainstream of RPGs, but not necessarily the best; it's like how NFL Street is a football game that anyone can get into, but it's definitely not the best example that you would see from either ESPN or Madden, which don't appeal to the less sports-initiated of gamers. In fact, the original purpose of RPGs was not to give a high end experience (the ancestral RPGs didn't even have anything more than a text interface) full of vivid sounds and realistic visuals. The original RPGs were simplistic from a technological standpoint, but they gave a quality plot that could not be found in another style of gaming. So, in a nut-shell, it's the plot that is supposed to make or break an RPG. 

So, with all of this being said, it's easy to tell an uber-geek reviewer from the's also easy to see how rare they are. Instead of opting for the rather simplistic and idiotic response of "this game is just like FFX", they will give you the real information about the game with real details. Plus, the most important quality of the game (that plot thing) will be discussed in more than a brief after-thought. 

The Dedicated Geek 

So, next up in the type of reviewers would be the dedicated geeks. These would be the type of gamer that knows one genre like an uber-geek would, but in the end, their knowledge extends little beyond this genre (or it could also be a specific generation). These reviewers are, in my opinions, some of the best and some of the worst of reviewers, depending on what they are experts in and what they are currently reviewing. 

For example, if the reviewer is an expert on Sports titles, then these people act much like an uber-geek in reviewing sports games. They will be able to tell you the ins and outs of the game in question with full clarity and very few generalizations. Better example; if they are RPG dedicated, they will be able to tell you much more beyond how a game is a rip off of FFX (which is how most people review RPGs anyways). The only problem comes when they are reviewing something out of their specialization. 

Once these reviewers are discussing a game that's not in their vast knowledge, they will revert to the crap-tacular tactics of a casual gamer (that would be the third's coming...and yes, they are not even true geeks). The most obvious of these tactics would be the generalization of a game with the most mainstream of it's genre. This is done to simply save time in researching what the game is actually about. They will also use a good deal of half-truths, which usually are added to the generalizations. Also, the worst tactic that they will employ is the "didn't play it, but will act like they did" tactic. This one entails not playing much of a game beyond the first days worth of playing (about 3-5 hours, but can be as little as 1 hours), but then reviewing the entire game based on this limited introduction. This can be of little consequence on many genres, like puzzle games, platformers, basic adventure titles, and extreme sports games. However, when it comes to deeper games like professional sports titles (the types that include seasonal play, recruitment of players, and injuries...this also includes college sports games, despite the" professional"...I use that word to mean the deepness of the game, and not the basis in reality), some adventure titles, and, most importantly, RPGs. These games progress and evolve greatly in the first dozen hours, and a rashly obtained conclusion about said game could completely skew how you see it when compared to how the game is in actuality. 

A main reason that these people will rush a game is so they will actually have more time for their dedicated style of gaming. That's how dedicated they are...however, while it makes them, at times, better than the uber-geeks for some genres, it will only make them fail in the other fields. 

Casual Gamer 

So, last of all is the casual gamer. With an uber-geek we have someone who is dedicated to everything, and thus, is ready to face just about any challenge that lays in front of them. Then there was the dedicated geek, who is a lot like the uber-geek in one genre/generation/whatever, but then they are completely out of their element in the other genres. Well, the casual gamer is pretty much like the dedicated geek, but without any dedication specialty. In other words, they are, at least when in the presence of other geeks, out of the element in everything. These are what the vast majority of reviewers fall into. However, these is a pretty good reason for this; game reviewing, on a professional level, is simply a minor step between working in the mail room and advancing to being an editor or reporter. Most of the casual gamers are simply trying to work their way up from the bottom in their chosen field; journalism. It's a lot like how those human interest reporters on TV news look like they want to kill themselves because they are not interested in human interest reporting; however, they know that they must do that type of work if they ever plan to move up to being an anchorman or some other form of reporter than is not so degrading. So, deep down, the casual gamer who reviews games, is, more times than not, just using the reviewer job as a stepping stone in their career. Unfortunately, like for those of us (not me, but there are some who feel this way) who like human interest stories and must usually have our news given by an unfeeling ass, those of us who want good review will usually be bitched by the half-assed casual gamers.

The main things that are incorrectly handled by either the casual gamer or the uninterested dedicated geek usually fall in the realm of how games are presented. It's not that they don't try to tell the truth, but they don't put much effort into the attempt. The most obvious of these instances is found with over-generalization. For example, that review of SH2 that is on keeps jumping to what games (and one in particular) that SH2 is imitating. Mainly, the reviewer keeps pounding in the point that SH2 is a clone of FFX (which is not true...but that is something to be discussed in a review, and not in a feature...but I can summarize...). However, besides saying that the visual style is almost the same (of which, visual styles in RPGs can only go, in the modern age, in a couple directions; they can be animated in appearance or they can try to look realistic), the battles are almost the same, the puzzles in dungeons are almost the same. Last time I checked, all of these features that are "direct rip offs of FFX" are basically evolved versions of what was seen in Shadow Hearts (the original), which came out, both in the US and IN JAPAN, a week or more before FFX. So, if SH2 is a direct escalation of the qualities that were present in SH, and if "SH2 is a rip off of FFX", would that mean that SH ripped off a game that wasn't out when it was being developed? A game that came out AFTER the original SH? I don' think that's possible. 

So, my point is that the casual gamer and the uninterested dedicated geek both suffer, usually, from the problem of not only jumping to conclusions without doing their research, but they also will skip on giving a full review if those magical words are available; "It's just like ". It's a sign of laziness and sloppiness that is easy enough to eliminate. 


So, if it's so easy, in my eyes, on how to solve this issue, then why isn't it done? Well, the solution comes along the lines of biting the bullet and doing something that you don't want to do. You see, the problem is not actually the reviewers, in terms of what classification they fit into, but rather their work ethic. A major part of the modern work ethic is along the lines of, "if I don't like it, then rush through it and get onto something better". This applies strongly on game reviews. For example, I didn't want to review Star Ocean 3 for no reason greater than the fact that SO3 was way too intolerable to play, let alone write a review for. The sad fact, in terms of review writers, for professional or semi-professional sources, is that they usually don't have much of a choice on what to write about and when to get it published. They are given an assignment, and then they must either finish it or face disciplinary actions (in other words, they get their asses booted out the door). This means that, unless they are not burnt out by the grim prospect of the American work life, more times than not, a person will attempt to bullshit their way through their work with such generalizations, rather than digging up some facts and putting in the extra effort of detailing the experience they are reviewing. 

I, on the other hand, have the luxury of not only being a reporter/reviewer; I'm the editor in chief, the web master, the business contact, the...well, I'm everything when it comes to my role of being a reviewer (not that I'm the only reviewer or that I'm an ass when it comes to submitting work for publication here...I'm just saying that I'm a cool boss to work for; especially when I'm the one dealing with the boss), and thus I can turn down whatever assignment I want and move on to the next one. 

So, the actual solution for all of this is for those reviewers who see reviewing games as a stepping stone to the next place in their careers need to put in the extra effort. What these people say and do can effect the lives of those who decide to put trust in the reviewer's opinion. They need to put some effort into detailing the experience, and they need to put in the effort to realize the facts about what they are reviewing. If they are reviewing an RPG, then they need to realize that the plot is a key element. It is far more important than the game play, the visuals, or the audio. These other factors are only important in keeping the final product entertaining (real bad visuals can make a game hard to play, but really good visuals that go beyond what is needed do not enhance a bad story). They also need to look up some facts, like how SH2 is a natural evolution from SH, which came out prior to FFX. So, if they say SH2 rips off FFX, then they need to back this up, or do that research and see that it's simply not true. 

Another thing that needs to be realized is that there is a game and genre for everyone, and we do not all have to enjoy the same games. This is often forgotten. Most hardcore RPG geeks will often times think about a game that is not FFX when you say "good RPG" (I think of SH series, Xenogears/Xenosaga series, Disgaea, La Pucelle, Breath of Fire series, Phantasy Star series, Chrono Trigger, early 8/16 bit FF games, Shining series, FF9, FF7...well, I think of a lot of other RPGs before FFX begins to enter my mind). Also, most people who are fanboys of FFX are not that dedicated to RPGs as they will usually claim to be. Let's face it; FFX and FF7 are both very trendy and mainstream for RPGs, which is a more underground or cult genre. So, if you're doing a review for such an underground genre, don't aim your reviews for the people who are less likely to play said game (a non-Square Enix RPG is less likely to be played by a FFX fan than by a Shadow Hearts fan, for example). If all you can say about a new game is how much it's like the most mainstream of that genre, then you're better off just shutting up and not sounding like a close-minded ass. 

Most importantly, if a review is being prepared for an independent game (one not in a direct progression from another title...FF9 to FFX would be independent, while Xenosaga Epi. 1 to Xenosaga 2 would not be since it's a direct sequel of the plot of the original), always stick to the facts about only the game in question...not your personal bias in what game it's ripping off. At the very core of things, RPGs are made, primarily, to emphasize plot and thus the limitations of game play, visuals, and audio are rather limited. With visual and audio elements, it can either be cartoonish or realistic, and with game play it can either be turn based or action based. So, it matters not if you feel that a game is ripping off another game, when what does matter is the actual game in question and how well it comes across. It's like with the SH2 review at; the reviewer is constantly talking about how it ripped off FFX and how it's full of uninspired elements, but at the end of the review, Mr. Parish seems (no score that I saw) to say that SH2 is a good game. Maybe I missed something, but since SH2 was so rarely being directly described, I couldn't honestly get out of the review why SH2 was a good game; plus, if I hated FFX, then I would've thought that SH2 would suck from that review since it sounds like a bastardized version of FFX. However, in real life I hate FFX with a passion for how empty the plot and characters are but I love SH and SH2. 

So, all I'm saying, deep down, is that reviewing games should be taken with a little more pride and dignity. After all, it's like with how professional sports players are being paid to play a freakin' game for a living that kids do for fun...a game review, however, plays a game and then writes about it for a living...something that many people do for the fun of it (I know I do). The least you can do is show that you are grateful for a chance to live out a dream job. I'm not saying that everyone who writes a short-sighted review is paid to do so, but at least for the ones who are paid to write review; enjoy it and show some dignity because many people would kill to be in your shoes (and believe me, there are a lot of shittier jobs than writing game reviews...a lot...). As for those who don't get paid but still like to write reviews; if you can't put your full effort into it, then move on to something else (it's not like you'll be missing that lack of a paycheck).