26 May 2024
0 10 mins 1 mth

(3 stars)

As a Korean American who’s visited South Korea many times, I’m keenly aware of my culture’s obsession with appearances and looking attractive. It’s an ever-present pressure that’s felt even by Korean men. My elementary school reading wasn’t Dr. Seuss, it was GQ Magazine — because my father felt it was important that I, at the age of 7, learn how men are “expected” to present and act.

In South Korea, “conventional” beauty is an aspiration, an ideal, a destination above all else. Want a good career? It’ll come with good looks. Applying for a job? You might be required to submit a headshot first, a practice that has only recently ended for public jobs. Its vibrant cosmetics industry markets beauty products toward children who aren’t even old enough to read. Advertisements for plastic surgery are everywhere and are not subtle about what’s “ugly.” So now we have Eve, the player character of the latest PlayStation 5 exclusive game being released April 26. She is a woman born from South Korea’s culture and philosophy. Her presentation, slender and shiny, has caused discussion in U.S. games press over objectification and the “male gaze.”

The discourse has been uncomfortable for me to hear, because on one hand, of course Korean standards of beauty are rigid and often absurd. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women took to the streets during “Escape the Corset,” a protest begun in 2018 against social structures that demand women serve “traditional” roles. My friend Elise Hu, who worked at NPR in Korea for four years, wrote a whole book about navigating “the most cosmetically advanced nation on Earth” (as Washington Post critic Becca Rothfeld put it). On the other hand, these are our unique struggles to address, and I’ve despised seeing a project from people who look and sound 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 (which they apologized for later) said “Stellar Blade” looked like it was made by people who never met a woman, never mind that the studio is staffed with many women.

Game director Kim Hyung-tae has paid attention to the debates, 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 little restrictions and no constraints.”

“The game is a virtual reality, and I believe we need to have opportunities to see things not so realistic in the virtual space,” Kim said via an interpreter. “We’re already familiar with reality, we live in it. So when you play a game, I want to be able to see something that’s different from what I experience. There are many things more realistic, and that should also be respected. And I feel games like ‘Stellar Blade’ should exist.”

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

“By taking this game to players, there is an opportunity for me to present to the world how Korean beauty and Asian beauty can be different, how Asians differ from each other,” Kim said, referring to a global games industry mostly dominated by Japan and the United States.

The discourse has especially been frustrating because “Stellar Blade” is a fantastic, if flawed, first attempt by the studio to develop a big-budget single-player action game. Kim is unusually direct about citing his inspiration, “Nier: Automata,” often described by critics, including myself, as one of the masterpieces of the medium. Kim isn’t out to make a masterpiece, necessarily; he’s simply having fun wearing his influences on his sleeve.

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

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

The moment-to-moment writing doesn’t help. “Classic Eve,” quips Lily, a person Eve only just met. The dialogue implies more history and personality than what’s actually shown. Conversations feel unnatural and stilted. Eve is the star of the show, and shows a worrying lack of personality.

But more playtime reveals this void is part of her character arc. Eve is bland by design, an obvious metaphor for the creation myth who gains personhood through the forbidden fruit of knowledge. In fact, this concept is woven directly into the narrative design, as one of the game’s multiple endings depends on the amount of knowledge Eve gains through reading books and interacting with other humans. Like the story, it’s simple stuff, but effective and clear.

The game stumbles when it tries to be too many other types of games at once, leaving peripheral elements undercooked. It’s littered with mind-numbing, boring puzzles that have appeared in numerous other video games in the last several decades: bouncing laser lights off mirrors, aggravating block-sliding segments and even a “Pipe Dream” minigame that does nothing with the formula. This game would’ve been better served as a leaner experience without distracting ideas lifted wholesale from every other game.

Thankfully “Stellar Blade” keeps things interesting by bouncing between a linear, level-based structure to open-ended regions complete with side quests, hidden stories and even a city hub. Boring creature designs of the opening hours (your typical goop and tentacles) make way for far more interesting fusions of tech and organic life. Scatter these across a desert landscape and suddenly “Stellar Blade” is moving like a Final Fantasy game, ethereal and majestic.

The third and final act manages to send the game off with a flurry of memorable, challenging and engaging battles, every one a winner with interesting moves, compelling visual design and finally introduces some true narrative stakes. (A story mode makes things noticeably easier for those not inclined to sweat it out in battles.) As predictable as this story is, it ends with a familiar sense of empowerment — a strong enough conclusion I felt compelled to start the 20-hour experience again.

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

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

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