For the fifth year in a row, I’m writing a few sentences about every game I played this year. Last year I experimented with not restricting myself to a single sentence, and found it resulted in giving games a fairer shake, so this annual series will just be “Short Notes” going forward. Every year, I promise myself I’ll be responsible and update this as the year goes on, and every year I fail to do so – if I don’t remember much about a game, I suppose that speaks for itself.
As always, an asterisk after the tile means I actually finished it.
The Games of 2017
20,000:1 – A Space Felony*
20,000:1 takes one genre over-represented in video games (sci-fi) and two under-represented (murder mysteries, screwball comedy) and smushes them together in a delightful package, riffing on a particularly ’60s conception of artificial intelligence (one that is devious, but cannot lie in the face of direct evidence). Occasionally suffers from pixel hunting, but the zero-g movement is such a pleasure that I didn’t mind.
2064: Read Only Memories*
A noble attempt to recapture the old-school cyberpunk adventuring of Snatcher, but lacks originality or any real hook to hold the player’s interest. See the Game Club letters for more thoughts.
Abzu is like the oceans it portrays: beautiful, fluid, but with more emptiness than life. For more thoughts, see the Abzu Game Club letters.
Age of Decadence
In any other year I would have been all over this, but a combination of an aged engine, awkward writing, and opaque systems me drifting to other RPGs. I hope to return it to someday, though I fear it’s full of trap builds.
Battlelore: Command *
A competent if unremarkable digital adaptation of a wonderful, and sadly short-lived, Command & Colors board game.
A highly experimental game about nonverbal communication and/or a parody of depictions of French romance in popular culture, Bientot l’ete is constrained by its budget and asks the players to fill in a lot of gaps; but it’s still a memorable experience, and can be considered a historically important precursor to the still-nascent genre of ‘relationship games.’
Despite my usual aversion to side-scrollers and narratives built on pop culture references, I thoroughly enjoyed Broforce‘s deadly commando missions; it’s Cannon Fodder channeled through a love of ’80s action flicks.
While the works of Phillip K. Dick are broadly influential, few fictional works – and even fewer games – have attempted to embody the haunting, paranoid worlds he so consistently created. For better or worse, Californium feels like something Dick could have produced himself, and was one of my more memorable gaming experiences of 2017.
Company of Heroes
Regarded by some as the last great leap forward for the RTS, Company of Heroes holds up remarkably well, continuously providing tense, interesting tactical decisions without becoming overwhelming or descending into micromanagement. The generic “Brothers in Arms” campaign story is embarrassingly amateurish, though.
Crawl is one of an increasingly small number of commercial indie games that manages to be the best game in its niche on account of being the *only* game in its niche. In this case, that niche is “pixel-art dungeon crawler party game,” where three players team up as monsters to take down the hero, with the monster striking the killing blow becoming the new hero. It’s the perfect length and remembers to keep things accessible for a social gaming crowd; I look forward to playing more sessions.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Original Sin 2 is the most celebrated PC RPG in years, so it’s almost shocking that I’m lukewarm on it. It deserves all the praise it gets for its elaborate, systems-driven sandbox of a world, and the relative variety of quests with which it fills that world. But the setting and plot are dull as dishwater; the divisive cornball humor of the first game has been largely removed, but nothing has replaced it, leaving a narrative that doesn’t take itself seriously enough to engage in even rudimentary worldbuilding. The result is a game in which your choices matter in the sense that you can make actual change, but don’t in the sense that they lack weight, because there are few characters or places worth remembering.
Dragon Age II *
A game I enjoyed far more than I expected and more than it deserves, primarily due to the refreshingly small scope; this is a character-driven RPG with purely local stakes, no world-saving required. Even with all the well-publicized cut corners that keep this from being a great RPG, I still preferred it to every Bioware game of the last fifteen years.
Dragon Age: Inquistion*
Like its predecessor, Inquistion greatly exceeded my expectations to become my favorite post-Baldur’s Gate Bioware game. I could write pages, but other projects take precedence; suffice it to say that despite its well-covered foibles (an abundance of Ubisoft-style filler quests, a literal deus ex machina for an antagonist), the game has more spark and joy than any of Bioware’s other recent titles. It consistently steps beyond fan service and slot-machine romance to engage in top-level characterization and surprisingly solid worldbuilding, and frees the player to explore beautiful environments for as much or little time as they please.
Dragon Age: The Last Court
Much like Fallen London, The Last Court is excellent at worldbuilding (much better than the proper Dragon Age games) and dripping with style, but also introduces grinding to interactive fiction, which (for me) kind of ruins the whole affair.
The Dream Machine: Episodes 1 & 2
A relatively straightforward, haunting adventure whose first two episodes are an extended setup for what I hope are bigger and better things. If I sound lukewarm on it, know that it’s puzzles are consistently reasonable, it has the best hand-crafted world since The Neverhood, and the characterization is surprisingly deft given the workmanlike prose. Also, it passes the adventure veteran smell test: it has clever, unique responses to every absurd ‘use item on X’ interaction I could throw at it.
A truly ideal local multiplayer game, Duck Game brought back the experience of playing WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgames for the first time; levels in Duck Game load fast and quick, and you race not just to fight off the other players but to figure out what you need to *do* to win this new level. The mechanics are robust enough to support competitive play once you run out of surprises, but the game is at its best as a series of comically violent “I can’t believe that just happened!” moments.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
It is genuinely depressing that every single online CCG appears to be based off of Hearthstone, which is in turn based off of Magic – just one of many design paradigms in the CCG space. Where is our Netrunner? Our LOT5R? Our Vampire: The Eternal Struggle?
The Elder Scrolls Online*
A friendly community and a flexible, interesting leveling system are the primary things ESO has going for it; it’s brought down by the same cookie-cutter quest design and repetitive hotbar combat of everything else in the genre, combined with storytelling so banal that it makes Skyrim interesting by comparison.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind
Fan service through and through; as a Morrowind fan, that’s enough to intrigue me, but I foolishly decided to spend 100 hours on the base game before hitting the expansion, meaning I was sick and tired of all its systems by the time I got to the content I really wanted.
Whatever polish or small innovations Faeria brings to the digital-CCG genre – and it has both – is overwhelmed by its shocking decision to be even stingier than Hearthstone. If I’m gonna spend a fortune on cards, I’ll do it on ones that I’m allowed to sell or trade.
Far Cry: Blood Dragon
I think this is one of those ‘you had to be there’ games – Far Cry 3‘s combat and systems haven’t aged well, and the hyper-ironic, stereotypical ’80s humor has been enormously overdone by this point.
The Flame in the Flood
Evokes a distinct, Southern playspace that is criminally underexplored in games; but the actual gameplay is both repetitive and punishing, to the point where I didn’t sink enough time into this to ever have a good run.
Frog Fractions 2
Despite being a backer and a big fan of the original, I bounced off this hard; it’s certainly clever, but it embraces its retro stylings too much; to find the hidden gems and humor, the player has to navigate an early ’80s style action-RPG, replete with that genre’s terrible signposting. I will probably like it better if I just use a walkthrough.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Sadly overlooked, Ghost Trick is one of the few good graphic adventures I’ve found on portable consoles (in this case, the Nintendo DS). The game’s a series of elaborate setpiece puzzles, in which the player (as an incorporeal poltergeist) must possess and activate various inanimate objects to set off Rube Goldberg-esque chain reactions and stop the murder. Surprisingly accomplished animation and a pleasant sense of humor keep me coming back (and I will finish this one, as I play it off and on while traveling).
I actually played this more than the more famous game (Frog Fractions 2) it contains; it combines clicker/idle games with builder games in a pretty chill and pleasing manner.
An infinitely charming, glorified tech demo; it’s a little shallow, but smart enough to end before it exhausts the interests of its systems. The emphasis on jetpacking all around a green landscape pleasantly reminded me of puttering around in Tribes 2.
More a triumph of art design than anything; the ’60s psychedelic aesthetic is fleshed out rather than merely referenced and consistently delightful, but it’s otherwise a fairly straightforward Metroidvania with a mite too much repetition and retreading, even by the standards of that genre. Still, it’s consistently pleasant enough to warrant finishing.
Essentially a slider-puzzle game/order-of-operations game, I could see this being a lot of fun on a tablet or a plane ride; on a desktop PC, there are just too many other, more interesting puzzle games.
Holy Potatoes: A Weapon Shop?!
It says a lot about me that I continued playing a bit past the point of boredom just to see the next terrible pun the game came up with. The game itself falls in a sort of uncanny valley where it demands too much micromanage to achieve the relaxing compulsiveness of clicker games, and yet isn’t involved enough to succeed as a management or strategy game.
Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms
The most boring fantasy setting meets the most boring game genre! Alec Meer notes that Idle Champions is an “oddly active idle game,” as it requires constant micro-management. This leaves it in a sort of uncanny valley, since it’s too passive to reward the babysitting it requires (and if that description sounds remarkably like the one for Holy Potatoes, well, they have the exact same problem). Also, it uses the typical exploitative micro transactions to fund the endeavor.
I’ve come to appreciate just how consistently interesting the best of the Microsoft Entertainment Games were. Jezzball is a simple arcade game, and yet there’s nothing else like it save it’s obvious inspiration (1981’s Qix).
At first glance, I love everything about Kingdom; the glorious pixel art, the ground-level view of kingdom building, the slow expansion of territory, the mystery of its many systems. Learning that the entire thing was a massive trial-and-error puzzle, dooming the player to constant restarts until they achieve a combination of systems mastery and event memorization, was the biggest gaming letdown of my year.
Life is Strange*
Life is Strange feels like a high-quality television show from the ‘1990s; it has the serial plotting and narrative drive, but knows how to make satisfying, self-contained episodes in way that is increasingly rare in modern television. It’s narrative is ambitious and a little ramshackle; pretty much everyone is going to have quibbles over the story’s many twists and turns, and I’m no exception, but I thoroughly enjoyed every moment with it. It also has consistently wonderful iconography.
The Little Acre*
This short, traditional point-and-click adventure feels like a work of animation first and a game second; the straightforward puzzles keep the pace moving, but the game simply doesn’t have enough time to develop its story or characters during its brief running time, and the climax feels wholly unearned. Yet the artwork and the movement of the characters really is so consistently lovely that I’d still recommend it to people who place a lot of weight on those elements.
The Long Journey Home
Something of a tribute to Star Control II, The Long Journey Home features genuinely lovely writing from Richard Cobbett and what is, on paper,a nice mix of gameplay systems; but for me, the core loop wasn’t fun, and it felt like stumbling from failure to failure, with little helpful feedback provided to help me figure out what I did wrong. With more time, I’d either learn to appreciate its variety and offbeat systems or grow to truly hate the Lunar Lander style puzzles, but there are Too Many Games.
Mainlining is one of the few games to follow in the footsteps of Uplink, and occupies a sweet spot between its predecessors’ “hacking-as-puzzle” focus and a traditional graphic adventure. It looks great and has a charmingly offbeat sense of humor, though a few leaps of logic undermine both the central puzzles and the plot, and it’s ultimately a more linear affair than it markets itself as. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something different from point-and-click games.
Mario Party 10
I played this all of one time in the course of hosting a weekly library program, so I am in no way qualified to evaluate it, but I will state the obvious: Mario Party with four people is ten times as fun as the hell that is two player Mario Party.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Every once in a while, I’ll play a game whose reputation precedes it, and find that the generic take on the game is entirely accurate. Shadow of Mordor is one such title: it features more interesting and entertaining enemy AI than any game in the last decade, and playing with that system is a lot of fun, though it’s ultimately wrapped up in a game design and combat system that is almost shockingly derivative of Assassin’s Creed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s probably the best implementation not made by Ubisoft themselves – but having made the poor life choice to play six Assassin’s Creed games to completion in the last decade, I am currently unable to bring myself to see this to its conclusion.
Subway maps of the London Underground have been a font of artistic inspiration for pretty much every other medium, so why not video games? The result is a visually striking puzzler that’s not nearly as simple as it first appears, though I kept stumbling over some unintuitive controls for changing subway routes. Generally open-ended, this occupies a similar experiential space as Hexcells and other minimalist puzzlers: great games to play before bed, while listening to music or a podcast.
Mobius Final Fantasy
Impressively deep systems for a free to play mobile game, but it’s grindy even by the standards of JRPGs, and features what may be the worst narrative to ever have the Final Fantasy name attached to it. The story combines groan-inducing fan service with painfully self-aware jokes about the enormous amount of padding in its central questline.
I’ve enjoyed this low-budget roguelike more than almost all of its more accomplished peers; it perfectly captures the pleasure of making a perfect chain in a deck-building game, and then does it over and over again. Feels sort of like a compulsive free-to-play game with all the scumminess taken out (since there are no microtransactions).
Night in the Woods*
Probably my favorite game of 2018, Night in the Woods deserves a full write-up; for now I’ll say that the game’s most notable feature is the way it carries itself, the total confidence in its unorthodox choice of characters and narrative structure, and the painfully honest representation of young adults desperately searching for meaning and causing themselves a lot of harm in the process. This pathos comfortably sits aside conversations that had me actually laughing out loud (something I rarely do with written comedy!).
Northmark: Hour of the Wolf*
There’s a strange lack of single-player CCG-style card games, perhaps because the potential money in multiplayer CCGs is so high that nobody bothers. Northmark is an amateurish concoction of middling card combat and hit-and-miss self-parodic humor, but it’s one of the few games of its genre we got, and I can honestly say I enjoyed most of my time with it and would happily pay for a sequel.
Ohklos brought back fond childhood memories of Cannon Fodder and Pikmin, and it’s irreverent-yet-detailed approach to Greek mythology manages to make a tired setting fun again. The controls are too chaotic and the rewards too random to justify the game’s difficulty, though; it really needs an Easy mode.
I played the first three levels at my birthday party, and its every bit the chaotic couch party delight I’d been told. I now have a strong desire to start a regular Overcooked campaign group; the only reason I’m not acting on this is the fact that I’m involved in three separate tabletop campaigns plus a fortnightly open games night. I can put it off with the confident that it will age gracefully.
Pathfinder Adventures (Steam version)*
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is one of my all time favorite tabletop games, a clever adaptation of pen-and-paper dungeon crawling to a card-and-dice system; it perfectly captures the dopamine rushes of new loot and treasure while having real strategic complexity and a number of clever puzzles. Obsidian’s adaptation is tremendously faithful, so it’s good on that count, though at times I thought it was almost too faithful; this is entirely unchanged from the physical game, and there are at least some card and mechanic refinements that could have been made in the adaptation to digital. Also, it really is more fun with friends, but anyone who enjoys solitaire gaming will get a kick out of this.
Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations* (really should be 2016 but I missed it)
At a certain point I had to accept the Phoenix Wright series’ staunch refusal to meaningfully change or adapt from game to game; having done so, I was rewarded with what is probably the tightest, most confident game in the series, that makes good use of its now-sizeable cast of recurring characters, including the rare fan service that actually feels earned. A part of me feels that I’ve played more than enough Phoenix Wright for a lifetime; another part of me wants to leap into the next game right now.
Please, Don’t Touch Anything
Essentially a “click and see what happens” software toy, Please, Don’t Touch Anything is an amusing diversion, though I think it orients itself too far towards “unlock all the permutations/achievements” when a freeform exploration would be more wondrous.
Takes a clever conceit (what if Satan was a bad game designer who forced unwitting souls to play his shovelware?) and explores it thoroughly, but in order to drill the concept home the player has to play a lot of one-life-only endless runner stages; your mileage will definitely vary, and despite respecting it I never quite finished because there are more rewarding meta-video-game explorations to be had elsewhere.
Prey (2017) was the biggest surprise of the year for me; a theoretical reboot of a middling game, infamously ripped from its previous developer by a horrid publisher, and marketed as a generic combination of Alien and System Shock, this wasn’t even on my radar at the beginning of the year. I should have known better; developer Arkane has spent nearly twenty years iterating on the immersive sims of Looking Glass Studios, and I suspect Prey will be considered the pinnacle of the genre for years to come. It gives players the enormous playspace and variety of tools of the best immersive sims of yore, updates it with fluid movement and combat, and seems to have an ethos of pushing everything one step beyond what any reasonable player would consider good enough. It has an enormous amount of faith in the player’s capability to figure things out and carve their own best path, and thus creates a joy of discovery lacking in other open world games that highlight every nook and cranny with glowing signposts. The general consensus is that the traditional immersive sim is no longer commercially viable, and Prey may be the last one for the foreseeable future; but if that’s so, it’s a hell of a high note to end on.
At the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference, an indie dev at the hotel I was staying at showed me Ridiculous Fishing; when I finally got a smartphone in December 2016, it was the first game I bought. The core loop is great by the standards of any platform, and in a just world people would not think twice about dropping $3 on a game of this quality.
In a strange twist of fate, Sacramento was released a mere two days after I moved into my new apartment in Sacramento, California, a city I had never been to save for the initial housing search. I’d like to draw some deep connection between the two, but the appeal of Sacramento (the game) was largely lost on me; it’s a lovely-looking watercolor space to walk around with, but is threadbare even by the standards of ‘walking simulators,’ and the only thing it has in common with its namesake (that I can tell) is the landscape, which threads a railroad track through swampy waters reminiscent of the estuaries of the nearby river delta. Then again, I didn’t really appreciate Sacramento (the city) either, and am just beginning to grow fond of it.
Something Something Soup Something
A victim of my failure to write these descriptions in a timely manner, all I can tell you is that the wonderfully-titled Something Something Soup Something is an interesting linguistics experiment and conversation piece masquerading as a game; if you have any friends with an interest in language or epistemology, then this is well worth the few minutes it will take to play through.
Like A Dark Room, Spaceplan is an experiment in creating a narrative-driven idle game, though this aims for humor rather than foreboding; it’s a small thing, but it’s good on its own terms. The commercial “expanded remake” of the browser original is also unusual in being a clicker game with no microtransactions; in an age populated by exploitative, money-grubbing clicker games like Adventure Capitalist, it’s both pleasant and depressing to look at the path not taken.
Star Wars: Battlefront
I think most critics – myself included – don’t give enough weight to their own expectations when explaining why they did (or didn’t) like a game. Had I been hyped for Battlefront on its original 2015 release and dropped $60 on it, I no doubt would have been disappointed; but after buying it on a whim for $5, with all expansions included, I unexpectedly found myself really enjoying it. I ended up logging more hours than I have in any online shooter since Planetside 2, and while the lovingly-rendered Star Wars battlescapes are certainly part of it, the bigger draw was Battlefront‘s minimalism; this is a casual, accessible shooter that strips out most of the gruff of its competitors and has a quite generous unlock system that doesn’t get in the way.
Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (Singleplayer)*
There was a time when people thought Disney would be precious with Star Wars, would seek to control every major instance of it for quality and being on-brand. This has proven wildly incorrect; the single player campaign for Star Wars: Battlefront II is astonishingly bad, simultaneously failing to display even basic narrative logic and character motivations while blowing holes in any sensible canon. After you get through the moderately promising opening, it’s like watching a slow motion train wreck that just gets worse and worse. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of the last time I played a game that marketed itself primarily on its narrative (“An Untold Star Wars Story”) and yet seemed to care so little about it. The game itself is a shooting gallery full of brain-dead AI; the only saving grace is the dumb fun of the starfighter battles, which are shallow but lovely arcade comfort food that let you forget about the rest of the game for up to ten minutes at a time.
Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (Multiplayer)
Battlefront 2 amps up the spectacle, but also amps up the chaos; the star mode (Galactic Battlegrounds) is good for a lark, but inevitably made me feel like I was being pulled along by larger events rather than competing in any real sense. The standout is Starfighter Assault, which has arcade-space-combat mechanics straight out of Crimson Skies, and I really wish a more fleshed out version could be the basis for a singleplayer game. Alas, the entire affair is undercut by a terrible progression system that does basically everything wrong; it doesn’t let the player choose how to progress, and the actual unlocks are largely dull, number-increasing buffs that do nothing but given veteran players an even bigger advantage than they already have.
If both this and its predecessor, Steamworld Dig, are a little too slight for me to truly love, they’re also far too charming and mechanically solid to dismiss as fluff; there’s a lot to be said for a procedurally-generated XCOM-lite, and the aiming mechanic is deep enough that it never stops generating dramatic, hold-your-breath moments (see this excellent Alex Wiltshire writeup for more on that).
What can I say? Stardew Valley is exactly as good as you’ve heard; not only does it bring the Harvest Moon genre to the PC after a decades-long drought, but it surpasses all of its forbears with more varied activities, less micromanagement, and surprisingly strong writing. It’s a wonder that it’s the work of one developer, to the point where it’s tempting to give it a free pass on the few things it doesn’t improve (namely the method for gaining favor, which is ye olde ‘discover people’s likes through trial and error and make a big mental spreadsheet’ system, which has always been my least favorite part of relationship-building games and is in full force here). Compulsively playable and a great gateway game.
Suikoden: Tierkreis is cursed by some dodgy voice acting and a plot that (like so many JRPG stories) gets increasingly banal as it approaches its conclusion. And yet I finished it and enjoyed almost my entire time with it, which means a lot given my low tolerance for random battles and JRPG tropes. At the end of the day, the massive casts of the Suikoden games force them to have both a truly epic scope, character-driven stories, and genuine variety to combat and party builds, a combination hard to find outside the better Final Fantasy titles. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s a series I’ll miss.
Tales from the Borderlands*
It would be a little unfair to call Tales from the Borderlands “a very good TV show trapped inside a video game,” but it’s not far off the mark; the game is made by the script and performance, and the few moments of interactive gold are buried in a mound of mediocre QTEs, meaningless choices, and variations of “press A to continue.” Yet it’s a solid comedy with remarkably satisfying character development and consistently stellar opening credit sequences.
Brendon Chung’s contribution to the delightful Epistle 3 Jam shows us what Half Life 3 would be like if it was made by one person with no budget; this is a surprisingly amusing prospect, and there’s a part of me that is happy the actual Half-Life 3 was never released so that we could enjoy the fruits of fan imaginations.
Torment: Tides of Numenera*
Diehard fans of Planescape: Torment spewed vitriol at Tides of Numenera for being too different to its spiritual predecessor (by virtue of a different setting, different systems, and admittedly some issues with pacing and creating memorable characters); the broader audience of RPG fans slammed it for having an inordinate focus on textual descriptions and dialog in place of combat and monkeying around with RPG systems (in other words, being just like Planescape: Torment). This alone should tell you that for whatever flaws the game has, it’s genuinely distinct, not least because of its almost singular focus on elaborately, richly-textured worldbuilding. It’s not as memorable, or as emotionally affecting, as Planescape: Torment, but it’s an arguably more mature title.
Tracks (free version)
The minimalist, sandbox prototype was entertaining on its own; it perfectly models the joy of building classic wooden train tracks (think Brio) and spreading them throughout your bedroom. I look forward to the developer’s attempts to flesh it out into a full game.
I realized about 30 minutes into Virginia that it was singularly inspired by Brendon Chung’s 30 Flights of Loving; and while it never reaches that game’s heights, it’s still a provocative, beautiful short story that makes a strong case for greater use of film-style editing in interactive narrative.
I have a strange relationship with turn-based strategy games; I thoroughly enjoy the best ones while playing them, but they don’t stick with me in the way other genre bests do. I suspect it’s a combination of the player acting at a remove and the disinterest in conventional storytelling. Anyway, XCOM 2 is a finally-wrought game, introducing many intelligent and substantive changes to its predecessor, even if it dilutes the purity a bit. The advantage of not being a solely iterative sequel is that it doesn’t replace the original, but stands alongside it, just as XCOM: Enemy Unknown could not truly replace the original X-COM: UFO Defense.