For the eighth year in a row, I’m published a roundup of every game I played in the past year. 1 I’ve continued in the “short notes” format, with some not-so-short notes thrown in for good measure.

I hope this is a useful guide for your gaming!

Legend

means I played the game to completion (only applicable to single-player games or games with a fixed ending, of course).

♥ marks it as one of my favorites of the year.

 

The Games of 2019

Astroneer ♥

My first instinct when writing about Astroneer is to string together a bunch of synonyms for “lovely.” The game’s distinctive voxel-art style is playful and welcoming, so much that my co-op partner spends much of the game just taking screenshots. Even the player emotes are adorable.

At root, Astroneer is very much built in the Minecraft mold, except that there’s less focus on building. You can use Astroneer’s terrain-shaping tools to create all sorts of wonders, but it’s more fine-grained (and thus more complex) than Minecraft, and because it lacks Minecraft’s roaming monsters, there’s no need to ‘build shelter.’ Instead, Astroneer’s loop is just explore, collect, craft. From a mechanical standpoint, it’s a bit shallow, and players looking for some sort of deep endgame will be disappointed.

But the process is wonderful. The terrain tool—which both lets you “suck up” terrain and resources and spit it back out to shape the terrain—is a marvelous design that never ceases to be fun to use. Another nice touch is that since the game takes place on worlds without breathable atmosphere, the players have to constantly place tethers back to a centrally located oxygen filter; this had the side effect of leaving a line of breadcrumbs showing where you have (and have not) explored.

Astroneer also includes some lovely vehicles, albeit ones that are way, way too easy to drive into a crevice.

As a solo game, I imagine Astroneer is a relaxing game to lose yourself in; as a co-op game, it’s a great place to hang out with a friend.

 

Battletech: Flashpoint

I would describe all of the games by developer Harebrained Schemes as “just good enough,” by which I mean that in a world awash with so many fantastic games, they just barely make the “worth playing” cut if (and only if) you are interested in the genre they’re working in. I played and enjoyed all three Shadowrun games (and Shadowrun: Dragonfall does legitimately comes close to greatness) as well as Battletech.

Flashpoint continues this tradition; it adds a whole cadre of mini-campaigns scattered throughout the galaxy, allowing you to lean into being a free-roaming mercenary company and providing an alternative to the linear-campaign and cookie-cutter random missions. But it doesn’t address any of the fundamental issues of the game, like the complete dominance of assault ‘mechs; this is particularly disappointing in light of the fact that two of the three new ‘mechs it adds are medium ‘mechs, which are all but useless to anyone who has already played through the campaign. And almost every mission plays out the same; the core mechanics are solid and pleasurable, but you’re basically solving the same puzzle over and over.

 

Copoka √ 

In 2008, Dear Esther’s lack of combat and sole focus on storytelling and exploration was radical. 2 By 2016, the “explore and listen” game was a staple indie genre, and Copoka comes off as a sort of mean average of this sub-genre, encompassing its weaknesses and strengths.

You play a bird who flies around a fictional, probably European city, collecting shiny objects for its nest, and hidden feathers that increase its flight speed. Flying around is a languid joy, and the art style creates beauty from a low polygon count.

Yet as the player, the primary hook is all the conversations you listen in on as you collect trinkets. These tell the story of life in a newly erected totalitarian state, and are competent (if dry) on their own, but it’s blindingly obvious that the game is trying to set up a “twist” that the revolution, once successfully in power, is indistinguishable from the totalitarian government it replaced. This is such a tired trope that it has no business trying to pass as insightful, and I found the slow reveal obnoxious—akin to when you figure out the murderer 12 minutes into an hour-long murder mystery, and grind your teeth as the detective misses obvious clues in order to pad things out. Copoka is a reminder that if you make a narrative-focused game, the narrative has to be able to carry the game, and no amount of lovely art and music is going to make up for a lackluster script.

 

The Darkside Detective √

The Darkside Detective is lovely, if intentionally slight. It aggressively tackles the fat middle that most graphic adventures suffer from by presenting a number of micro-episodes, each of which can be completed in an hour (or less, if you are a particularly clever puzzler). It’s a comedy game through-and-through, with much of the comic relief provided by the cheerfully dim Officer Dooley, whom RPS reviewer Adam Smith called “the best point and click character I’ve met in ages.”  For me, the comedy was more heartwarming than laugh-inducing, but that’s not a bad thing; in an age where misanthropic and cynical comedy dominates, it’s nice to have a game focus on simple absurdities and lovable characters.

As I said, it’s slight—it didn’t really stick with me after completion—but I think of it fondly, and I’ve happily backed the second “season.”

 

Deep Sky Derelicts

Every year, there are a few games I start and quickly bounce off, despite them being perfectly solid games, because there are so many titles on my to-play list that a game needs to get its hooks in me fairly quickly. Deep Sky Derelicts is a solid dungeon delver where each piece of equipment adds cards to a character’s deck, and that deck determines their available actions in combat, ala Card Hunter. But here, the combat is a turn-based, JRPG-style affair, and it’s just a bit slow for my tastes. Combined with an underwhelming translation of the game’s native Russian and a lack of real narrative direction, I quickly drifted away. In a world with viewer great cheap games, I would certainly have seen this farther.

 

Donut County √ ♥

Donut County befuddled critics at release, and I think I know why. It’s a visibly eccentric indie game, starting a hipster racoon and his friend, who largely communicate by texting. It’s a “bottom-up” design build around the gameplay mechanic of “playing a hole” that you can move around a landscape, causing objects/people/whatever to plummet to oblivion. It’s sheer distinctiveness and artistic flair lead you to expect some big reveal, some obvious brilliance or philosophical complexity or “greater than the sum of its parts” moments, and it never comes. It’s a pleasant, funny, relatively short game about being a hole.

And that’s fine! I really enjoyed my time with Donut County. I get the sense that the developer struggled on how to expand the central conceit—the game has a limited range of puzzles, and the hole doesn’t level up and gain new abilities (it’s a hole!). But it’s fun while it lasts, is witty and charming, and works hard to capture the experience of Katamari Damacy without copying it overmuch.

 

Earthbound √ ♥

Earthbound is the ur-cult game, possibly the closest thing video games have to Rocky Horror Picture Show; a recently acquired SNES Mini finally gave me the chance to give this a spin 25 years after its original release. It’s obviously weird and subtly clever, the sort of game that one could easily write a book on (it’s telling that it was the very first Boss Fight Book released).

It’s quite interesting, and holds up just well enough to be playable by someone with a tolerance for early JRPG mechanics. For all the attention Earthbound gets for its originality, it’s worth noting that its core presentation was dated even when it came out. The design basically ignores the additional four buttons provided by the SNES controller and uses the A/B buttons for everything, and almost all functions are hidden behind layers of menus. The game’s combat has one nifty innovation (the “rolling HP” meters, which adds a real-time element to the otherwise purely turn-based battles) but is otherwise indistinguishable from the first wave of NES RPGs. And it doesn’t break from the pack in how much combat there is; you’ll spend at least 60% of your time in battles. For this reason alone, I could never broadly recommend Earthbound to a modern audience spoiled for choice: it’s pretty damning when the majority of your time with a game is described, at best, as “painless” and at worst as “tedious grind.”

AND YET, Earthbound is just so damn heartfelt. The designers appeared to have a blatant disregard for such basic questions as “who is your target audience?” You play elementary school kids who get parental approval to go save the world from mind-controlling aliens, the art can best be described as “scribbled pixels,” and a party wipe just results in you reviving in town with all your experience intact. It seems to be a JRPG consciously made to be playable by children.

Yet so many of its charms would be lost on kids. It’s slow to develop (it takes many hours just to get your second party member!) and the early hours are made bearable only by the lackadaisical exploration of its town and citizens, who spout ‘humorous’ dialog so dry that it took me a while to decide if the developers were in on the joke (they are). It’s a broad, surrealistic satire of mid-90s consumer culture, and infamously features enemies ranging from “New Age Retro Hippie” to “Worthless Protoplasm.” And it has genuinely unsettling themes, with a particular focus on the relative ease with which powerful adults are corrupted by greed and desire.

What squares this conundrum—and goes some way to explaining the rabid devotion of the games’ fans—is that this failure to target a specific age group is a direct reflection of Earthbound’s humanism and faith in its players. This is a game that believes that children can save the world, and would do so while adults went about their routines. It believes (correctly) that children can still enjoy references they don’t recognize, can appreciate surrealism as much or more than most adults, and have the persistence to pick themselves up after losing a boss battle and do it again until they win.

Earthbound uses its comfortable, predictable repetition as a launching pad to introduce strange and wonderful places, people and events; it makes the foreign exciting rather than threatening. JRPGs have a long tradition of talking heads making didactic speeches about why War Is Bad and Friendship Overcomes All; Earthbound shows rather than tells, and leaves us the richer for it.

I don’t have a lot of time in my life for grindy JRPGs these days, but I’m very glad I made time for this one.

 

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright √  and Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

Fire Emblem: Fates is the immediate successor to Fire Emblem: Awakening, but is split across three different games, and unlike the Pokemon titles, each game is substantially different. Fire Emblem: Awakening was famously designed as the last game in a dying series; yet it ended up becoming a best-seller, partially due to various features introduced to make the game more accessible. These features (namely, making permadeath optional) helped win me over to a series that I admired but found too punishing. Fire Emblem: Fates tries to solve the problem of appealing to the new fans and the old diehards by making different games to appeal to each camp.

Birthright is directly in the vein of Awakening, featuring straightforward maps that are mostly “kill all the dudes” or “kill the boss.” As with Awakening, you can freely grind up your characters, so you’ll never fall into the classic Fire Emblem trap of “oops, I leveled the wrong people and now I have to start over.”

Conquest, on the other hand, throws in a variety of strategically complex maps, and bars you from grinding; you have to progress through the story and get the limited experience you can. It’s thus a much harder and more punishing experience, though it’s worth noting that you can still turn off permadeath (I did), and that makes it significantly easier/more accessible (I’m playing on Hard, and it’s hard but doable; I suspect on Normal it would be straight-up easy).

(The third game, Revelations, joins the separate casts of these two games and seeks to split the difference; more on that when I play it!)

The good news is that there’s an enormous amount of content here, with all the features, polish, and ridiculous romance/breeding mechanics of Awakening (which were apparently so popular that they felt they had to include them in this game, despite them making absolutely zero sense: the game throws out a two-sentence explanation about how everyone has to send their kids to pocket dimensions where they age faster cause of The War, which is why all the kids are adult characters, and literally never revisit the issue or provides further context to explain this nonsense). Additionally, while the Birthright maps are totally fine, the maps featured in Conquest are frequently clever, and a joy for those who love a strategic challenge (or just a bit of variety).

The bad news is that it is, by and large, more of the same, and the storytelling is arguably worse than the already flawed Awakening. Fire Emblem has historically focused on political intrigue/nations at war, but Fates goes full anime, with a bunch of Magical People with Magical Swords running around. It’s mostly painless, and Conquest—which sees the player siding with the ‘bad guys’ and working to justify doing this despite being a good person—is sometimes even interesting, but ultimately it’s filler between the combat.

If I sound underwhelmed, it’s probably because I’ve played many, many hours of 3DS Fire Emblem in the last year, but that itself should serve as a recommendation; there is no finer portable strategy-RPG series. It’s just a question of how much that niche appeals to you.

 

Fortune 499

Fortune 499 has the aesthetics and simple gameplay of a Gameboy Color title, but the dry wit of its dialog makes it clear this is a modern indie game. It’s a charmer with an unusual premise: you play a witch who works at a large corporation, using your cards to tell the future and help them make profitable decisions. You’re actually great at your job, but the company is STILL planning to terminate you, just cause it looks old-fashioned to have a witch on staff and they’re trying to clean up for an acquisition.

Around this time, demons start invading the building where you work.

The core of the game is a series of card battles, with the twist that you can use your oracle powers to see upcoming cards and manipulate the deck. This means that all battles have an element of luck, but also some real skill in manipulating the deck, and they go by quickly. The dialog is consistently funny and it really runs with its theme (you get new cards by using office printers and copy machines).

But the difficulty ramps up quickly, with puzzles requiring an exact approach, no way to heal between save points, and save points spaced out more than I’d like. It’s a surmountable challenge, but I ultimately bounced off after failing a level for the third time. I hope to return at some point, but we’ll see if I have the patience.

 

Ghost of a Tale ♥

Ghost of a Tale is the work of one person, but you’d never be able to tell; this is a straight-up beautiful game that features sophisticated lighting techniques that make the day/night cycle meaningful, and character animation that really sells the all-animal cast. The writing is top-notch fantasy, avoiding generic dragons-and-sorcery for a grounded medieval tale, in which you play an imprisoned mouse bard in a land ruled by (literal) rats. It does a good job of sidestepping the moustache-spinning villainy of Redwall; even the jailers are well-rounded characters, and the dialog is replete with wit and good humor.

True to mouse form, this plays as a stealth game; combat is best avoided and in many cases impossible (you don’t have a real weapon). But this is more exploration-and-puzzles than Mouse Gear Solid. There are some clever puzzles, and a lovely disguise mechanic where you can (for instance) dress up as a mouse soldier and talk to (and even work for!) your jailers.

If it has a downside, it’s that the one-person-development seems to have led to bad signposting and confusing objectives; a number of times I had to look up a walkthrough, and learned that I couldn’t advance the game because I had missed one small object, or passed by a single corridor. Eventually these issues caused me to bounce off, but I fully intend to finish this game.

 

Golf Peaks

Longtime readers will know of my deep love for Hexcells, a “minesweeper, but better” puzzle game. The reason is that the puzzles are complex enough to fully engage my attention, but not so complex that I am likely to get stuck or overly frustrated; they put me in a puzzle zen state.

I picked up Golf Peaks looking for a Hexcells fix, and while it doesn’t reach those heights, it’s a solid puzzler. The “golf” theming is just a skin over an order-of-operations puzzle involving cards that make the ball move X spaces. It’s pleasant to look at, and the puzzles are contained enough that it’s not overly difficult.

Except I hit a point where it was, because it turns out I am mediocre at best when it comes to spatial order-of-operation puzzles. I still have it installed and will fire it up from time to time, but it’s not something I can lose myself in.

 

The Haunted Island, A Frog Detective Game √  ♥

The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game is a first person adventure game/visual novel that is silly and sweet, and the sort of game I would recommend to absolutely everyone (including people who don’t regularly play video games) as long as they a) enjoyed comedy and b) were okay with a complete lack of action or significant puzzles in a game.

My experience of The Haunted Island is going to be significantly different from most, because instead of playing it a solitary adventure game (like 99% of players), I played it in one sitting with my friend Marie, who did the driving. We took turns reading the characters and doing voices for them. Frog Detective is a playful, witty game with comical characters that rewards exactly this approach. I am sure I would have liked it quite a bit had I played it alone, but as a “performed game,” it is absolutely top-notch, and that was certainly one of my best gaming experiences of the year. I look forward to playing the just-released sequel.

 

Helldivers

Helldivers is from the makers of Magicka, and you can tell: it has the same four-player co-op arcadey destruction, where excess is the name of the game and accidentally killing your teammates is common.

It replaces Magicka’s lovely comedy fantasy with a boilerplate Starship Troopers skin, complete with obvious satire, but the narrative is a thin skin over what’s very much a multiplayer game. You and up to three teammates drop down into a mission with infinite enemies, complete your objectives ASAP, and get out.

It does an excellent job of keeping the tension up, and providing a good variety of top-down shooter combat. It’s easy to pick up, and there are worthwhile, game-changing unlocks.

It’s also highly repetitive, with limited enemy and location variety. How much you’ll enjoy Helldivers really depends on your playgroup, and their appetite for doing the same 15-minute mission over and over again.

That sounds more damning than I intend; it’s a good time, and one I’d happily play semi-regularly. It just is best suited to short, occasional bursts rather than dedicated play.

 

Hitman (Season 1) √ 

Hitman is an odd series. At one level, it’s straightforward: you’re a hitman with no personality, and the entire game revolves around locating and assassinating targets. It does what it says on the box, and not a lot more.

And yet it’s not really an action game; rather, each Hitman level is an elaborate puzzlebox, where the player is forced to use a combination of stealth, guile, and ludicrous disguises to kill the target without anyone noticing. Sure, you can go in guns blazing, but the game will shame you for it, and it rather defeats the purpose of the entire affair.

Hitman: Season One (the retroactive title applied to the episodic 2016 video game obnoxiously just titled Hitman despite being the sixth game in the series) is conservative in its broad strokes, a conscious return to form after the much-maligned Hitman: Absolution tried to turn it into a cover shooter for reasons nobody could figure out.

That said, Hitman embraces the goofiness and creativity of the core sandbox more than other games in the series; the levels are bigger and more complex than before, and there’s an enormous variety of (often comical) ways to eliminate the targets. On top of that, there’s a massive gamification layer; some of this is banal skinner-box stuff, but much of it rewards creative play, and even allows players to create their own challenges. As a gesture to accessibility, a lot of the routes are very clearly signposted, and mission-changing events often won’t happen until the player reaches a certain area or completes a certain step (in contrast to the unforgiving clockwork missions of previous entries, which ground forward without any intervention from the player). In a sense, this makes the whole affair more ludic and limits the emergent hijinks that can happen; but I was happy to take the trade, as I’ve always admired the series more than enjoyed it, and having a way to play without massive trial and error ensured I could actually finished the game.

There’s also a ton of value here; each mission could be played a dozen times with notably different runs each time, and in this sense it’s almost a roguelike.

Ultimately, the Hitman series is still too cold and mechanistic for me to really embrace, but there’s a sense in which it’s carrying forward the ideals of the immersive sim movement, and I respect the hell out of it for that.

 

Hypnospace Outlaw √ ♥

The first half of 2019 was full of some lovely gaming experiences, but Hypnospace Outlaw is easily my favorite (which was particularly satisfying, since I helped crowdfund it). I’m hoping to do a podcast dedicated to it with Joanna, so more in-depth thoughts will be there; but here is the short notes version of why it’s so lovely:

The internet, circa 2019, is so dominated by e-commerce, gaming, and hellish social media that it’s easy to forget what an innocent, joyous place it once was. In the early days of the World Wide Web, it was a wild frontier, where nobody really knew what they were doing, and the expectations for this new form were yet to be set. The experience I most associate with those early days is wonder. Part of this was my age (I first experienced the internet in 1993 or so, when I was five or six; I didn’t really get free reign till I was 8 or 9), but it was also the nature of an infinite universe of webpages, which you largely stumbled upon through web rings, because good search engines did not yet exist, and it wasn’t clear what you’d even be searching for anyway. It was fun, it was mysterious, and it was usually friendly; we were all in this together, and there was nothing really to gain by being hostile. At the same time, people are people, and there was internet drama from the earliest days, little communities going to war with other communities for incredibly low stakes.

Hypnospace Outlaw imagines a world in which the early ’90s internet lasted just a bit longer than it actually did; the year is 1999, and Hypnospace is a browser/hardware combination that allows users to surf the web while they sleep. You’re a volunteer moderator, instructed to do things like report copyright violations, harassment, and viruses.

And that’s basically it! The vast majority of Hypnospace Outlaw is spent just crawling a huge assortment of webpages, and while there is a story, some very clever puzzles, and notable twists and turns, the key selling point is the experience of discovering all these different webpages. The vast majority are ramshackle personal pages of the sort one used to find on Angelfire or Geocities, often replete with music, gifs, comments…everything you’d expect.

It’s an impressive achievement, a web in microcosm, and I’d like Hypnospace Outlaw if that’s all it was. But it’s more than a nostalgia trip; it’s an exploration of what these communities were like, their promise and peril, and the writing is top-notch. There’s very little sense of artifice here; it really does seem like real netizens populate these communities, and the writers use an admirably light touch when confronting their beliefs and politics. There are right-wing patriots, but the game does not go out of its way to satirize or mock them; there are militant atheists and fervent Christians, and the game treats both with compassion. There are hackers and computer-illiterate grandparents. There are gaming communities, conspiracy communities, an AOL-style Kids Zone, and technical glitches. There is a site dedicated to tracking the history of various subgenres of music, complete with examples, many of which are fantastic (the game turned me onto a completely unknown, friend-of-the-developer band called Meat Goats, and their album Glasmoplasm is so far my best find of 2019).

The game pushes beyond passively reading webpages, introducing some new mechanics along the way, fully exploring its concept (or as much as it can in about 15 hours, anyway). I don’t want to spoil most of these, but I will say there are some time jumps, so you can see these communities change and evolve rather than just view static snapshots of webpages. The format allows for many stories in parallel, and the player can follow or ignore whichever ones they please. The lack of a modern search engine also means there are secret pages to discover or stumble upon.

There are days where it seems like it’s impossible to really break new ground in video games; then something like Hypnospace Outlaw comes along, and writers like me struggle to explain it. These surprises are the best part of playing video games, and it’s rare that they are this engaging.

 

Into the Breach

Into the Breach is a minimalist turn-based roguelike, featuring precise tactical combat on miniature dioramas, each round taking no more than 10 minutes. I don’t quite know what to make of it.

One of my favorite game writers, Alec Meer, treated Into the Breach as the second coming. I’ll quote him at length (because the article, The Tyranny of the Near Perfect-Game, is only accessible to RPS subscribers).

“[Into the Breach and Slay the Spire] feel like the pinnacle of something, of absurdly tight design and balance, of eschewing gloss without sacrificing character, and of the games I most loved in the 90s now fully caught up to the here and now, taken to new and brilliant and weirdly timeless places. (Their respective use of large 2D art means they will survive the ravages of age remarkably well). “

Meer is right; Into the Breach is formally perfect, by which I mean that there is no apparent change or tweak you could make that would make it a better game. Games are craft as much as they are art, and evaluated from the standpoint of “what is this game trying to do? What audience does it seek to serve? What niche does it seek to fill?” it’s a wild success, absolutely dominating its niche; it’s like if someone took the breaktime strategy of Minesweeper and blew it up into a game that had all the elements of a traditional turn-based strategy game, with none of the bloat; no building, no research, no extraneous narrative.

It’s good, it’s crunchy, and I’ve never regretted my time playing with it, but it’s so pure that it feels like all the interesting edges have been filed off. There are a lot of clever implications to its frame narrative, but none of them are explored, because that would be bloat. The procedural generation never generates levels that are too weird or wacky, because that would be imbalanced. Into the Breach may be the greatest math puzzle I’ve ever tried to solve, but how much do I really enjoy solving math puzzles?

I keep it installed and fire it up from time to time, but at the end of the day, for all my respect for the craft of games, it is the art that moves me, the weird and the wonderful, the idiosyncratic, the human in digital form. And so I will never be able to love Into the Breach (or Slay the Spire – see last year’s writeup) in the way Meer does.

 

Jalopy √ <3

Jalopy is responsible for one of my all-time favorite lines from a developer profile:

“’A lot of people have made the correlation between game development being a janky mess and the car in the game being a janky mess,’ says Greg Pryjmachuk, the sole developer of Jalopy, a game about driving a Laika 601 Deluxe through the countries of the former Soviet bloc with your uncle. ‘It does seem quite apt.’”

If Into the Breach is clinical perfection, Jalopy is a ramshackle beater, threatening to collapse at any moment, but so full of character and love that I couldn’t turn away from it. The gameplay is simple: you get in your car, and slowly drive it to a motel in the next city on your journey. Along the way, your car will likely break down; you may pop a tire, get stuck in the mud, run out of fuel, or have your carburetor bite the dust. You try to maintain your car as best you can, trading some goods along the way (and finding stuff on the side of the road) in a desperate attempt to earn enough money to pay for motels, gas, and some upgrades to your vehicle.

Much of the game is spent driving in silence (or, ideally, with the absolutely lovely Eastern European radio, mostly simulated period music), though occasionally your Uncle will pop in with observations. Your car may also clip through terrain; you may find items in your trunk suddenly disappearing, or the price of cigarettes inexplicably tank in all cities on the continent. These things are annoying, but as the developer notes, there’s remarkable thematic synergy between the bugs and the car; the player has to push through both to see the journey through, and they’re both the product of limited resources.

Jalopy has limited scope; there is an ending, and past that point there’s only so much joy in driving back and forth, grinding for a better car; but it’s a lovely journey while it lasts.

 

Jazztronauts √

(Note: I also talked about Jazztronauts on the seventh episode of my podcast)

I love film. I love literature. And yet, I spend the disproportionate amount of media consumption on video games.

One of the primary reasons for this is that I love novelty, and while video games are no longer a young medium, there are still radical works produced on an annual basis; works so imaginative that nobody could anticipate their existence. Jazztronauts is one such work.

Jazztronauts casts you as an unwitting explorer of some shitty Half-Life 2 zombies map in Garry’s Mod 3 Before you know it, you get a “prop snatcher,” a device that lets you literally pick up pieces of the level and teleport them away. You soon team up with a team of anthropomorphic cats who travel through Source Engine maps, stealing everything for money.

At the home base, the cats give you missions to find certain objects; completing these advances an off-the-wall, character-centric visual novel, which focuses on the nature of art, creation, and modification. The writing oozes character, and once again raises the question as to why so many big-budget commercial games have atrocious writing when a few unpaid amateurs can blow it out of the park.

But what makes the mod radical is that—apart from the central hub area—none of the “levels” are from the mod itself. Instead, it uses some absolutely magical hackery to create a giant television monitor that randomly selects from every publicly-listed Garry’s Mod map ever created. When you see one you like, you take an interdimensional trolley and travel there. You can steal textures and objects, and look for floating shards hidden in the level. And when you’re done, you can summon the trolley, which dramatically blows through the wall (or floor, or ceiling) of wherever you’ve summoned it, in what is probably my favorite video game animation of all time.

So you get to see the detritus of 15 years of modding. You see basic maps made by 13-year-olds creating their first levels. You see elaborate Star Wars roleplay maps. You see recreations of high schools and businesses, people using mapping to explore their own lives. You see Mario Kart racetracks. You see stuff that is straight-up weird and/or broken.

It’s a love letter to modding and the creative communities that thrive on it. It’s also just straight-up satisfying to collect an entire level, and then get paid for it.

Jazztronauts is not for everyone, but it is the king, and sole resident, of its brilliant niche.

 

Kids √ ♥

There’s a pretty big gap between abstract visual art, laden with symbolic meaning, and what most people would call “fun.” Like it’s predecessor Plug & Play, Kids is an interactive animated short that does its best to close that gap. Due to its surrealism, Kids doesn’t have a plot or characters to speak of; it’s rather a playful meditation on crowds and group dynamics. Taking no more than half an hour to play, some people will inevitably find Kids “not worth the money,” but it’s a distinct experience that has stuck with me well after I finished playing.

 

Kind Words ♥

Kind Words may be the most pleasant surprise of 2019. Released as a Humble Original by little-known developer Pop Cannibal, Kind Words isn’t so much a game as it is a software tool with a very specific focus: creating a safe space for people to share their problems and anxieties with strangers, and receive written affirmations in response.

That’s pretty much the whole thing: you write a short letter (signed only with your first initial—no names!) and mail it out to the ether. Alternatively, you can respond to other people’s letters. The only gamification element is that each player starts with a randomly chosen sticker, and when you mail a letter you can attach that sticker; the receiver of that letter gets that sticker to keep. So there’s a “collect them all” aspect that drives people to write.

I told a friend about this, and she dismissed it as something that would be instantly ruined by trolls. One of the wonders of Kind Words is that, in 2019, I did not see evidence of a single troll or bad faith letter during all my time with the game. This is not because of algorithmic enforcement or an army of human moderators, but because the people who play this game have all chosen to be decent, and something subtle in the design (possibly the fact that you can’t see people’s “responses” to what you write) encourages that.

I strongly recommend Kind Words to anyone that experiences depression or anxiety, whether or not they have any experience with video games.

 

Kingdom Come: Deliverance √

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a hard one to evaluate (so hard that this entire feature was delayed for three months just to finish this entry!). It’ll take some scaffolding to explain why.

KC:D is an immensely detailed, open-world, first-person RPG clearly inspired by the Elder Scrolls games, both in the sense that it’s built entirely on their basic blueprint, and in the sense that the things it does differently are very consciously a response to Skyrim Doing It Wrong (this is nowhere more evident than KC:D’s fanbase, who have nothing but venom for Elder Scrolls and would be offended by the comparison).

So at a basic level, it shares a lot of their strengths and weaknesses. Like its inspiration, KC:D has a big, lushly detailed world that’s a pleasure to travel through, and offers up an enormous amount of content to any player looking to diverge from the main quest. It also features a wide-open skill system that rewards you for doing the things you were already doing. And like its inspiration, the sheer breadth of what it’s doing means there are a lot of bits and pieces that are some combination of janky, buggy, or undercooked, and the enormous amount of content means that completionists are likely to burn themselves out before finishing.

The big distinction, and KC:D’s raison d’etre, is that while the Elder Scrolls games are generic high fantasy, KC:D aims to be a roughly historically accurate portrayal of life in Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic) circa 1403 AD.

The narrow focus on 600+ years in the past, combined with the lead writer appearing to have an overinflated sense of his own historical expertise, led to a whole culture war firestorm over what was and was not historically accurate in the game. That is well outside the bounds of this little writeup, and it’s been covered to death; feel free to look up some takes elsewhere. As part of this historical accuracy schtick, the game sometimes leans too far into “realism” and “being hardcore,” most notably with a system that makes save points irregular in the name of making choices matter, which pretty much everyone agrees is an unnecessary hindrance and which I modded out before I even started playing.

But overall, it definitely benefits from this approach, and the game’s best moments are in small details that emerge from the setting. You play a blacksmith’s son (who initially appears to just be Generic Video Game Protagonist Dude, but who ends up being surprisingly likeable, due in no small part to the lovely performance by Tom McKay), and as would be expected of a blacksmith-in-training, he begins the game illiterate; any text you try to read is garbled and not intelligible to the character OR the player. Over time, you can take reading lessons and practice reading, and text gradually becomes ungarbled. It’s a lovely feature, and I wish more games had little settings-based details like this. Likewise, the absolute highlight of the game for me was a lengthy late-game quest that involved infiltrating a Benedictine abbey. To do this, you have to spend many days living the repetitive live of a monk: getting up at crack of dawn to pray, picking herbs, praying more, scribing books, praying more, etc. It is willing to embrace tediousness in service to educational realism, and it recalls the best portions of Shenmue.

There are other great touches: an incredibly involved alchemy system (which the devs freely admit has little historical basis), an encyclopedia that’s surprisingly honest about when they used artistic license in portraying history, an entire skill tree for building alcohol tolerance.

But these are more the exceptions to the rule. There’s a fairly rote main plot which isn’t bad, but never really goes anywhere, mostly being a slow burn that sets up an inevitable sequel. You’ll be doing a lot of combat, which seeks to be a realistic depiction of sword fighting, but runs into the fundamental interface limitations of wielding a sword with a keyboard and mouse; I found it fine, but not spectacular. It can have brutal difficulty spikes that force you to go and grind sidequests to get better. Sidequests are all over the place in terms of narrative quality and quest design (some fantastic, some bad, most simply passable), there’s some dodgy voice acting, and while years of patches have ironed out the worst bugs, you’ll still come across some.

It’s very much an acquired taste, and not something I would broadly recommend; but some people are going to love it, and I ultimately enjoyed my time with it. It’s also worth noting that the DLC is of unusually high quality, expanding the scope of the game (such as letting you build and manage a village) or offering different perspectives (namely two surprisingly excellent quests that examine the lived experience of women in this setting, shifting away from the all-male perspective that dominates the main game).

 

The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel √ 


I was inspired to hunt down this long-out-of-print Sherlock Holmes game due to a glowing write-up in the Digital Antiquarian, and while pleasant, I found my interest was more historic than contemporaneous. The two Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes games represent passion projects by a couple EA developers just highly placed enough to get a PC graphic adventure made at a time when EA had almost entirely pivoted to the console sports and action games that would make them rich.

Both on the surface and in the narrative as a whole, this is a paint-by-numbers Sherlock Holmes game, and that ultimately stymied my enthusiasm; the characters never really escape their function as Sources for Clues and Period Set Dressing, and the plot is almost slavishly faithful to the blueprints set by Arthur Conan Doyle.

But this game is well ahead of its time in at least one respect: it’s a graphic adventure game that puts narrative and dialog first, with puzzles straightforward and logical, never asking the player for the mystical deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes that are needed by so many other early point-and-clicks. A lot of the puzzles—if you call them that—are simply solved by talking to a variety of characters, getting new information that subsequently unlocks new dialog options.

The game also goes far out of its way to recreate a meticulously researched Victorian London, and the muted greys and browns of its color palette perfectly evoke the city. There is some fantastically detailed descriptive text, and no shortage of dry wit.

As I said, the core story is not that interesting, and the puzzles are a means to an end and not memorable in itself, so I already feel the game fading from my mind; but it is often pleasant and rarely frustrating, which is not something that can be said of many of its contemporaries.


Magic the Gathering: Arena ♥

The hot new digital Magic is probably going to be a perennial feature of these writeups for a while. As I’ve mentioned previously, it combines the brilliant, layered, extensively (and expensively) tested gameplay of the world’s most popular CCG with a surprisingly generous free-to-play model.

The most notable change since I last wrote is the introduction of a season pass, the monetization method popularized by Fortnite. It’s actually pretty generous here; you can easily earn the ‘cost’ for it in-game, and it’s a fantastic value (lots of cards, currency, some cosmetics). The primary purpose is to incentivize regular play, which I have mixed feelings about—nobody should ever play a game they don’t want to play just because they have to earn an unlock before it disappears.

But Magic is still a wonderful game, and so playing itself is a joy. And so I keep playing. Also, I’m still quite good at drafting.

 

Minit √

It feels stupid to say that a game called Minit was unexpectedly short, but there it is. This high-concept game sees you pick up a cursed sword that kills your character after 60 seconds. Fortunately, he instantly respawns in his bed, and this is not Groundhog Day; if you change the world (say, build a bridge) the world remains changed, although enemies will inexplicably respawn.

It’s a great concept; you know that every challenge or puzzle you come across can be overcome in 60 seconds, so you’re free to try different solutions, and the developers can rely on trial-and-error more than they otherwise would. There’s a lot to explore, secrets to discover, new beds to unlock, and a motel to populate with strange characters. It’s consistently satisfying.

But just when I thought I was gaining momentum, the game ended. There’s a lot to be said for a game leaving you wanting more, but here it felt ‘small,’ like the payoff never arrived. It turns out that there’s a real focus on density, new game+, speedruns, and other optional content, which is awesome and fits with the game’s themes, but didn’t really appeal to me.

Still, this is definitely one to try. It’s accessible, novel, and straight-up cute (or as cute as anything involving constant, inevitable death can be).

 

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden √ 

A pleasant surprise, Mutant Year Zero takes the combat of the XCOM reboots and builds a linear stealth game around it. You explore new areas, skulk around, scavenge for resources, and try to pick off members of the opposing, much stronger force. It shouldn’t really work, but it does, and for me the challenge was perfectly tuned into the “tough but fair” range on the default difficulty level. Post-apocalyptic settings are rather tired in video games, but the setting here is forested, maybe somewhere in Scandinavia, and so is beautiful in a way “humanity in ruins” games normally aren’t. It’s run time (about 20 hours for an obsessive completionist like me, 60% of that for those who aren’t) is a pleasant departure from the lengthy campaigns of XCOM and makes me wish for more mid-length games.

The characters pop, and have great “look at” commentary (ala adventure games) that fleshes out the world, but the overarching plot isn’t much to write home about, and it ends on something of a cliffhanger. It went REALLY fast from release to a Humble Bundle/free Epic game, so I imagine the sales were lackluster, but it definitely deserves a follow-up.


My Time at Portia

My Time at Portia is more or less exactly what you’d expect from looking at screenshots and a blurb: a competent knock-off of Stardew Valley (and by extension, Harvest Moon), but with a greater emphasis on building than farming. Taking place in the rare post-apocalyptic setting that leans bucolic rather than grimdark, the standard “taking over grandpa’s farm” start is complicated by the fact that Grandpa was a Builder (essentially, a particularly adept handyman who can build everything from barns to buses).

I’m a sucker for “fix-up” games, and I genuinely enjoyed repairing the town’s structure. There’s real character here, and like with Stardew Valley, there’s little pressure; you can very much do things at your own pace.

At the same time, My Time at Portia feels fundamentally amateurish. The art style is a generic mobile game translated to a 3D world; the characters are quirky without any real depth, and the tone is all over the place. Combat is fast but brain-dead (which, to be fair, is par for the course for these games) and mining is repetitive even by the standards of the genre.

It made a lot more sense when I realized the team that made the game is Chinese. A combination of an inconsistent embargo against various Western media, the relatively short history of the Chinese middle class, and an entirely different gaming culture means that almost all Chinese game developers have cut their teeth on mobile games, visual novels, and MMOs; a lot of the collective design knowledge of Western game developers seems to be absent there (Steam wasn’t officially available in China until 2018, and even then the version available is subject to significant censorship). This may explain why My Time at Portia’s primary reference point seems to be MMORPGs, which explains the repetitive, grindy quests that make up your primary income; there’s no concept of quest design beyond “craft a bunch of things and deliver them.”

That said, it’s a distinct experience, and one I enjoyed for a good 30 hours; there aren’t a lot of quality chill-out games, and while My Time at Portia will never give Stardew Valley a run for its money, its combination of quest-centric gameplay and chillout pastoralism means it has a niche all its own.

 

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom √ 

While a Studio Ghibli RPG sounds fantastic, I skipped the original Ni no Kuni on account of its reputation as a massively grindy, very traditional JRPG. Ni no Kuni II borrows the Ghibli art style, but is otherwise entirely unrelated to its predecessor.

First things first: this game is beautiful. Fantastic use of cel shading, distinct character design, and a broader color palette than any recent game I can think of means Ni no Kuni II is a pleasure just to watch. It’s also easy to pick up and play; animations are lovely, and combat is a simple, fast-paced, real-time affair which mostly consists of auto-attacking enemies and using a few different special abilities. Much of the game consists of running through the proverbial dungeons, killing everything that moves. It’s a simple pleasure, and while it’s too shallow to really carry the game, it’s never painful.

The heart of the game isn’t revealed until a solid dozen hours in: your character, Prince Evan, a deposed boy-king, opts to found a new kingdom, where everything will be peaceful and all will know happiness. This opens up some interesting thematic territory, particularly when Evan decides that one-world government is the only answer to widespread war, but the game is too lightweight to do anything more than hint at the darker aspects of nation-building.

Instead, what you get is an unofficial Suikoden game. For those unfamiliar, Suikoden was a series of JRPGs released between 1995 and 2008 whose distinctive shtick was the ability to recruit exactly 108 unique characters over the course of your journey, who could do everything from be a full monster-killing party member, to run a bathhouse for your troops.

Thus, the real joy of the game is in tracking down all these characters  and doing whatever you can to recruit them. Doing so lets you expand your kingdom, and new buildings and plazas pop up out of the ground. I grew very attached to my kingdom, even though it was a visually spectacular series of unlocks rather than something I’d actually built (you have no choice where buildings are placed – you’re filling in a pre-existing blueprint, not drawing your own).

In typical JRPG fashion, the game starts to fizzle out towards the end, and its provocative themes go unrealized in a way that suggests cuts or missing contents, but it’s a charming diversion at its worst and a beautiful journey at its best.

 

Omnibus

Omnibus presents itself as a never-released PS1 game, and reminds me a lot of Roundabout, another over-the-top retro game about a difficult-to-control vehicle. It’s a series of silly levels where you have to drive a bus into/over/through things, often with different modifiers for the bus’s behavior.

It’s a fun arcadey time, and good for its low price, but probably a little more difficult that it should be; you really have to work to beat levels past the earliest ones, and I’m not sure the controls are really tight enough to make that difficulty pleasurable.

 

Outer Wilds √ ♥

[NB: This is a shorter version of my Outer Wilds talk on the eighth episode of my podcast]

Outer Wilds is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, but isn’t quite like anything else I’ve played, and doesn’t fit comfortably in a single existing genre. In short: it’s a wide-open, first-person puzzle box with a focus on wonder and discovery.

The basic setup is that you’re a brand-new astronaut setting out to explore the galaxy. You’re not the first to leave your home planet, but you’re the first to carry a translation device, which will aid you in interpreting the alien ruins scattered throughout the solar system. Delightfully, the universe is a properly simulated physics model, so as you pilot your lunar lander type craft you have to account for inertia & gravity (with an optional autopilot feature for those who don’t enjoy this). You can go anywhere you want; there are no Unlock Requirements or flashing Go Here waypoints.

You’ll also find that, after 20 minutes, the sun goes supernova, and you (and everyone else) die. At this point, you’re sent 20 minutes back in time, to the outset of your journey.

The good news is that you also don’t actually lose any meaningful progress when you die; this isn’t an RPG. You don’t level up, you don’t get new items, you don’t unlock new abilities; you start with everything you will ever have, and all the puzzles you’ll encounter revolve around using that fixed set of abilities (which include a jetpack, a sort of listening/homing device called a stereoscope, and a remote-controlled probe you can take pictures with).

And yet there is a real sense of progress, because information is the key. Why does time keep repeating? Why is the universe ending? And is there any way to stop it? You’ll explore different planets and the ruins of the Nomai, translating their writing (which is anything but dry: it’s filled with character and humor, and is written in a lovely spiral language where every new tangent of conversation literally branches off from the line before). And your ship’s database will record the important information you learn and connect it to each other.

Sometimes you’ll WANT to ‘die’ or otherwise reset the loop, because the universe is constantly in motion during its finite lifespan; things change, with some paths covered over time, and other uncovered, and you eventually realize that accessing some areas requires you to be in a certain place at a certain time. The game is full of clever puzzles, but none that are overly demanding; because you have limited tools at your disposal, you never fall into the old “use every object on every other object” brute force method of point-and-click adventures. And because it’s a big and varied universe, if you get stuck, you can go somewhere else and return later.

If there is anything bad about Outer Wilds, it’s that ultimately, it does have to have an ending, a solution to the ultimate puzzle; and the developers have to ensure that you actually figure it out, and don’t just trip over the solution. That means that at the end of the day, there is one way to win, and you’ll need certain specific information to determine that, and then do a specific number of events in sequence. I loved the game right up until those last few hours, when the seemingly-infinite possibilities began to narrow, and I hit the bottleneck of trying to find the last few bits of information I needed. Worse, once I figured out how to do it, I failed about four times in a row; there are some fiddly things you have to accomplish, and while they aren’t that hard, the time pressure made me rush and make mistakes, and every time I made a mistake, I had to restart the loop and do it all over again.

But I did get there, and the ending was genuinely solid, integrating the mechanics and themes of what came before, so I wouldn’t let that small drawback discourage anyone from playing. The developers cite Myst, Majora’s Mask, and Kerbal Space Program as influences, and you can clearly see those works in this game, but Outer Wilds is wholly unique, and somehow manages to be both thrilling and relaxing in equal measure. Outer space is a dangerous place, but Outer Wilds emphasizes the joy of discovery and the adventure of exploration, with death and injury just the cost of doing business.

Overall, I’d say Outer Wilds is my second favorite game of 2019, after Hypnospace Outlaw.

 

Pikuniku √ ♥

I have no in-depth criticism of Pikuniku; the game is just pure charm. I’m writing this 10 months after playing it, and I still have warm fuzzy feelings about it. It doesn’t do anything mechanically new and interesting—it’s basically a puzzle platformer with some adventure game bits—but it is made of goodness, not just in its lovely dialog and humble, heroic protagonist, but in every little character animation. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is a great, accessible game I’d recommend to anyone.

 

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire – The Beast of Winter √ 

Deadfire’s first DLC is exactly what story-based DLC should be: a self-contained adventure that introduces new locations and characters with a few mechanical twists, that functions on its own terms but also fleshes out the world of Pillars of Eternity. It’s really good.

And yet I had to drag myself through it a little bit, because it turns out that I’m starting to burn out on real-time-with-pause combat and Pillars in general. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in these wonderful games, and while I finished Beast of Winter (and enjoyed it), I had to pause on the final two DLCs. I’ll get to those in 2020.

Sadly, this is a problem that will solve itself, as due to inexplicably poor sales, there won’t be a Pillars III in the foreseeable future 🙁

 

Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror √ 

I’ve dabbled in a few Spiderweb games over the years (Geneforge, Nethergate: Resurrection, even the original Exile: Escape from the Pit demo when I was very young) and enjoyed them, but never managed to finish them; I think they have a consistent design flaw that there’s about 30% more combat encounters than the depth of the combat system can really support, and so they tend to get a little grindy in the late-game. Then again, I obsessively pursue all sidequests and explore all locations, so the fault is probably mine.

Anyway, Queen’s Wish is the first new series for them since Avadon in 2011, and it contains everything that makes Spiderweb games a treat: excellent world-building, satisfying progression, playful humor, and classic dungeon-delving pleasures. The combat is simple, but passes the time well (though nobody will play this for the combat alone). The “selling point” of Queen’s Wish is that you’re a monarch seeking to reclaim lost colonies, and the game does a good job of both making you appreciate the power you wield, and exploring the complexity of colonization (and specifically, what happens when a colonial power suddenly pulls out and upends the power structures of the colonized lands). It’s a nice self-contained tale that also sets up a potential sequel, and I’d definitely play it!

 

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw

I really wanted to like Rebel Galaxy Outlaw. Space sims are rare enough, and ones that focus on combat and adventure over trading are even rarer.

At a basic level, Outlaw is a success. It’s a game with a lot of dogfighting, and features what may be the best combat model of any space sim I’ve played. It’s clear the developers understood that the ships being fun to fly and shoot was the most important part of the game, and spared no effort.

But everything outside of the combat is lacking. Outlaw takes place in a sector of space populated by one-note characters and about nine bazillion pirates. Most of the play consists of you trying to get somewhere, and repetitively arriving at and flying through a series of jump gates. Half the time, you’ll be ambushed by pirates at a jumpgate, and these fights are unavoidable even if you massively overpower the pirates. You’ll also sometimes be intercepted by pirates mid-flight, and I quickly learned to just transfer all power to engines and fly away until I could jump out, because this was preferable to engaging in the 1000th pirate battle.

There are actual story missions/sidequests too, and these are better, including some setpiece battles with ships and stations and whatnot, but they’re not taking any awards for mission design, and they aren’t always readily available; like Freelancer before it, Outlaw wants you to grind procedurally generated missions to pass time until a scripted mission unlocks. I hated when Freelancer did this in 2003, and I hate it now.

By my understanding, it’s on the shorter side; I’ve heard people say you can finish it in fifteen hours. I’m definitely over that, so must be near the end, but I haven’t been able to get myself to get out the joystick and push through to the end, because every time I do, I think about fighting pirates at jumpgates.

 

Reigns

Reigns is, famously, one of the few good smartphone games to have actually sold well and gotten notice, and I’m a johnny-come-lately to it. I bought it on PC (cause it’s cheaper there) and if I could do it again I’d definitely leave it on phones; it’s built both for that screen format, and for the sorts of five-minute play sessions that fit with travel in the world.

It’s quite good for what it is! The writing is sharp, the math (of balancing different factions in your kingdom) seems tight, and it gives me the compulsion to play Just One More Turn, which means it’s doing something right.

I get the sense that ‘winning’ is going to involve a heck of a lot of memorizing outcomes of different events combined with some luck, so I’m not sure I’ll ever do it, but this is an excellent phone game, and one that deserves its success.


Sanctum 2

Sanctum 2 is here because I played it, but not nearly enough to critically evaluate it. Like its predecessor, it’s an FPS/tower defense combo meant to be played in co-op. I did with some people, and we had a reasonably good time, but the difficulty required a little more coordination than we could levy, and we ended up trying Vermintide instead (see below).


Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Definitive Edition) √ 

On a surface level, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is just more of what you got in Rise of the Tomb Raider, which was just a refined version of Tomb Raider (2013). You get a couple of new ways to grapple and climb, but mechanically it’s basically the same game. So I looked forward to playing it, because I found Rise of the Tomb Raider to be a great guilty pleasure.

It was not a great pleasure. I spent two-thirds of Shadow being regularly annoyed at how stupid it was. The narrative starts off as a series of dumb but inoffensive tropes—just like the earlier ones—but devolves into incoherency around the time you’re introduced to the big hub city that’s supposed to be this game’s distinguishing feature.

I don’t want to spend paragraphs on all the ways it’s dumb, but in short it creates an elaborate, ridiculous back story that drives the events, then drip-feeds the details of that back story in found documents, such that Lara Croft seems to always know what’s going on, but the player is always playing catch-up. This is obnoxious because, again, the story is so dumb, and the characters’ actions so unmooored from any explicable motivation, that I could not bring myself to put in the effort to make sense of it.

Dumb stories are tolerable in guilty pleasure games, normally, but Shadow really cares about it’s story! It’s determined to stuff the game with cutscenes, walk-and-talks, and lore in every cranny, so there isn’t really getting around it.

The game does make some genuine improvements to the formula: modular difficulty levels that you can set separately for combat, puzzles, and navigation is brilliant and something other open-world games should steal. The renewed focus on environmental puzzle solving over combat is a welcome one, though the level design (full of perfectly functional Rube Goldberg machines in 400-year-old tombs) can’t be bothered to even gesture at verisimilitude. The game is also technically gorgeous, and features the most advanced “photography mode” I’ve ever seen, for those artistically inclined individuals who like to put in the effort to take fantastic screenshots.

But by god, the narrative is dumb.

 

Shenmue III √ 

In a year where I had more bandwidth, I probably would have written a proper, in-depth review of Shenmue III. I can’t recall ever feeling more conflicted about a game. But I’ll try to hit the major points here.

When I backed Shenmue III in 2015, I knew that I was taking a big risk. Could a game developer who hadn’t made a major video game in fourteen years, with an inexperienced team and a much smaller budget than the first two Shenmues, make a worthy successor? And what would a worthy successor even look like? How much would it hew to tradition vs. trying to improve on the faults on its predecessors, and implement what we’ve learned in the previous 14 years?

In late 2019, we finally found out, and the answer is both marvelous and disappointing. More than one reviewer pointed out that Shenmue III genuinely comes off as a game that was released in 2003 (as God intended), fell into a wormhole, and popped out with 2019-good graphics, but otherwise unchanged.

On one level, this is fantastic. One of these issues with sequels released after a large gap is their inevitable incongruity with what came before; but a player today could play Shenmue 1 through 3 back to back and, graphics aside, feel that they were playing three chapters of the same game. Shenmue III not only starts exactly where Shenmue II left off, but with all the exact same items in inventory, same combat moves learned, etc. The voice actor for the main character sounds like he hasn’t aged a day. The structure of the game is largely unchanged, and even its infamous idiosyncrasies—like an English script that is obviously a literal Japanese translation rather than a proper localization—are present. It’s a love letter to fans of the originals, and it’s a warm hug for anyone who enjoyed them. It’s languid pace is a welcome change from most video games, and I enjoyed slowly exploring its world. The constant need to do repetitive tasks to train martial arts and/or make money is thematically appropriate and, in its way, a nice bit of simulation.

On another level, this is maddening. It’s unclear if the developers (and lead Yu Suzuki in particular) were afraid of changing anything out of fear of upsetting their rabid fanbase, or if they genuinely thought Shenmue II was pretty much perfect. Some of the things that made Shenmue great—like the ability to really look and interact with tons of objects in the environment—are less novel in 2019, and bloat the game more than they should. The vast majority of the game is still “ask random strangers about X until they tell you to talk to Y/go to Z, repeat” and while I personally enjoyed this out of nostalgia, it’s not exactly great quest design. The writing remains mediocre at best, and grinding for money/stats can become tiresome.

And then, in a few ways, it actually takes some steps back. The combat system is actually notably worse than the originals (the best I can figure is that they weren’t able to make the Virtua Fighter system work in the Unreal engine, and so came up with a wooden imitation). While the first two Shenmues worked to have self-contained story arcs in addition to their larger episodic plans, Shenmue III is a game in which about two hours of plot happens over the course of its 40-hour runtime, and then it has the gall to end on a cliffhanger, despite the fact that there’s no guarantee that Shenmue IV will ever be funded. It really feel like Suzuki had a miraculous second chance to finish his famously unfinished saga, and threw it away. It doesn’t help that the plotting is banal and notably less interesting than the day-to-day wanderings of the city.

If those aspects were a disappointment, the audio-visual experience was a pleasant surprise. To my eyes, the game looks gorgeous, full of color and style with top-notch lighting, and just being in its towns & cities is a pleasure. Budget limitations means its soundtrack is much smaller than the first two games, but what’s there is fantastic.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend Shenmue III to anyone who doesn’t already love the first two and want more, but I did enjoy my time with it despite its myriad flaws. Which, I suppose, is an accurate recapture of my experience with the first two.

 

Sky Rogue 

The arcade flight sim has been missing from the PC market for a good 20 years (seriously, I think Crimson Skies (2000) was the last great one), and until recently the Ace Combat games were exclusive to consoles. Enter Sky Rogue, where a single enterprising developer builds an off-label Ace Combat game, with the twist that it’s a roguelike (with unlockables).

It’s really good! It’s rough around the edges, and has less enemy variety than is ideal—it does get repetitive—but as a cheap game from a single developer, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and a great ‘chill out and listen to music’ game.

 

Sunless Skies ♥

Sunless Skies is a sequel to Sunless Sea, my favorite game of 2013. I played Sunless Sea a lot, and then died. I played it again, repeating some content, and then died again. Then I turned off permadeath. Then I lost my saves, and had to play it again. I did this because of how much I loved but, I did end up playing Sunless Sea a LOT.

I mention this here to explain why I’ll sound a little underwhelmed by Sunless Skies, even though it is a) great and b) better than Sunless Sea. Sunless Skies tales the “don’t fix what’s not broken” approach to sequeldom. This is a good choice, because there wasn’t really anything else like Sunless Sea, but it featured plenty of design decisions that drove otherwise interested players away.

Sunless Skies has a much easier start than its predecessor; significantly increases the player’s speed, so there is much less time where nothing happens: and makes the combat more responsive, and with more depth. It also has a new-and-exciting setting of Outer Space, albeit a very different one than exists in reality. It’s a game I could easily recommend to people, and in the last year it’s received a lot of free updates and polish, so much that I’m not returning to it until the final big update lands in mid-2020.

So it’s great! But while I played it a good bit, I didn’t obsess over it like I did with Sunless Sea, because I spent SO MUCH TIME sailing between ports and reading excellent gothic steampunk fiction already.

 

Untitled Goose Game √ 

I gotta agree with Ian Bogost on this one: Untitled Goose Game is a better GIF generator than it is a game.

To be clear, this is a work of great artistry and technical achievement. The devs have not coasted on the memetic quality of playing a goose, but have gone out of their way to make the goose perfect. Its animations, it’s sounds, it’s available actions (including spreading its wings just to be more intimidating) are just-so. But all these present perfectly in the gifs and videos people make of it, and bring joy to so many.

The actual play is a well-done but fairly simple stealth game, and it suffers a little bit from “guess what the developers were thinking” syndrome. Each level has a list of tasks the goose has to do, and it’s your job to figure out how, with your limited action set, you can accomplish them. They are solid puzzles, but it’s a lot of trial-and-error, and there were times I was stuck or frustrated, even needing to resort to a walkthrough on a couple of occasions. There’s a tension between the sandbox “I’m a goose!” play and the desire to proceed to new areas.

I suspect this game would be a bigger hit with people who didn’t play as many video games (and particularly stealth games) as I do. I enjoyed it and admired it, but it didn’t really stick with me when I finished it.

 

Warhammer: End Times: Vermintide √ ♥

I first played Vermintide in 2016, playing some matches with strangers, and enjoyed it for what it was, but to get the full benefit I needed a co-op crew. In the second half of 2019 I started doing regular co-op gaming with some friends who moved across the country, and Vermintide was the first game we really sunk our teeth into. And I loved it.

At its core, this is a Left 4 Dead style game where you wade through infinite spawns of creatures (in this case, Skaven, the anthropomorphic rats of Warhammer Fantasy) in carefully crafted, roughly linear levels. There’s a narrative campaign you go through that’s of decent length, but long-term play involves repeating levels with different characters and weapons to grind better equipment.

I’m not a huge fan of “late game grinding,” but Vermintide provides a fantastic first run through the campaign, and the DLC (now available for cheap) is of general high quality. But what makes this work is that there’s a kinetic satisfaction to melee combat that I’ve never encountered in a first-person game, and there’s a lovely balance between the gothic, Grimdark atmosphere and the fundamental absurdity of your motley brigade killing thousands of rats.

Even when my group moved on, I still picked this up on occasion, just to do the combat again (and soak up the atmosphere). As someone who primarily focuses on narrative games, this is remarkable.

 

Yakuza Kiwami √ ♥

Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the first Yakuza game, released in 2005, and so it’s hard to evaluate. On one hand, Yakuza 0—the game released immediately before it—is better in almost every way, because it’s built by a team with extensive experience making Yakuza games, whereas the original is very much the rough draft. And because Yakuza 0 takes place first chronologically—and in fact sets up stories in Kiwami—newcomers to the series should play that first. That means almost everyone’s experience with Kiwami will be “it’s good, but the last game was better.”

On the other hand, it really is a lovely remake, faithfully preserving the story, setting, and sidequests of the original, while adding in new sidequests and story hooks to Yakuza 0, all of which are good. It’s a shorter, punchier, and more straightforward game than 0, and this is not a bad thing. By the time I was done with it, I was a little Yakuzaed out, but it was a good time. If you liked Yakuza 0 and want more, playing this is a no-brainer.

 

Yakuza Kiwami 2 √ 

Yakuza Kiwami 2 is an odd duck. On one hand, it’s a faithful remake of Yakuza 2, the 2006 sequel to the original Yakuza, and like that one remains a fairly grounded (if operatic) crime drama relative to later series entries. On the other hand, it uses the game engine introduced with Yakuza 6 (the final game), incorporating the significant combat changes of the title and giving it a very different feel than Yakuza Kiwami.

The bad: the port is awful, with the worst aliasing I’ve seen in a modern game, even with resource-intensive AA turned on; it apparently has to do with how the engine renders lighting and there is no way around it, which is too bad since the game is otherwise technically gorgeous. The fact that Yakuza 2 was released a mere year after Yakuza is also apparent in the game’s DNA; there are a lot of throwaway sidequests, and much of the game takes place in the same small chunk of Tokyo (which would become a series trademark).

There’s also the fact that I played Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2 within a year of eachother, and this was not a good choice; by the time I got to Kiwami 2, I was a bit overstuffed, and some of the aspects of the game started to feel like a chore.

But! It’s still a quality Yakuza game. Great acting, fun exploration, some top-notch sidequests, and minimal grind: you get to choose how much you want to go out of your for achivements and completionism, and I got through the game by ignoring stuff I’d already one in the previous titles. The story didn’t do as much for me as previous Yakuza games, but it’s never dull, and it has an admirably explosive ending.

I love this series, and I look forward to Yakuza 3–6 coming to PC some day, but I’m gonna need a good break before I tackle those.

Notes:

  1. As you can see, I completely failed to accomplish last year’s promise of doing this quarterly, hence the massive block of text below. Hopefully I can break it up more in 2020, but given that this is five months late, I wouldn’t counting on it.
  2. There are some decisions I regret about my book (largely completed in 2010), but my decision to identify an obscure mod as one of the most important milestones in game storytelling has been vindicated far more than I ever expected. I usually try to be humble, but I’m pretty proud of that 🙂
  3. An early and popular commercial mod for the Source engine, used by Half-Life 2, that let people build all sorts of maps, films, and minigames using the assets from Half-Life 2, Counterstrike: Source, and a few other games.