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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

More often than not, video game reviews miss the mark

Reviews for recent games on aggregator site Metacritic.
Reviews for recent games on aggregator site Metacritic.

The first step to buying any product, cooking any recipe or watching any movie is checking the reviews, as unreliable as they may be. More often than not, online reviews are utterly subjective and unreliable, varying based on the tastes of reviewers. 

In the case of movies, critics often overly scrutinize certain plot points the average watcher would overlook. In the video game world, it seems to be the exact opposite case: Critics approach every series from a newcomer’s perspective — an incomplete perspective that often doesn’t fit the target audience of the series.

Take, for instance, reviews of the Fire Emblem series. The previous entry that released in 2019, “Fire Emblem: Three Houses,” marked a departure from strategy focus to story-telling and a life simulation aspect that earned it (too) many comparisons to Persona, arguably the most mainstream Japanese Role Playing Game (JPRG) series. In contrast, Fire Emblem Engage, which was released in January, refocuses on strategy and lets the story take a backseat in a sharp swerve. While some reviews praise the newest installment for its strategic depth in comparison to Three Houses, others bemoan it. 

“I don’t play Fire Emblem games for the combat,” wrote Rami Tabari for Laptop Mag. “It’s always been a hurdle to get over to the fun roleplaying moments with my favorite characters.”

Perhaps this review, which also exclaims the author’s love for the romance side of Fire Emblem and a hope for polyamory in the game, would be useful for visual novel players looking into the game, but it takes an overly dismissive stance on strategy, a core aspect of the game.

Reviews being inherently subjective isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what is a negative is the dearth of reviewers focusing on certain aspects of the game (strategy and replayability in the case of Fire Emblem). 

Fire Emblem Three Houses is praised for its slice-of-life monastery segments. The game is set at a monastery where the player plays as a professor, juggling time between teaching students, bonding with them and training themselves. It also features the choice between following one of three factions, each having a different story and being on a different side in a continent-wide war. 

Naturally, it would be difficult for a reviewer to play through every faction, but for players who do, the poor, shallow implementation of the monastery becomes much more tedious when the novelty wears off. Reviewers were essentially playing a different game with every house and criticizing different stories, with only the core gameplay remaining the same.

Another issue is the lack of consistency between rating numbers, which are always capricious and follow arbitrary standards — even within reviews for a single game. One reviewer rated Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the most recent entries to the Pokémon series, a full 100/100 score on Metacritic, even while acknowledging its technical issues, while another marked the game a 70/100 solely based on its technical issues but praised every other aspect of the game.

Aside from that, reviewers are mostly unable to appreciate the full breadth of challenges in the various series. Challenging gameplay may not be a criteria for everyone to enjoy the series, but it is undeniably a large part of the series and would be useful if mentioned in a review. 

There are generally three modes for each game — Normal, Hard, and Lunatic (or Maddening) — but the harder difficulties generally go unreviewed, leaving advanced players to stumble upon either an overly difficult mess or an intricately crafted puzzle. The nuances of why some Fire Emblem games “feel” bad to play are also lost — no reviews mention why certain maps are fun (perhaps because it incentivizes difficult choices or requires quick adjustments), aside from surface level details.

I was drawn into the Fire Emblem series first and foremost through the character design and plot, not for the strategy aspect. However, the lack of in-depth reviews and deep-dives into the “whys” of entertainment are a conspicuous gap on most review sites, and can only really be addressed by sampling the opinions from other sources — advance review copies shouldn’t go out just to these reviewers working at video game and tech review companies like IGN or Polygon, but also to community figureheads (like YouTubers) who can offer important perspectives into a game’s quality.

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