Review | Both superficial and satisfying, ‘Stellar Blade’ is a showcase of Korean beauty – The Washington Post

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Review |  Both superficial and satisfying, ‘Stellar Blade’ is a showcase of Korean beauty – The Washington Post

(3 stars)

As a Korean American who has visited South Korea several times, I am acutely aware of my culture’s obsession with appearances and attractiveness. It’s a pervasive pressure that is felt even by Korean men. My reading material in elementary school wasn’t Dr. Seuss, but GQ Magazine – because my father thought it was important for me to learn, at age 7, how men are “supposed” to behave. present and act.

In South Korea, “conventional” beauty is above all an aspiration, an ideal, a destination. Do you want a good career? This will come with a nice appearance. To apply for a job? You may first be required to submit a headshot, a practice that only recently ended for government jobs. Its vibrant cosmetics industry markets beauty products to children who are not even old enough to read. Advertisements for plastic surgery are everywhere and aren’t subtle about what’s “ugly.” Now we have Eve, the character from the latest PlayStation 5 exclusive game, released on April 26. She is a woman born from South Korean culture and philosophy. His presentation, sleek and brilliant, sparked discussions in the US gaming press about objectification and the “male gaze”.

This speech was uncomfortable for me to hear, because on the one hand, Korean beauty standards are of course rigid and often absurd. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women took to the streets in “Escape the Corset,” a protest launched in 2018 against social structures that require women to fulfill “traditional” roles. My friend Elise Hu, who worked for four years at NPR in Korea, wrote an entire book about navigating “the most aesthetically advanced country on Earth” (as Washington Post critic Becca Rothfeld put it) . On the other hand, these are our unique struggles to resolve, and I hated seeing a project of people who look and talk like my family used as a cudgel in a culture war that has nothing to do with this game. It’s awful to see Eve used as an argument against diversity, and it was disturbing when an IGN France article (for which they later apologized) said that “Stellar Blade” looked like it was made by people who had never met a woman, not to mention that the studio is made up of many women.

The game’s director, Kim Hyung-tae, has been paying attention to the proceedings and tells me he’s not surprised, especially since modern video games focus on realistic depictions of people. But Eve is meant to be a character whose expression of beauty is “with few restrictions and without constraints.”

“The game is virtual reality and I think we need to have the ability to see less realistic things in virtual space,” Kim said through an interpreter. “We already know reality, we live it. So when playing a game, I want to be able to see something different than what I’m experiencing. There are many things more realistic, and this too must be respected. And I think games like “Stellar Blade” should exist.

I think the discourse is missing that it is exceptionally rare in the global video game market to see a video game with a Korean woman as the protagonist. Kim confirms to me that he defines Eve as a Korean woman, designed by Koreans, modeled on a Korean woman, voiced by a Korean woman and in a game made in Korea supported by a magnificent soundtrack (by master composer Keiichi Okabe of “Nier”) with Korean lyrics. It’s Korean-coded in every sense that phrase could mean, and Kim is well aware that it represents only a singular, narrow definition of beauty.

“By bringing this game to players, I have the opportunity to show the world how Korean beauty and Asian beauty can be different, how Asians differ from each other,” Kim said, referring to a global industry of the game mainly dominated by Japan. and the United States.

The talk was particularly frustrating because “Stellar Blade” is the studio’s fantastic, if flawed, first attempt at developing a big-budget single-player action game. Kim is unusually blunt when citing his inspiration, “Nier: Automata,” often described by critics, including myself, as one of the medium’s masterpieces. Kim isn’t necessarily here to create a masterpiece; he simply enjoys wearing his influences on his sleeve.

“Of course there is pressure, but it has also been a very fun journey for me to create a game similar to “Nier”. As a fan, it was an enjoyable experience,” Kim said.

The game’s opening will likely confirm the skeptics’ assumptions, as will mine. For hours, it feels like a tasteless, me-too copy of “Nier: Automata,” taking only the most superficial interpretations of its characters and story. Earth is invaded by monstrous beings and Mother Sphere sends an army of female warriors, including Eve, to kill the main monster. A catastrophic landing ends with Eve as the sole survivor, and she is helped by a stranger named Adam to complete her mission. Any seasoned sci-fi reader will predict the plot beats of this game from hours away.

Instant writing doesn’t help. “Classic Eve,” jokes Lily, someone Eve just met. The dialogue implies more story and personality than is actually shown. Conversations seem unnatural and stilted. Eve is the star of the series and displays a worrying lack of personality.

But more playtime reveals that this void is part of his character arc. Eve is bland by design, an obvious metaphor for the creation myth that gains personality through the forbidden fruit of knowledge. In fact, this concept is directly integrated into the narrative design, as one of the game’s multiple endings depends on how much knowledge Eve gains from reading books and interacting with other humans. Just like the story, it is simple, but effective and clear.

The game stumbles when it tries to be too many other types of games at once, leaving the peripheral elements undercooked. It’s littered with mind-numbingly annoying puzzles that have appeared in many other video games over the past few decades: laser lights bouncing off mirrors, aggravating sliding block segments, and even a “Pipe Dream” minigame that doesn’t does nothing with the formula. This game would have been better served as a simpler experience without distracting ideas taken wholesale from every other game.

Fortunately, “Stellar Blade” keeps things interesting by bouncing between a linear, level-based structure and open regions with side quests, hidden stories, and even an urban center. The boring creature designs of opening hours (your typical goop and tentacles) give way to much more interesting fusions of technology and organic life. Scatter them across a desert landscape and suddenly “Stellar Blade” moves like a Final Fantasy game, ethereal and majestic.

The third and final act manages to kick off the game with a series of memorable, challenging and engaging battles, each one a winner with interesting moves, compelling visual design and finally introduces some real narrative stakes. (A story mode makes things noticeably easier for those not inclined to sweat in battles.) As predictable as this story is, it ends with a familiar feeling of empowerment—a conclusion strong enough for me to feels compelled to begin the 8 p.m. experiment. Again.

The combat design is the winning feature of this game, addictive, crunchy and unique despite the visual similarities to games like “Bayonetta”, another game featuring shapely female fighters. Eve’s combat may seem slow compared to this game, but I would describe it more as heavy. Later, Eve benefits from counterattacks that propel her behind or away from the battle, creating new attack opportunities. These reactions, along with heavy enemy reactions, help the game’s combat stand out from “Bayonetta” and that game’s other source of inspiration, “Dark Souls.”

“Stellar Blade” doesn’t make the strongest first impression, but it leaves a lasting one. What’s more important is that he is able to form his own identity in the end, much like Eve. Over the years, there have been critical discussions about how cyberpunk fiction is rooted in xenophobic fears and the genre’s appropriation of Asian culture. Now here comes “Stellar Blade,” an authentic slice of Korean cyberpunk, like Eve, beautiful in its own absurd way.

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