Steven Universe: Attack the Light (SU:AtL) was an odd game for me to review. The question wasn’t really ever about whether or not the game was good or worth the money it cost. It wasn’t something so trivial as that. In fact, it wasn’t until I sorta found the answer that I knew the question I had been asking. From the onset, all I knew was that reviewing it felt weird. And I’m not the type of person that merely feels; I have to understand why I feel the way I do.
It took awhile to figure out what made this game weird for me to review. At first, I thought it might be that it was a mobile game, but I reviewed Fire Emblem Heroes maybe a month earlier with no such feeling. Similarly, I am very attached to the Fire Emblem brand the same way I have a great affinity for the Steven Universe brand. But I didn’t have a problem seeing the flaws in either of these games nor do I feel that I see them through rose tinted glasses.
And then it sort of hit me, SU:AtL is like Child of Light in that it is sort of a lite version of old school JRPGs. But while Child of Light was still in the 20-30 hour range SU:AtL was exceptionally shorter at ~10 hours, which is not bad. But it’s not the length that’s the problem; if you can even call it a problem. It is about all the components that end up being less complex in an effort to make an appropriately scaled game. For instance, certain skills and abilities are not well balanced, something that would never fly in a larger release by the likes of Blizzard or Bioware. The stories for these games are shorter than their ancestral counterparts which had upwards of 60 hours to tell their story resulting in seemingly shallower stories. On the flipside, the stories are also much leaner and have much less fluff than old JRPGs, which frequently– but not always– suffered from extensive amounts of padded content. (Oh how I long for the days of yore when it took 6 hours to get to the ‘good part’. ~sarcasm~)
I think one of the reasons it feels weird reviewing the game arises in the following dilemma. The story was not as expansive as I would have liked. But is it fair to ask the game to have this in depth story when its budget and indeed its intended scope was never meant to be anything that large? Is it fair to ask it to be something it is not, could not be, and didn’t even want to be?
I think the reason I did not have this problem with Fire Emblem Heroes is that I came into the experience with the expectation that this is in fact supposed to be a stripped down version of Fire Emblem. That is part of the design goal. A lot of indie/downloadable games, which are also on a small scale usually lean towards innovative, unique experiences– especially the ones that are most successful– rather than merely creating smaller versions of existing experiences. Compare that to SU:AtL, which is basically a shorter Paper Mario RPG (or so I am told).
So you are left choosing between two schools of thought. You have the absolutist that says, well this is not as in depth or as expansive as I want it to be. The mechanics aren’t on par with some of its larger brethren and I’m not going to play it. Or you have the person that views it within its context. A game that had a low budget, made by a small team, and set at a small price point that was fun. Maybe the larger elements are missing but all of the components work together well. It’s like the difference between the mechanical efficiency of a chain store with their low prices and large selection, or the mom-n-pop shop that just exudes more personality even if they are objectively lacking in certain areas.
As a reviewer, I feel that you have to take the latter route. That’s not to say that you prefer indies, but that you don’t punish them for not being AAA, or vice versa. Games are not created within the same context as one another and their developers attempt to create very different experiences from one another. It would not be fair to call SU:AtL bad because it is not Mass Effect Andromeda, a game that it never wanted to be anyway. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. At the same time, context isn’t perfect. Some games are made by large teams on big budgets and are on par with similar games that only cost ⅓ the price to make. But the more expensive game isn’t worse just because it had more time or money to get to the same end result. In that situation, the proper context would not be budgetary constraints but the similarity of the two titles. They are much more comparable, like red and green apples.
So I think I found my question: what lens should I, or we, view games through critically? I don’t really know what the perfect answer is. I know the absolutist viewpoint is pretty dumb. Admittedly, I don’t really have to fully understand or commit to some school of thought; it’s enough to just look at the game as a whole. I can play it and instinctively or logically identify problems as they arise. However, understanding how I– and we as a community– analyze, breakdown, and discuss games in a critical manner feels important to me. I value understanding things. Understanding games, myself, and how I think is something I do a lot; the latter of these I find very valuable to do as a person. In this situation, my inner turmoil is pertinent to what I love to do and talk about, so I thought I’d share. For now, I just have to be content not fully understanding the lens I use to view games. And I’m okay with that. Part of the fun is the journey there…