RETRO REVIEWS: Bioshock Infinite
The downtime caused by this quarantine has offered me some opportune time to get back in touch with my gaming roots. The last console I owned was a Playstation 2 which should give you an idea of what generation of video games I peaked on. Everything that came after, I missed out on. So as I relive the carefree gaming days of my youth, I thought it’d be a fun idea to review some of the games I missed out on.
It is a stormy night and you’re the sole passenger in a rowboat, escorted by two bickering Brits towards a lighthouse. You arrive at the door and see a bloodied note warning you of the task ahead, “Save the girl and wipe away your debt.” You enter the lighthouse and realize it is empty, save for you, a bloodied corpse, and a radio faintly broadcasting vaudevillian music. Each creaking step you take fills the lighthouse with dread. You make your way to the top where a locked door awaits you. Upon opening it, the grey sky surrounding you turns red, and from the heavens erupts deafening horns. A chair beyond the door calls for you. You sit down and the moving contraptions around you make it apparent that the lighthouse is a missile silo. All of a sudden, you are skyrocketed through the heavens. None of it makes sense until you reach the wild blue yonder where you see magnificent cities floating above the clouds. There’s that moment of clarity once the pod you’re strapped onto slowly lands on this floating city. It’s the first of many moments of clarity in the game where all the craziness you witness starts to make sense.
You play as Booker DeWitt, a hired gun tasked to rescue a woman named Elizabeth from the ultra-religious dystopian city of Columbia. Standing between you and Elizabeth are two warring political factions, a delusional prophet, a flying bird robot, and a series of tears through the space-time continuum that permeate the reality you inhabit. It’s a pulpy trek through this steampunk metropolis as you fight the establishment and enemies of the state alike with wacky guns and potions that give you superhuman abilities.
I’ve never been so enamored with a video game’s aesthetic way like the Bioshock franchise’s. Steampunk wasn’t a word that existed in my own vocabulary until I knew this franchise existed. The visual palette, aesthetic, and art direction of the game is simply a thing that draws you in. Even as I was phasing out of my gaming days in the late noughties, just seeing the first game’s poster and the way its underwater steampunk world was presented made me want to at least experience that. With Bioshock Infinite, I was finally able to experience what it’s like to briefly exist in a world as rich and beautiful as Bioshock’s.
The floating city of Columbia is a sight to behold. Nevermind the fact that character models resemble one another and you run into the same person every 20 steps. The city lives and breathes as you stroll through its alleys and plazas. I spent the first couple of hours of the game just simply observing every remotely interesting item I could find – a newspaper on some countertop, a print ad for magical potions, a statue of some white dude, ultra-religious paraphernalia, a mechanized human being displayed at a freak show among many others. The way the game uses the social upheaval that gripped America at the turn of the 20th century to underscore the pulpiness of the art direction and create something that’s out of this world yet wildly familiar is amazing. This world is layered to the core, with easter eggs in every corner that archive moments that led to the creation of Columbia and why the world is the way it is. There’s something in every nook and cranny of this game that’ll pique one’s curiosity which makes whatever limited exploration options you have worthwhile, to say the least.
I’ll admit that I was sort of taken aback at how the enemies were mostly composed of confederate soldiers and rebels. Part of me was expecting to fight creatures spawned from the mind of Guillermo del Toro. However, in the few instances that you get to fight the odd creature, they are a treat to against. You have these KKK sorcerers carrying coffins that are made up of crows and they teleport everywhere. You have the Handyman, disabled people that are forcibly put in mechanized bodies that go haywire – a huge pain in the ass to fight. By far the scariest is the Boy of Silence, who serve as watchmen in the asylum portion of the game. They let out a blood-curdling scream the minute they spot you and sic a bunch of powerful insane asylum patients on you. I’ve never been more terrified to sneak through a corridor since I played Alien: Isolation a couple of years ago.
Gameplay-wise, Bioshock Infinite very rustic. It’s a no-frills, uber-simple shooter that barely takes any steps to reinvent the wheel. You shoot, reload, and pick up ammo from corpses. Rinse-repeat. The Vigors and the tears, however, keep things interesting. The aforementioned magical potions keep the battlefield wildly interesting as it offers you a slew of magical traps and abilities. There’s one that allows you to summon a murder of crows to attack the enemy. A personal favorite is the one that allows you to possess grunts and mechanized enemies and have them fight for you. Again, it doesn’t change the game but it’s a nice addition to keep things interesting.
Arguably, the game’s biggest weakness is its linearity. With a world this expansive and rich, the lack of exploration possibilities and a progression system feels somewhat disappointing. The game literally tells you to follow a line as you navigate through the various districts of Columbia. You can take the occasional turn and peek through the door in that corner and score these upgrades called Infusions but that’s pretty much it. There are the occasional gun and Vigor upgrades but because the game is so linear, you aren’t given the opportunity to fully explore the selection of weapons the game throws at you. I get that the open-world mechanic was never in the franchise’s DNA but man, given the chance to fully explore the world they crafted, to do sidequests, and to upgrade your skills extensively, I’d lose myself in this game entirely. When all is said and done, this complaint is a testament to how just beautifully the world is envisioned and crafted.
Bioshock Infinite, in many ways, is one big theme park ride. It’s a chaotic spectacle that delivers the thrills. Sometimes a literal roller coaster ride across the sky. Your senses assaulted by a cacophonous barrage of sounds and visuals that defy your understanding of reality. But what makes the game transcend from being merely just a spectacle is the story. It’s a Kubrickian odyssey about redemption and fate. A profound journey to undo past wrongs and confront the destinies decided by the cosmos. And that ending. That goddamn ending. Part of me wishes I played Bioshock Infinite around the time it came out just so I’d partake in the collective freakout everyone must have had with the game’s ending. The last 15 minutes of the game will go down as one of the craziest endings I’ve come across in any narrative. To be in the center of this story, to experience it from the eyes and emotions of Booker DeWitt, is something that will probably stick with me for a while. Experience this game now, if you’ve haven’t.