This is my ninth annual roundup of games I’ve played in a given year, and I’m publishing it ten months late; the last two years have been incredibly difficult for me, and projects like this one have gone slowly. But it’s here, and while the 2021 roundup will also be late, it should appear in early 2022.

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.

 

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth √

In my previous write-up of an Ace Attorney game, I’ve both bemoaned and made peace with the fact that the series has absolutely no interest in iterating on its core gameplay or improving it in any way, and is instead content to pump out what are essentially stand-alone expansions for the original. Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth is further proof of that conservatism: it makes only minor changes to the formula, but this is enough to relegate it to being a spin-off rather than a main series title.

The two big changes are in the title: you’re playing a prosecutor (Miles Edgeworth) rather than a defense attorney, and the split between investigation and courtroom trials has been discarded in favor of solely doing investigations. The other changes (a different camera perspective, a “logic” mechanic to connect pieces of information) are fine but inconsequential.

The bad news is that these changes don’t shake up the formula in the slightest. In the main series, you’re a defense attorney whose clients are always innocent, and so it doesn’t really explore the complexities of being a defense attorney; in Investigations, Edgeworth is frequently confronted with someone who is accused of a crime, and proceeds…to expose their innocence and find the real culprit. Exactly like Phoenix Wright does. Reformed from his earlier antics, Edgeworth is scrupulous in his honesty and pursuit for the truth, as opposed to prosecutorial victory; this makes for a pleasant play, but the complete avoidance of the many issues in real-world prosecutorial practice and culture leaves it toothless.

The good news is that Edgeworth is a fun, dryly funny lead, and the game’s five cases investigations are consistently compelling. If you want a laid-back investigative adventure, replete with all of the series’ trademark incompetent characters and increasingly improbable twists, then this is a worthwhile play.

 

ARK: Survival Evolved

ARK is a peculiar mess. It is flamboyantly amateurish, featuring the sort of bullet-point feature set that seems to have been produced by an excited teenage boy with no actual experience making video games. “It’s a big sandbox world! With dinosaurs! And machine guns! And crafting and PVP combat! And you can train the dinosaurs and ride them and fire your machine gun!”

If this were actually the case, we could find the resultant, buggy mess adorable, and be open to the charms it does have—the variety of dinosaurs, the sometimes goofy emergent behavior that arises from all of them running around in this sandbox, the exploration of a genuinely pretty tropical biome. But it’s in fact made by established developers; and whatever limitations they had on budget when they first started making it disappeared when it sold gangbusters in early access, giving them tens of millions of dollars.

What did they do with the money? Make DLC. Bad DLC.

It’s frankly bizarre. I have played over 1300 games in my life, including numerous early access and crowdfunded titles, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s not just that the game is a buggy mess (though it is), but that it has fundamental design issues, at least some of which could be easily tweaked or fixed. The time it takes to tame dinosaurs is absurd. The inventory system, and the stack limitations, are a nightmare. Mods can and have addressed these, but it’s unclear why the developers themselves haven’t bothered.

Despite all this, I enjoyed much of my time with ARK, mostly because of its absurdity and because I enjoy playing sandbox games with friends. But its state is such that, even having gotten ARK for free, I would be hesitant to buy anything else from this developer.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

Sometimes I decide I hate myself, and need to play another Assassin’s Creed game. I’m being glib, but I can’t entirely explain why I do it. I think it’s because no other series recreates historical places and architecture with such lavish detail, and there is something to be said for just running around and existing in those places.

Unity is, famously, the black sheep of the series, the game where Ubisoft’s increasing need to make each of their open-world games identical, and identically full of filler, finally provoked a backlash. The subsequent pivot in Origins and Odyssey was celebrated, but those were less radical reinventions than a return to normal series iteration after making the same game over and over.

So: Unity is chock full of low-effort sidequests, which have a thin narrative veneer of being connected to the time and place (Paris, shortly before and during the French Revolution) but are in fact the same tiresome collection/sneaking/murder quests that have been in all six (god help me) preceding mainline games.

BUT: if you ignore all of that guff, take in the sights and sounds of Paris, and pursue the main story, it’s not a bad time. Of course, I’m an idiot and kept vainly hoping the sidequests would go somewhere before burning myself out, so I’m a third of the way through at best. Sometime in future years, when I want a big-budget brainless game, I will return and rectify that, and for the first time in my life just try to do the main quest to the exclusion of all else.

Also, I started a guild in this presumably-dead game just to see what would happen, and before I knew it I was flooded with requests to join. I still don’t know why, but I played a co-op mission with one of my guildmates, and it was surprisingly fun.

 

Avadon: The Black Fortress

I learned many things in 2020, and one of them is that I should not try to play three Spiderweb Software games in a single year. After finding Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror very satisfying, I decide I was going to play the most recent remakes of the Avernum trilogy, as well as the Avadon trilogy (Geneforge was left out, as I knew that was being remade starting in 2021).

I love the niche that sole developer Jeff Vogel has carved out for himself. I enjoy his writing—matter of fact, with dry humor and solid worldbuilding—and I like that he tries to balance making traditional RPGs with trying new things with every series.

But his games are big, and bloated with a lot of combat encounters (because most of his audience wants that), all of which are fairly similar to one another. So when I found Avadon something of a chore to work through, it wasn’t really its faults; I tackled it about a year after I’d finished Queen’s Wish, and about six months after finishing Avernum: Escape from the Pit (see below).

Avadon does a very good job of exploring one of Jeff’s favorite themes (how can a single individual responsibly wield enormous power?), and his attempt at having Bioware-style companions rather than player-generated ones is more successful than not. But the combat is largely similar to his other games, and the world—while well developed—didn’t capture me in the same way Avernum’s did.

I fully intend to play Avadon 2, but it’s gonna be a while.

 

Avernum: Escape from the Pit √ ♥

When I was a wee lad, I got the demo for Jeff Vogel’s Exile: Escape from the Pit on some magazine disc. Having never played a western RPG, I didn’t really have any frame of reference for it; I thought it was fascinating, but also inscrutable. Years later, I would learn that the Exile trilogy was one of the darlings of the small ‘90s indie scene, where a few brave souls tried to make a living by selling their games by mail. It’s ridiculously large and ambitious, the work of a young developer who doesn’t know how to say “no, that’s out of scope.”

Avernum: Escape from the Pit is the second remake of the original (2000’s Avernum being the first), and while the developer is much older and wiser, he tried to retain as much of the original content and design as possible, while making it more approachable for us modern players who don’t want to get locked out of winning or have to use a pen and paper to keep our own quest journal. Avernum is most famous for its titular setting, an underground realm of cast-offs from an ill-defined surface empire. It explores and models this world in great detail, and what the game lacks in memorable characters or an overarching plot, it more than makes up for in the joys of exploring and inhabiting that world. Along the way is a whole host of sidequests and locations, from the serious to the goofy, and a surprisingly complex structure of having three different main questlines with three different endings, which the character can pursue individually or collectively; I did all three, and one of them (involving a desperate assassination in the surface empire above) managed to deliver a remarkable amount of tension and drama in what was essentially a no-budget game.

I look forward to tackling Avernum 2: Crystal Souls when I’ve taken a much-needed break from Spiderweb games.

 

Chinatown Detective Agency: Day One Prologue √

Chinatown Detective Agency: Day One Prologue is the free demo and proof-of-concept for Chinatown Detective Agency, a game deeply inspired by the classic Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Carmen Sandiego is an odd success story; a household name, one of the few computer games to spawn everything from an animated TV series to a game show, and yet not particularly influential in terms of actual game design. Part of this is because it’s an edutainment game, a genre that never really figured a way forward (artistically or commercially) after the multimedia boom of the mid ’90s. Yet it’s also the case that Carmen Sandiego’s puzzle are, at their core, riddles, and riddles are a tricky thing to build a game around.

Chinatown Detective Agency is very much its own beast—a cyberpunk, pixel art adventure game, trying to do justice to a setting (Hong Kong) not normally seen in English-language games. But its most distinguishing feature is the one it shares with Carmen Sandiego: its puzzles require you to use real-world knowledge, particularly of geography and the history and languages of countries around the world, to solve them. These are not puzzles you can reason your way through, or solve with lateral thinking; you need to know stuff. They’re designed such that you can’t just Google the answer directly, but you are expected to use a search engine to help you solve it.

The game is nice in providing different levels of success, so you don’t actually need to be a polyglot or wiz researcher to proceed with the game, but I still got fully stumped one or two puzzles. My concern is that, if the full game achieves any level of success, Google’s algorithm will end up learning that people are searching for specific strings as a result of this game, and just cough up the answer to the puzzle rather than the primary source. But even if it does, I look forward to the full game; it really does have a killer sense of atmosphere.

 

Creeper World III: Arc Eternal

I finally picked up this cult favorite because a friend gifted me the sequel. Released in 2014, Creeper World III is a brilliant gem for anyone able to get past its workmanlike graphics. It basically takes the “area control” game (think RTS or tower defense games) and strips it down to the absolute basics, as you work to build a network of towers and resource harvesters to contain an ever-spreading goo (the titular Creeper). Each level gives you new tools, and I can see it getting enormously complex in the later levels, but so far it never feels overwhelming and doesn’t demand you play optimally, which is nice.

I haven’t gotten too far into this, but it’s the sort of puzzle game I enjoy playing late at night, listening to music—so very different from a typical RTS, which just straight up give me anxiety. I look forward to playing it more in 2021.

 

CrossCode

CrossCode is an odd duck; it looks like a 16-bit action RPG, and in many ways it is one, though it’s beautiful on its own merits, and neither the art nor the stellar soundtrack need any nostalgia to be appreciated. But rather than taking place in a standard fantasy setting, CrossCode takes place inside an MMO, a conceit I’ve only seen done once before (the .hack series). The setting is novel, the dialog witty and charming, and the combat solid.

The game is basically split into two halves; overworld exploration, in which you play this sort of pseudo-MMO and run around exploring and killing things, and the “puzzle dungeons.” These are massive, multi-level dungeons of interconnected rooms, all requiring puzzle-solving to proceed. The puzzles are well-done, but there are a LOT of them, and I did regularly find myself running out of steam. The other issue is that the MMO trappings do lead to some grinding, though thankfully most if it is optional.

I took a break, and lost access to this because I was playing on Xbox Game Pass and my subscription lapsed, but I fully intend to take another run; it’s just such a pleasant world to inhabit. And the music really is killer (so much that I bought the soundtrack on CD!)

 

Dead Man’s Draw

I’m always on the lookout for my next Hexcells, a lightweight game that isn’t mindless, but doesn’t take one’s full attention. Dead Man’s Draw can’t hope to reach the heights of that puzzle masterpiece, but is is a nice little card game, and I enjoyed many a round. There’s a real luck element, and it’s of only moderate depth, but it does what it says on the tin.

 

Doom (1993)

2020 was the year I finally got around to playing Doom. Universally recognized as one of the most influential games of all time, I was playing it mostly as part of my continued project of developing an in-depth knowledge of computer game history. But, even knowing the game still had its fans, I was surprised by just how well it held up.

Modern shooters haven’t supplanted Doom because they bear little resemblance to it. Doom is a lighting-fast action game with no extraneous parts, and absolutely no interest in realism. The character’s walk speed is about three times faster than a modern game’s run speed; there’s no reloading, let alone cutscenes or real attempts at storytelling. And you can’t look up; the guns just auto-target vertically. Doom respawns you when you die, minus all the weapons you’ve collected, so there isn’t the linear progression of weapon acquisition that all later shooters have.

And it’s a blast. The level design is varied, the guns all feel sufficiently powerful, and the game succeeds in making you feel like a total badass while (by modern standards) not even being very difficult at the normal difficulty. And the rockin’ synth-metal soundtrack holds up. I don’t quite love it, because first-person gorefests will never be my preferred genre, but I admire it greatly.

So Doom is an outlier to the genre it popularized; instead, modern shooters more directly descends from Quake II, Half-Life and Unreal, and more recently Medal of Honor: Allied Assault/Call of Duty. And that makes Doom still fun to play in a way that most early-’00s shooters decidedly aren’t.

 

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

Fall Guys is one of those breakout hits that fully deserves its success, not because it’s one of the greatest games ever made, but because it’s the perfect game for its time and place. In another year, I think this would have had its fans, but in 2020, during a global pandemic, in a time in which authoritarianism was on the rise and various Western nations were collapsing into political dysfunction, Fall Guys was a soothing balm. It’s a game that takes the framework of highly competitive online games and puts a goofy skin on it so charming that it’s hard to take it seriously. Instead of the often-toxic, murder-all-your-enemies games, Fall Guys is presented as a game show, in which strange bean people clumsily jump, grab and slide towards victory.

It makes such a lovely first impression that many people are inevitably disappointed that it gets repetitive. This is true; it’s a simple and accessible game, and that means that there isn’t enormous depth to its mechanics, which means to stay engaging it needs new content in the form of new levels amd modes, which takes time and money to create. But the developer is on it, pumping out new levels regularly, and the game is only $20 at full price.

I really hope that some day they allow user-created levels and game modes, but otherwise I got no complaints.

 

Fallout 4

Sometimes I get the itch for a big open-world RPG, and the sad fact is there aren’t too many of them. Fallout 4 was on some sort of major sale, so I picked it up, despite actively disliking Fallout 3.

The thing is, I really do enjoy exploring massive areas and learning what makes them tick, so despite not really addressing any of the substantive issues with Fallout 3 (except having better gunplay), I enjoyed it for many hours. But ultimately it has the same issue as all Bethesda games; there is way more content than there is gameplay depth, and so I burnt myself out chasing cookie cutter sidequests before I could finish it. This isn’t helped by a lackluster main story that I can barely even remember as I write this, and the continued bizarreness that the game takes place 200 years after nuclear armageddon, and yet nothing has been looted or moved since the bombs fell, as if it happened just the other week.

I really liked the idea of the base-construction aspects, but while decently implemented, the fact is that it’s just not a good fit for the sitting; you can’t make yourself a cozy home because everything in Fallout is broken and ugly by design.

 

Far: Lone Sails √ ♥

Far: Lone Sails is a game where you get exactly what you expect; a mostly silent, slightly mournful journey from point A to point B, where the central character is not the little person you control, but their ramshackle steamship/train. The gameplay, such as it is, is minimalistic: you feed fuel to the engine, raise and lower the sails, and otherwise keep your vehicle trucking until you encounter some obstacle that blocks its progress. At these points, you get out and do some basic puzzle solving. I found all of these puzzles to be just the right level of difficulty—not strenuous, but not braindead—and as such the game’s pacing is one of the things I like most about it.

I took about 6 hours to beat it, and that seemed right; any longer and it would be padding to what is ultimately a game about going in a straight line. The ending was a little less conclusive than I’d like, but fit the tone of the game, and left me with some evocative imagery.

 

Fire Emblem Fates: Revelations

It’s more Fire Emblem Fates, okay? Having the enormously large cast of characters interact is fun, it has some nice remixes of maps, but I am burnt out on the thing by now (hence not finishing). But someday I will finish it, because I’m 80% through this trilogy, and the cartridge is worth $100.

 

For the King

For the King is a sleeper hit. In the 2010s, the roguelike (or roguelikelike 1) overtook the puzzle platformer as the most oversaturated indie genre, and for every breakout hit there were 50 games that went overlooked. For the King was initially one of those, but positive word of mouth seems to have won it a real audience.

What sets it apart, first and foremost, is its accessibility; this is a fully-featured, hex-exploration RPG, akin to Heroes of Might and Magic with a three-person party rather than armies. Combat is a relatively simple turn-based affair that most resembles JRPGs, with the twist that your attack options are determined more by your current weapon than by your class. The game’s visuals use simple polygons to evoke papercraft, and the music wouldn’t feel out of place at a renaissance faire. The effect is to make the game feel far more welcoming and approachable than most roguelikes, even if it ultimately isn’t that forgiving—I did two or three runs (co-op) on the easy difficulty and never got particularly close to the end.

Like most modern roguelikes, it features a progression system, though this one unlocks new options rather than straightforwardly making your characters more powerful, which is nice, as it means you absolutely can win on a first play and aren’t doomed to grind until you can win.

Ultimately, it’s a little too sandboxy and luck-driven to be the sort of game I really sink hours into, but I did enjoy my time with it, and it’s an excellent option for co-op gaming.

 

The Forest

For most of video game history, survival games were the nichest of niche genres, and pure survival games pretty much didn’t exist. Then DayZ and Minecraft happened, and the genre burst open. There was a period of time (like 2014 to 2017) where it seemed that every other month, the new top seller on Steam was a half-finished early access survival game; good or bad, they sold gangbusters.

The Forest was one of the first, and after years of work, actually managed to hit 1.0. I played it in co-op, and enjoyed the experience, while ultimately walking away slightly dissatisfied.

The good: the environment is lovely, the building mechanics are easy to use, and the survival mechanics aren’t overtly punishing. I also liked the map design of having a less deadly overworld, combined with a complex, interconnected cave system you needed to delve into to advance the story. I genuinely enjoy chopping down trees, loading them into log sleds, and building a tree fort.

The bad: even relative to other survival games, there isn’t a lot of depth here. There’s no RPG mechanics or ways to modify your character, and while the crafting tree has everything you need, it doesn’t have enough variety to build elaborate structures in the vein of Minecraft or No Man’s Sky. The only real progression is discovering new tools in caves, and even this is deeply flawed, because without using guides, you have no way to know what tools are where, and some of these (like the compass and map) are absolutely key; this is a game that could have used a little more linearity or direction to guide the player to the essentials (or, you know, let the player start with a compass).

Absent much incentive to really play long-term in the open world, the thing to do is pursue the game’s story. It’s lightweight and, until the final sequences, is barely present; but once it ramps up, it gets really stupid really fast, and ends on a moral decision that’s basically “would you like to be both comically evil and self-sabotaging, or not?”

All that said, I appreciate that The Forest is a relatively focused game; it does what it needs to do, and doesn’t spend a lot of time and energy trying to shoehorn in every mechanic and survival feature it could come up with. As one of the earliest dedicated survival games, it’s of some historical import, and provided a good base for better games (Subnautica, The Long Dark) to build on.

 

Hades √ ♥

I honestly can’t recall the last time an indie game got such widespread acclaim. Hades is an absurd crossover hit, to the point where writing about it feels superfluous. To wit: it’s a “roguelite” whose crunchy action mechanics will please anyone who traditionally likes roguelikes and action games, while more narrative-oriented gamers will get hooked on Greg Kasavin’s typically excellent writing. Dialog is drip-fed throughout the dungeon runs, such that the narrative becomes one of the things that ‘unlocks’ through progressive runs, much in the way skills and weapons do. Supergiant is basically a supergroup, so it goes without saying that Korb does amazing music and sound design, and Jen Zee’s colorful art pops off the screen. I played Hades compulsively when I got it, and it’s as good as everyone says.

And yet, this isn’t my favorite Supergiant game (that’d be Pyre) or even second-favorite (Bastion). The reason is that I’m not a huge fan of doing the same thing over and over, and for all the really clever ways Hades mixes up its runs, you’re still ultimately going to be fighting the same bosses over and over and over. And beating the game doesn’t end this; the story is left unfinished, and it’s clear that you’ll need many “post-game” runs to truly complete it. In the abstract, I want to do this, and I still enjoy playing it; but when faced with the overwhelming number of games I can play, I can’t bring myself to do yet another Hades run.

I hope to come back someday—it really is quite good, and despite this criticism I still like it enough to give it that little <3—but, weirdly, I hope their next game offers a more traditional, linear narrative experience (or is an immersive sim. I can dream).

 

Hand of Fate 2 

I was hooked on Hands of Fate in grad school. Despite the repetitive combat, and a brutally unfair final boss fight, I couldn’t get enough of the core mechanic: exploring a dungeon made entirely out of cards that you yourself curate into a deck, unlocking more as you progress.

Hand of Fate 2 has the same basic mechanics, the same core combat, but is a better game in almost all respects. It has significantly more enemy variety, more varied scenarios, more character customization, etc. But I bounced off hard, and it’s all due to a single mechanic.

Frequently, you’ll see cards revealed, then shuffled before you, as in a shell game, and it’s possible for someone with a skilled eye to follow the shuffling and pick the “good” card. I simply can’t, despite having gone so far as to look up guides, and as a result I frequently lose scenarios by random chance, because I am essentially randomly picking the bad cards. Do this enough times and proceeding feels futile. This feature was present in the first Hand of Fate; I guess I just had more patience for it then, or was slightly more able to follow the cards.

 

A Hand With Many Fingers √ ♥

Despite the fact that I already spend too much time playing video games, I bemoan the fact that I don’t have the time to really explore all the weird and wonderful art games released on itch.io and Gamejolt. The final game I played in 2020 was A Hand With Many Fingers, and it’s some of the most enjoyable sleuthing I did this year. It’s a straight-up research game, where you go to the CIA archives (implausibly open to grad students) and sort through archival boxes, finding documents related to a CIA operation. The documents are fictional, the history is (mostly, probably) not. The game’s genius stroke is that it does little to abstract this or make it sexy; you use actual card catalogs to find the boxes you need, then go into the basement and dig them up. You stick documents on corkboards, arranging them how you like, connecting related documents with strings like a stereotypical conspiracy theorist. And you keep doing this until you’ve pulled up enough boxes, something happens, and the game ends (rather anticlimatically, but true to form; this is a research game, after all). It’s short, it’s free, and more people should play it.

 

Hitman 2 (2018) √ ♥

I prefer sequels to make bold, creative changes rather than manifest as big-budget expansion packs, but Hitman Season 1 (2016) so elegantly refined the series’ formula that I’m quite happy to see the developers iterate on it. In most respects, Hitman 2 2 is just “more missions,” but the quality level is extraordinarily high, with generally greater complexity and more paths through than previous missions. Hitman 2 also really leans into the absurdity that has always been present in the series (namely, the ideas that a 6-foot-tall white guy with a shaved head and a barcode on his neck can blend in to any city or organization in the world by stealing an outfit). I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, and particularly enjoyed the running joke of 47 openly acknowledging that he was a serial killer, and people running with it as some sort of metaphor, ala Being There. It also features a delightful array of achievements and challenge runs (a personal favorite being the requirement to go undercover as a barber in order to murder a target, and then simply be a good barber instead, giving shaves to 15 people).

Everything I wrote about Hitman 1 still stands—that these are open-ended puzzle games wearing the clothing of a shooter—and as such there is nothing quite like the series. It’s simultaneously escapist entertainment and an intellectually stimulating clockwork simulation.

 

Human: Fall Flat

Human: Fall Flat is one of the many descendants of QWOP, which is to say that its a game with intentionally clumsy controls, whose challenge (and humor) comes from attempting to get your sack-of-potatoes, physics-driven person to overcome basic video game challenges.

I played it in co-op, and it was a delight; it’s the sort of low-stakes playspace that many people needed early in the pandemic, but it also has genuinely good puzzle design; not too difficult, but requiring some experimentation. Most levels had multiple ways to reach their goals, and unlike Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy, this is a game that *wants* you to succeed, and even my limited platforming skills were enough to make it through the levels. Delightfully, the developer now pays community members to make new levels, and there’s a great variety of places to explore.

 

In Other Waters √ ♥

In Other Waters is the rare Kickstarter where the finished product is exactly what was pitched: a sort of narrative adventure rooted in oceanographic and biological sciences, centered on exploring an underwater ecosystem on an alien world. The interface defines and dominates the game; the player doesn’t directly control the main character, but rather plays their environmental suit, and uses its instruments to guide the explorer to different nodes laid across the map. It’s a beautiful and innovative structure for what is, mechanically, very close to a visual novel.

Equally novel is the focus on non-sentient life; a significant portion of gameplay involves collecting and analyzing samples in order to develop hypotheses about the organisms on this planet, and the role they play in the ecosystem. This is coupled with a more conventional narrative, which is beautiful and moving, but ultimately less distinctive.

This is a game I’m really glad I backed, and I look forward to the next game from its developer.

 

Infra

Infra is one of those idiosyncratic games that leans so hard into its niche that alienating a mass audience is inevitable, and yet will end up being the all-time favorite of a small group of people.

The niche, in this case, is some combination of “people who love the physics puzzles and Eastern European aesthetics of Half-Life 2 and would enjoy the game more if it had no combat” and “people with a genuine interest in all the banal, ignored infrastructure that makes urban life possible.” To wit: whereas most video games open with explosive action or quiet character introductions (followed by explosive action), Infra opens with a powerpoint presentation about the state of decaying infrastructure in a Baltic city. Your character controls the slides.

Most people will find this boring and faintly ridiculous; I loved every minute of it. It’s not just that I appreciate novelty in games, and the verve of spitting in the wind, but that I love interactive spaces where I learn about places and systems I’m unfamiliar with. Over Infra’s many chapters, you’ll explore decaying dams, power plants, water treatment facility, sewers, and other sorts of infrastructure that most of us take for granted, and while Infra is in no way a simulation (it’s very much a Source Engine game, with all the environmental puzzles and slightly wonky physics that entails) it approaches its subject matter with a mix of seriousness and enthusiasm, and really sells that the scenario pictured (in which pretty much all of a city’s infrastructure is sold to private interests and left to decay) can be compelling horror, in its own way.

There’s an attempt to make a sort of Big Conspiracy plot and narrative out of all this, and it’s an entertaining diversion, but it’s not what you’re here for; you’re here for strangely relaxing walks around urban decay, using your phone to take pictures of every issue you find.

 

Kentucky Route Zero, Act V √ ♥

The first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero were released within a span of 14 months, and were enough to cause many people (including me) to declare KR0 one of the most important games of the decade; it’s just that radical and brilliant. So when Act IV took a little over two years to come out, and wasn’t quite as good as what came before, that was okay; its brilliance had already been established, and it was still great on its own merits. And when Act V was delayed again and again, I wasn’t worried—I knew it’d be good—but I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than something big and consequential.

After four years of waiting, it came out, and never in a million years would I have guessed the form it took. I’m avoiding details not just to avoid spoilers (I have some friends who still haven’t gotten around to finishing the series) but because it seems almost impossible to discuss briefly. It’s brave, it’s quiet, it’s big, it’s small; it’s the most unexpected final episode I’ve played of any episodic series, and I wasn’t sure what to think of it when I was finished. A part of me was disappointed, and went “that’s it?” But the more I sat with it, the more it gelled for me. Being experimental and willing to do radical formal experiments is what endeared me to Kentuck Route Zero in the first place. There are moments in Act V—one musical interlude in particular—that are burned into my mind, and are as beautiful and moving as anything in the series.

I really look forward to replaying the entire series (possibly for a podcast, or even just a “game club” with a friend) and that very much includes Act V.

 

Knights and Bikes √ ♥

Knights and Bikes is the best narrative co-op game I’ve played. This charming coming-of-age story centers on two British children who team up to explore a coastal island with a rich (if possibly mythical) history. There’s a deliberate ambiguity to what is real and what is imaginary, and the game perfectly captures the wild imagination of a lonely child. It seems designed with accessibility in mind: the combat is easy and fast-paced, the puzzles thought-provoking but never overly difficult. I played it with my friend, both of us in our early 30s, and we had a lot of fun inhabiting the characters and even doing voices for them. I wouldn’t say the game is *targeted* at kids, but I think it would be a great game for children, assuming they’re decent readers.

It’s a shame that this is probably the last game Double Fine will ever publish, because despite being developed by Foam Sword Games, it has a lot of Double Fine’s energy (in the best possible way). Hopefully other publishers can pick up the baton and help promote charming titles like this one.

Also, the soundtrack rocks.

 

Lair of the Clockwork God √ ♥

Lair of the Clockwork God is exactly what a says on the tin: a wholly unique combination of classic point-and-click adventures and late ’00s indie platformers. After introducing this dichotomy in the opening hours, the game quickly finds new and interesting ways to combine the two, though it’s always the marvelous wit that is the star. It starts meta and gets more so as you play, but in ways that lead to clever and often brilliant puzzles, rather than navel-gazing. There is no way to highlight the levels here without spoiling them, but suffice it to say that the attention to detail is fantastic, and it rewards lateral thinking while always giving you all the information you need to solve a puzzle. It’s probably the most consistently funny game I’ve played since Jazzpunks.

As an adventure game, it’s top notch, one of the best in years. As a platformer, it’s solid, but unremarkable, and the platforming segments are going to be the sticking point for a lot of people; fortunately, the game has fantastic accessibility options that not only change the difficulty of platform segments, but provide everything from colorblind support to different fonts. If a tiny indie team with one programmer can do this, there’s no excuse for all the AAA games who don’t.

Each new level is a breath of fresh air, and I found I enjoyed the game more and more as I played through it; I was sorry to see it end, though it’s always good when a title leaves you wanting more.

One of the best games of 2020.

 

Later Alligator √

Later Alligator is so earnestly sweet that it’s hard to say anything critical about it, but I honestly think it’s a better animation than a game. It’s made by a team that has previously done animated shorts, and it shows; the character design is wonderful, and the basic premise (a hyperactive child convinced that the mob has placed a hit on him, despite all evidence to the contrary) is great. It’s even got a little Suikoden magic going on, with the overarching goal being to meetand identify all the alligators in the protagonist’s massive extended family.

Ultimately, the bulk of the gameplay is contained in minigames, and how much you enjoy this game is going to depend on how much you enjoy this quantity-over-depth approach. The developers worked hard to come up with a lot of variety for the games, and they’re almost all charming on a first play, but ultimately making 50+ minigames on a limited budget means you’re going to have inconsistent quality and a lot of games with limited replayability. I’d still give this game a recommendation for those looking for a beautifully animated adventure game; just know you may have to wade through a Flappy Bird clone or a slider puzzle to get to the other side.

 

The Longing √ ♥

I’m doing this writeup about a year after I started The Longing (life happened), so it’s to the game’s credit that I still remember so much of it so vividly.

Let’s state the obvious first: The Longing has among the most distinctive art and sound design I’ve ever played. Art-wise, the entire game is hand-drawn, and the cave backgrounds are huge, such that every screen feels like a piece of a vast tapestry. In video games, caves are typically dull grey polygons; these caves drip with atmosphere. The character design of the player character, The Shade, feels so perfectly expressive that I’m confident there’s an alternate universe where he breaks out as a sort of emo Hello Kitty.

The soundtrack goes all-in on evoking longing and loneliness, not through generic “sad” music, but through vast and sombre compositions that emphasize the size and age of the cave, and the weight of the Shade’s quest.

But how does it actually play? Here, The Longing is more of a mixed bags. It does clever things with its formula, giving you active things to do (exploring the cave and figuring out how to delve further) while forcing a certain amount of waiting that is core to the game’s themes, and there are some wonderful puzzles and moments of discovery. But there are also a number of things that are too opaque, puzzles solutions that you are more likely to stumble upon through dumb luck than lateral thinking. This is doubly true for the paths to the game’s different endings, which were (to me) unintuitive—a significant issue because the game is explicitly designed to be played only once.

Yet overall I really enjoyed my experience with The Longing and The Shade, and I suspect it will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten most of the other games I played in 2020.

 

Magic the Gathering: Arena

I put MTG Arena in this list every year, simply because I inevitably play it more than any other single game, and it seems silly not to include it. At this point, though, the game has fully matured, and now is a stable Magic delivery platform. It’s mostly good—excellent implementation, generous to free-to-play players who are decent at drafting, Brawl as a regular mode. It also has its drawbacks—hard for brand-new players to establish a collection, no multiplayer (in Magic terms this means formats with more than two players, e.g. Commander or Two-Headed Giant), somewhat stupid monetization that doesn’t give you much value.

But I will also say that in the year 2020, paper Magic went from “expensive” to “ludicrous,” due to dumb money flooding collectables markets as an alternative to the stock market. Commander, once a kitchen-table format, now treats a $200 deck as a “budget” deck, and competitive decks can cost thousands. In this environment, it’s wonderful that Arena exists; people can actually play some kinds of Magic without paying an arm and a leg.

 

Morels: The Hunt

I love the idea of Morels: a backwoods mushroom-hunting sim, where all you do is collect mushrooms and take pictures of animals. And this narrow focus really is charming, but I’m sad to say that it’s also a slapdash affair clearly made by first-time developers. The graphics are awkward and look like they were slapped together from an assets store; the UI is, frankly, terrible. On top of that, I recall the actuall process of harvesting mushrooms to be a little obnoxious. Because of this, I never unlocked anything past the first level.

BUT: this is a labor of love, and this also shows in every facet of its design. Nobody ever made a mushroom picking game to get rich. And it deserves more of my time, and when I am done with Infra, I’ll probably give it another shot.

 

Nephise

Nephise is a short, low-budget walking sim/adventure game, consisting of a single environment and a few short puzzles. I like bite-sized entertainment like this—the world really needs more movie-length games. The story is minimal and the experience wasn’t particularly memorable, but it was well-crafted and I was happy to play it (even if one puzzle involved colored lights, and thus required me to use a walkthrough due to my colorblindness).

 

No Man’s Sky (Origins update)

Upon release, No Man’s Sky was a marvelous software toy with an identity crisis. It had absolutely fantastic procedural generation tech alongside an evocative, vibrant artstyle, and if what you wanted to do was fly around a galaxy, taking photos of fantastic landscapes and creatures, then this was everything that you could want.

If, instead, you wanted a more fleshed out game—something akin to an Elder Scrolls title—you’d find that there just wasn’t much to do, and what activities existed were highly repetitive (this is the nature of procedural generation, after all). I enjoyed No Man’s Sky for its strengths, but didn’t stick around too long.

In response to intense (and, as usual, overinflated) internet blowback, the devs went to ground, and started producing major, game-changing updates. In 2020, four years after release, No Man’s Sky is an entirely different game, and mostly better for it. The number of systems and activities is ridiculous; there are multiple fleshed-out questlines; and it’s frankly a triumph for such a small developer.

If there’s a drawback, it’s that the game still feels like a bunch of disparate pieces—the vehicles bit, the base-building bit, the procedural missions bit—that are only loosely connected. This is good because it means the player can do what they want, but you can tell they’ve all been sort of grafted on to the base experience. In responding to player’s demands for stuff to do, there’s a sense that the game has drifted away from its original design. As released, you moved through the galaxy in a transitory tourist existence; now, you build bases and can use warp portals to go anywhere you’ve already been, resulting in the vastness of space being reduced to a series of fast travel points.

But that’s a quibble next to the huge scope of accomplishment, and with regularly major updates still being released, nobody can say they didn’t get their money’s worth. This is truly a game that has something for almost everyone, and regularly captures the thrill of discovery.

 

Occupy White Walls

Occupy White Walls is a sublime entry point to appreciating visual art. I’m not a very ‘visual’ person, I have no understanding of art history or art production, and I find gallery culture confusing and alienating. The genius of Occupy White Walls is to remove all the gross financial and cultural gatekeeping from art galleries, providing a set of tools and pieces that make it easy for anyone (even me) to make a really cool art gallery. All I had to do was fill it with pieces that resonated with me, and then use the built-in AI to get additional art recommendations. There’s a great progression system of unlocking additional gallery styles, and just visiting other people’s galleries is a pleasure. The entire thing is free and has no monetization. It’s something I only played a little bit before my co-op partner became more interested in other things, but I really want to return to it.

 

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Most people are familiar with the tales of Kickstarter projects that go sideways: they never release a game, or release a game that was markedly different than what was promised. Less discussed are the problems with Kickstarters that make and release the exact game that backers asked for. Pathfinder: Kingmaker is such a game, and in meeting the needs of its most vocal and enthusiastic backers, it erects enormous barriers to people who are interested in RPGs broadly but have no experience with the Pathfinder tabletop RPG.

At a high level, it’s an isometric RPG that takes a lot of inspiration from the Infinity Engine games, and integrates an interesting kingdom management aspect, where you need to balance adventuring and managing your kingdom.

It does a lot right; there’s a significant variety of combat encounters, the game is ENORMOUS and full of locations, and it really is satisfying seeing your kingdom grow. The central plot is at least moderately interesting, and the progression is pretty much perfect; I played the game compulsively when I first started.

And yet, this game really wants you to know Pathfinder. Character creation is a mess of talents and subclasses, and it’s really easy to make ineffective builds; on the other end, making optimal builds involves a ridiculous amount of multiclassing. This is great for hardened veterans of the Pathfinder system, but a pain for anyone else; the game has no real interest in teaching you how to build characters or understand Pathfinder, and I honestly think the best way for most people to play is just to do what seems cool or a good idea, and play the game on easy to balance out the inevitable hit in power they’ll take. It’s night and day with something like Pillars of Eternity, that really wants you to understand its systems, and goes out of its way to ensure you can’t make completely non-viable characters in case you don’t.

The game also has lots of hidden triggers and unexplained mechanics, largely centering around the fact that time constantly advances, and you only have so much time to build your kingdom and do sidequests before the plot progresses; if you manage time too inefficiently, you can straight up lose the game. I understand that patches have made this more generous, but it’s still way more work than it should be, and I frequently found myself checking guides to make sure I wasn’t screwing myself over. I put in a good 70 hours, but ultimately bounced off; the plot progresses at a snail’s pace, particularly if you do sidequests, and I realized I was just trying to push to the ever-more-distant end, on account of not particularly liking any of the characters and finding the game’s writing and setting to be dry and generic (with the bonus side effect of the dialog often feeling slightly awkward, presumably a result of the principles writers being Russian).

As a final note: I played this with the turn-based mode, officially implemented via a mod. This is good in that it makes it much easier to understand what’s happening, but bad in that the fights were largely designed for the much faster real-time-with-pause system, and as a result fights really drag in turn based. Fortunately, you can toggle between the two modes.

 

Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire DLC (Seeker, Slayer, Survivor and Forgotten Sanctum)

I explored every nook and cranny of Deadfire, logging probably a good hundred hours, and so by the time a bug in the first DLC (Sanctum of Winter) caused me to put it down for a while, I was ready for a break.

Coming back after a couple years away reminded me just how quietly confident Deadfire is. Each of these DLCs avoids fan service (with one wonderful exception) and explores new facets of the Deadfire archipelago and the world of Eora. Seeker, Slayer, Survivor is a combat-focused DLC—something I’m typically not interested in—but still has that Obsidian magic, building a complex tale that fits perfectly into the themes of the main game. I was ultimately quite impressed with it; it’s quietly radical, and the polar opposite of any other “combat arena” DLC I’ve played.

The Forgotten Sanctum, meanwhile, is a narrative-rich dungeon run, and while it’s definitely not intended as any sort of goodbye, staff were surely aware of Deadfire’s abysmal sales by the time they were making it. But to their credit, they didn’t try to pivot, or somehow sell this to people who didn’t like the main game; they just delivered a top-notch delve of a magical lair, one that takes a minor, villainous character from the series (Concelhaut) and manages to integrate him so wonderfully that I made the only “evil” choice I’ve ever made in an RPG, just to make him happy, because I enjoy his dialog that much.

When it was all done, I was ready to put down real-time-with-pause RPGs for a long time, but I enjoyed my time with Deadfire thoroughly, and I fear we will not see its like again.

 

Return of the Obra Dinn √ ♥

I grew up with parents who read dozens of mystery books every year, but I never caught the bug. I don’t *dislike* mystery novels, but the vast majority—even the acclaimed ones—are constrained and formulaic, and 99% of them are murder mysteries, as if life contained no other mysteries than “who killed this guy?”

Likewise, I’m lukewarm on puzzle games; I can enjoy them, but solving a puzzle for its own sake really isn’t enough for me; I need some sort of narrative grounding to drive me and keep me interested.

So I wouldn’t have seriously considered playing Return of the Obra Dinn—a murder mystery puzzle game— if it hadn’t racked up numerous awards from writers I respect, and if it didn’t come from Lucas Pope, developer of the extraordinary Papers, Please.

I’m glad I did. Obra Dinn is one of the most compelling games I’ve played in years; I couldn’t put it down, and blew through it in a couple days. For those unfamiliar, Return of the Obra Dinn casts you as an insurance investigator sent to inspect a ship (the titular Obra Dinn) that’s drifted in to port with nary a living soul aboard; just a few corpses, and dozens of crewmembers missing and unaccounted for.

In short order, you get a magic trinket that allows you to witness the final moments of any corpse you find (about 15 seconds or so). You hear the dialog and sounds of the moments leading up to their death, and then can walk around a freeze-framed diorama of the scene at the moment of death. Using this ability, you need to find out what happened to each of the 51 crewmembers of the Obra Dinn.

Why is Obra Dinn so captivating? First, it has a pointillistic art style unlike any other game I’ve ever played, and a limited color palette modeled after the original Macintosh’s display capabilities. While I initially found this a little off-putting (namely due to the aliasing), it turns out that the art style is perfectly fit for purpose, fully modeling every important detail of a scene without the textural complexity that can make it hard to pick out a specific object in a modern AAA game. The sound design belies the game’s budget; every voice is perfectly cast, and the music—haunting, and using nautical elements like a ship’s bell—perfectly sets the tension of the increasingly terrible scenes you’ll witness.

The second is that this really blows up the confines of the murder mystery. Make no mistake; some people definitely get murdered, and you need to find not only the culprit, but the manner of the killing (ala Clue). But most crew’s fates are not so simple, and figuring out the myriad ways in which crewmembers died (or disappeared) using nothing but the evidence of your eyes and deductive reasoning initially seems nigh-impossible; and yet I completed all 51 with almost no hints, because the puzzles are just that tightly designed. This is a game that frequently makes you feel brilliant, and gives you some easier mysteries to solve, which helps eliminate possibilities as you approach the harder cases.

If Obra Dinn has any failing, it’s that the plot is more in service to the texture, and the complex web of puzzles, than something that really stands up on its own; in hindsight, it’s a fairly generic tale of Bad Things Happen At Sea. But that’s not the point; Obra Dinn isn’t a mystery novel, it’s something that is (to me) infinitely more fun. It’s such a work of singular genius and vision that I worry it won’t be easy to emulate.

 

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves was my biggest disappointment of 2020, and I say this because it does so many things so well. If it was just a bad game, I could move on and forget it; but as it is, it’s half a masterpiece, and I still yearn for the good half long after I stopped playing because of the bad half.

One of the things I most value in video games is virtual spaces that are a joy to inhabit, and initially Sea of Thieves is just such a world. The titular sea is a island paradise; the shimmer and flow of the waves are gorgeously modeled, and the lighting conveys a warmth that you can almost feel during the day. Sailing is equally visceral; you have to manually rig the sails, weigh the anchor, load the cannons, etc. There’s a pleasure in simple labor with immediate effect, and Sea of Thieves gets this. It’s really designed as a co-op game, with shared duties between steering, managing the sails, manning the cannons, and doing any necessary repairs. It’s a lot of fun to do this as a crew, and my highlights with the game were sailing with friends, going where the wind took us and just engaging in the fantastic core loop of sailing and ship combat.

With such a strong core, what could be bad? The answer is twofold. The first is that, having built this marvelous suite of system, Sea of Thieves does precious little with it. All of the quests save a few are procedurally generated, meaning they’re fun the first few times and extremely repetitive thereafter. The few story quests (added after launch) do add a lot of variety into the mix, but are of wildly mixed quality, featuring of fun setpieces and interesting riddles offset by atrocious puzzles, fetch quests, frustrating checkpointing, and terrible writing throughout. When I played, there was no way to save during a quest, meaning you had to commit to doing 2+ hours in one go, and certain failures would require you to start over from scratch (I understand this has been patched since).

What’s worse, most of your time in these quests is spent on land, and that’s where the game falls down. You can’t walk ten feet on an island without skeletons popping out of the ground, and the combat mechanics to deal with them are brain-dead simple. This is great for accessibility, and I initially applauded them making it so approachable; but playing this game means killing skeletons by the thousands, and I eventually got so tired of it that I actively avoided going to shore. But, as noted, all the quests require it.

The game has no mechanical progression (you start with all skills, weapons, and boats there are to use) and no permanence for anything outside your character’s level and cosmetic unlocks (your ship and all its stores resets every time you log in). So the good news is that you don’t actually need to do any of these quests. But the bad news is that, unless you like sailing in a circle, there’s nothing else to do…except for piracy.

This is the second problem. Sea of Thieves is a game that goes out of its way to be bright, colorful, and accessible to players of all ages and skill levels. And yet because there is so little to do, half the players in your instance (the game uses random instances rather than individual servers) are going to want to kill you and steal all your treasure. This means that completing the quests can be enormously frustrating; you spend an hour finding the treasure, and then lose it in 60 seconds when some people snipe you and steal it.

But here’s the thing: PVP and anti-ship combat is, if not complex, at least solid fun. But fun, in this case, is a zero-sum game, and PVPers fighting eachother is much less common than just preying on “casuals” trying to have a fun time digging up treasure. I don’t like ruining other people’s fun, and so didn’t initiate combat against anyone I saw; but this made me prey for those who did.

The simple solution to this would be to have PVP servers and PVE servers (like so many MMOs), or to have a “PVP-enabled’ flag (like so many MMOs), but the game maddeningly does neither. It tries to simultaneously be a relaxing getaway and a game of cutthroat competition, and in doing so it fails the former group, and ensures that the latter group is populated entirely by toxic players lacking in empathy, liable to swear you out as they teabag your corpse.

I dearly hope somebody takes the basic structure of Sea of Thieves and uses it to make a great open-world seafaring RPG or something, but until that day, it ranks to me as a resounding disappointment.

 

Spiritfarer

You can ready my thoughts on Spiritfarer in the Spiritfarer Game Club letters.

 

Spycraft: The Great Game

You can also read my thoughts on Spycraft: The Great Game in the Spycraft Game Club letters.

 

Star Wars: Jedi—Fallen Order

The terribly-titled Star Wars: Jedi—Fallen Order (I have completed the game, and the title isn’t actually descriptive of anything that happens in it) has been widely acclaimed as the best single-player Star Wars game in ages, which is less of an accomplishment when you consider that, at the time of its release, it was the only single-player Star Wars game in ages. Part of this was the benefits of low expectations; after spending a decade churning out microtransaction-infested “games as a service” titles, it was almost shocking to see EA release a big-budget, single-player game with no DLC.

To be fair, it is a thoroughly solid amalgamation of its influences (a third-person Metroidvania, with combat and checkpointing mostly lifted from Dark Souls and a smattering of the earlier Jedi Knight games). It’s a beautiful game with often impressive level design, and moving through its spaces is pleasant and easy. I was more or less content the entire way through.

But it never rose to greatness. For one, it’s a very *gamey* video game, one that emphasizes balance and ludic tropes over the Star Wars narrative experience. Your lightsaber feels more like a sword than a hyper-deadly weapon; the game features no dismemberment of any kind, and even an ordinary stormtrooper somehow takes multiple lightsaber hits to dispatch. Your force powers are similarly anemic; if The Force Unleashed stretched the boundaries of canon to show somebody using Force Pull on a Star Destroyer, this is a game where all the force powers feel watered down, minor cantrips you can use to assist with your swordsmanship.

More importantly, the story is lackluster, an obvious series of MacGuffin hunts with a barely-there protagonist, and the only Jedi with actual character spends the entire game sitting on the ship. The plot never really goes anywhere, and the ending is downright insulting (without spoiling any specifics, it declares that your entire quest was a massive waste of time and nothing was accomplished, thank you very much). The notable exception to this is Greez, the comic-relief pilot who steals every scene due to a combination of genuinely witty writing and a stellar vocal performance. There’s an enormous amount of banter in the game, so much that I spent the post game flying between systems over and over just to dig into the absurd amount of “flying between planets” conversations they recorded. I would absolutely play a game starring Greez, or featuring him prominently in a role where he was allowed to do anything other than sit in a pilot’s seat and never leave.

For all their b-movie jankiness, I honestly enjoyed the old Jedi Knight games more; if nothing else, they delivered the simple joys of slicing up fools with a lightsaber and throwing people off ledges with aplomb.

 

Star Wars: The Old Republic

In early 2020 I started GMing my first RPG (Fantasy Flight’s excellent Star Wars Roleplaying Game, namely Edge of the Empire). It was the early part of the pandemic, when pretty much my entire group had been sent home from work. We had a desire for more Star Wars adventures, and having been told that The Old Republic had improved a lot since launch, and the later expansions were actually good, I decided to spend some time with it.

Full disclosure up front: I never made it to the expansions for reasons I’ll explain below. It’s entirely possible that they are as good as I’ve heard, but if that’s the case, I’ll have to write it up a different year.

At launch, The Old Republic was simultaneously ambitious and conservative. Its primary ambition was its attempt to bring Bioware-quality storytelling 3 to the sort of theme-park MMO popularized by World of Warcraft, a genre whose “storytelling” generally amounted to a lot of dressed-up fetch quests and the occasional lore-dump cutscene. The promise was that this wasn’t merely the setting of Knights of the Old Republic transplanted to an MMO, but a proper sequel to those games. This would be accomplished not through a single linear quest that all players went through, but through eight separate storylines, each unique to the eight playable classes, in addition to the bifurfacted Sith/Jedi storylines that ran through the game.

This attempt was famously disastrous; the business needs of a single-player game (a single, upfront sale) are very different from the business needs of an MMORPG of the period (continuous, pricey subscriptions—free-to-play MMOs were only just beginning to emerge). Worried that players would blow through the content and stop subscribing, the game added an enormous amount of padding. In order to level up a character, you had to not only play their unique storyline, but had to do all the sidequests and “planetary quests” (the Jedi/Sith storyline) in addition, meaning that to see all eight unique questlines you’d have to play the same goddamn quests eight to four times. It was a nightmare of a grind for those interested in the narrative.

Worst, the narrative was bent to the needs of the traditional MMO framework rather than the other way around; despite theoretically being unique, each of the eight storylines visits the same planets, in the same order. Cutscenes and a few gated areas are unique, but otherwise it’s largely the same routine with every class. The actual gameplay was as conservative as can be, the same hotbar-driven, cycling-abilities-on-cooldown combat that was by now standard fare in MMOs. Some people like this style of combat; I do not, and even if I did, I would not enjoy doing it the enormous amounts the game asks of you. As with other MMOs, there is very little “gameplay” outside of combat; the only way to interact with the world is through right-clicking on various mission-specific things. This was a far cry from Star Wars Galaxies, which for all its jank at least let players build village, conduct trade, and otherwise create something interesting in a sandbox.

So there wasn’t much to recommend the game other than the stories themselves, and while they varied in quality, they were generally decent, but drawn out; the padding of the MMO forced a million unnecessary cutscenes about how your character has to go kill the dude to get the thing to save the place before the plot can actually progress. Each of the eight characters does have a full supporting cast, and in this mix are some good characters and plots, with some more compelling than others (I have largely enjoyed the Sith Warrior and Smuggler storylines, while the Jedi storylines are incredibly dull). It’s Star Wars, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely not worth wading through all the gunk for.

However, the game did improve in man ways post-launch. As it switched to a F2P model and needed to do something to attract players, EA eventually realized that these stories were the ONLY thing the game had to sell itself with, other than the license; they rejiggered the difficulty to be a cakewalk for even a solo player, and changed the XP requirements so that you no longer needed to do sidequests to level your character. I did much of my playing during an extended double XP period, so I never had to grind anything I didn’t want to.

This removed a lot of friction, but it was still true that I was playing this simply because there was no other Star Wars game (Squadrons, below, wasn’t yet out) to play, and because I had friends playing, and even subpar games can be fun with friends. As my friends drifted away, so too did I.

I intend to finish the damn thing with my Bounty Hunter, and maybe some other characters (I’m so close!) and hit the expansions someday when I get the bug again, but TOR is mostly a monument to how massive budgets force conservative design, and that conservative design, as often as not, alienates an audience rather than finds one.

 

Star Wars Squadrons (Single Player) √ ♥

Originating from the same publisher as The Old Republic nine years later, Star War Squadrons share’s that games’ middling storytelling but is otherwise its polar opposite. The Old Republic was a sprawling beast of nigh-infinite content that set the record for the most expensive game ever made, in the hope that EA would rake in the billions that World of Warcraft had; Star Wars Squadrons was an experiment in making a narrowly-focused, mid-budget game, released at a relatively budget $40, with absolutely no expansions, DLCs, or microtransactions to be found. And it’s probably the best Star Wars game in 20 years.

By my understanding, it was primarily made as a match-based multiplayer game, almost a throwback—the expectation was that this was how the majority of the players would spend their time—but that, realizing the demand was there, they used the mechanics to build out a short single-player game. I’ve never touched multiplayer, purely because I’m intimidated to play a joystick-driven flight game against other people (I’m told it’s excellent), so this is just a review of the single-player portion.

When people of a certain age make ranked lists of the greatest Star Wars games, Tie Fighter (1994) usually comes out on top. Space combat games are a niche sub-genre, and Star Wars is a perfect fit for it. But the genre didn’t survive the transition to the new millennium; it’s simulation roots, PC exclusivity, and reliance on speciality hardware ensured it would never be truly mainstream, and as publishers stopped funding mid-budget titles the demand dried up. X-Wing Alliance (1999) was the last Star Wars space sim, and people have been vainly hoping for another ever since.

The announcement of Squadrons was met with a mix of joy (they’re finally doing it!) and skepticism (they’re no way this won’t be a shadow of the previous games). X-Wing and Tie-Fighter were on the lighter side of sims, but they were still sims; if you couldn’t reroute power to your engines to escape, what was the point?

But Squadrons wasn’t dumbed down; it’s brilliantly modernized, featuring all the interesting tactical elements of those earlier games with some modern touches (a newer flight model, some special abilities with cooldowns), all playable with a standard console controller. Of coursed, I used my joystick—half the fun of these games is digging that thing out—and it managed to get me through Squadrons before finally biting the dust.

Squadron’s campaign sees you leaping between two player characters (one Rebel, one Imperial) as you take on a series of initially separate missions that inevitably overlap. The mission design is top-notch; they’re dense in the way the older games rarely were, with a good variety of objectives, mission designs, and background. You almost never fight in empty space; there’s space stations, asteroid fields, orbital junkyards, and other terrain to keep things interesting and visually rich. And this is visual feast—the modeling of the ships, the colors of the nebula, even the motion capture for the NPCs, makes it hard to believe that this was a game made on a tight budget.

The only real foibles are between missions; the game makes an admirable attempt to flesh out each of your squadmates and lets you talk to them between missions. But the length of the campaign, combined with the fact that you play a silent character with no dialog options (you just listen to them monologue), means that almost none of them ever really develop; they’re good character concepts who never get to really do anything, confined as they are to being AI spaceships in a combat game. Along a middling plot that I honestly can’t even remember at this juncture, it leaves the focus solely on the missions. But they’re so good that I’ll like be replaying this, and if they make a sequel, I’m buying it at launch.

 

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Having finished Earthbound on my SNES Mini, Super Mario RPG was next. I haven’t finished it, because in most respects it is a classic JRPG, and I ran out of the stamina to finish it (as I so often do with those games), but fully intend to complete it when I am ready for JRPG times again.

The game’s stellar reputation is mostly deserved. It’s one of the best-looking games on the SNES, with colorful graphics that look curvy and fully-rendered in a way that pixel art almost never does. It features a weird-but-enticing soundtrack from Yoko Shimamura (largely unknown then, but now one of the most popular game composers still working), and an innovative combat system that adds timing elements to the otherwise staid, turn-based affair of JRPG combat.

It’s mostly remembered for that innovation—which would carry over to all future mario RPGs—but I think it’s most notable for what it does with the character of Mario himself. Prior to this game, Mario is more a mascot than a real character; because the Mario platformers are wholly abstract, Mario is really just a name we give to some recognizable art. The character has no content.

Super Mario RPG fleshes out the character while, incredibly, staying true to the Mario people know and love; realizing that just giving him normal dialog would be jarring, the writers have Mario communicate in an elaborate pantomime, and Mario’s “dialog” is honestly the highlight of the game. His companions have no such restrictions, using normal speech, and while I’ve yet to encounter any breakout characters, the game is wholesome, charming, and a little impish—much like Mario himself.

 

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales

I like CCGs and I like single-player RPGs, and I love the combination, so much that I thoroughly enjoyed the janky Northmark: Hour of the Wolf. So despite having absolutely no interest in more Witcher games (I played the whole trilogy and thought Witcher 3’s DLC wrapped things up so nicely that it would be a shame to milk it further), I was quite pleased when Thronebreaker was announced, and surprised when I ultimately didn’t click with it.

On the surface, it’s a finally-wrought game; you navigate your party along a detailed and varied overland map, doing quests that inevitably end up in card combat, which here is modeled as Gwent. This isn’t the beloved minigame of Witcher 3, but a much more fleshed-out and complicated version that CD Projket Red developed as an online CCG (after beta tests proved the original minigame was woefully underdeveloped to serve as a platform for a deep competitive game). There’s bits of narrative, which is rather dry but isn’t phoned in, and may well eventually blossom into something interesting; I only got 20% of the way through.

There are two encounter types: in one, you do play a fairly normal match with your deck, and in the other, you do a card puzzle (think a chess puzzle—a specific sequence of moves is required to win). Both are well designed, but I increasingly viewed them as a chore rather than the meat of the game. One of the pleasures of CCGs is building a variety of decks and playing a variety of strategies, but the economy and skill trees of Thronebreaker push you to build a single deck and just refine it over time. A lot of players like this, but for me it becomes repetitive. The puzzles avoid this issue and are genuinely well designed, but they’re *really hard* for anyone who doesn’t have all the intricacies of Gwent down, and there’s little in the way of hints or guidance.

This created just enough friction to cause me to bounce off in pursuit of other games. Because it’s like so little else, I genuinely do want to return to Thronebreaker; but I also know that with my insane backlog of games I want to play (nearing 1000, I’m not kidding) it’s always a crapshoot whether I’ll find the time.

 

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator

Over the history of video game design theory and criticism, “what is a game?” has gone from an interesting if academic question to a major source of toxicity, as self-appointed gatekeepers of Hardcore Gaming vainly attempt to block “not games” from their platforms of choice. This is a shame, because I do think there is value in classification (for cataloging and criticism, if nothing else). I think there is a distinction to be made between traditional video games and what are sometimes called “software toys.” Unlike games, these typically don’t have a win state; instead, they’re just guided sandboxes for you to discover things in. Historic examples include the mass of multimedia CD-Roms from the mid ‘90s and desktop “pet simulator” games like Catz or Creatures. I’m actually very fond of these, and I feel the lack of ways to talk about them has helped prevent them from being marketed and discovered (and as a result, actually funded and made).

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (or TABS, as it’s affectionately known) is one of the few software toys released commercially in the last decade, and it’s achieved success by wearing the skin of a more traditional video game, specifically an RTS, where two armies from a variety of cultures and eras fight to the death. But in the primary mode, you aren’t playing one side or trying to win a battle; you instead pick a map (or make your own), deposit troops on each side, and hit the run button; the AI operates all of them for you, so you can just watch the results.

If this doesn’t sound particularly entertaining, it’s worth highlighting TABS main gimmick: each unit is modeled as fully physics-driven, gangly, googly-eyed dude. If ever a game was driven by animation, its TABS; just watching the units move around is comedy gold. This is mined for all it’s worth: there are balloon archers who shoot fully-modeled arrows that, if they hit another unit, sprout balloons, causing that unit to float up to their death (or perhaps get caught on an overhang).

The player can take direct control of units, which adds an entire additional layer of the chaos. This ability also comes in handy in the game’s campaign mode—the one area where it resembles a traditional video game, giving you a fixed opposing army and tasking you to spend a budget to recruit a variety of troops to defeat them. There’s some strategy and a lot of luck involved, but this is more of a way to introduce you to different units and their abilities than it is an attempt to make a traditional RTS campaign. It’s still swell for people (like me) who like a bit of structure in their sandbox.

This is a game designed for the age we live in, where games are sold more by streamers making a game looking entertaining than traditional advertising campaigns or game critics trying to convey an interactive, visual medium through writing. I could write a dozen more paragraphs, and it probably wouldn’t tell you as much about TABS as watching a 30 second video.

 

Un Pueblo de Nada √ ♥

Kentucky Route Zero’s fourth and final interlude, Un Pueblo de Nada, is probably the weirdest (and that’s saying something, given that the previous interlude was an actual phone tree you called up on a physical phone). One of the recurring interests of Kentucky Route Zero is metatextuality, and in looking at the creation and reception of art. Un Pueblo de Nada does this in a very literal fashion; one aspect of it is a ~45 minute video, ostensibly a public access broadcast from a tiny, rural television station. Another is a series of short videos, briefly hosted on a web site, that amount to creepy public service announcements from the corporation that once ran the abandoned company town where the station resides. And the third component is a point-and-click adventure using Kentucky Route Zero’s normal engine and interface, where you play the producer of the public access show shown in the video.

It’s engaging stuff, but I felt like I only scratched the surface of it; it has the pleasing characterization and wry observations of the rest of the series, and thus is enjoyable without any great effort on the part of the player, but at the same time it’s clearly dense with meaning. It’s also closely tied to Act V, to the point where I think players would really miss out if they skipped this interlude; but since the final release of Kentucky Route Zero integrates all the interludes into the game itself, this is less of a concern.

 

Void Bastards

Void Bastards pitches itself as a satirical FPS-roguelike, in which you play a series of prisoners exploring deadly derelict spaceships in an attempt to repair your own. This is accurate, but upon playing, it quickly became apparent that Void Bastards is an answer to the question “what would System Shock 2 be like if it was a a modern “roguelite” with cel-shaded artwork and a series of procedurally-generated ships replacing the designed levels of the original?” This isn’t just a case of a few odes or references—whole enemy types, weapons, and systems are lifted and only lightly reworked from System Shock 2, and the game is in fact made by some of the people behind the 1999 cult classic.

This is not a criticism. In the 20 years between SS2 and Void Bastards, there were few games that really emulated System Shock 2, with even Bioshock stripping away a lot of the immersive sim elements. Derelict spaceships filled with homicidal robots and mutants is actually a great fit for a roguelike, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring them. The game has a campaign of sorts, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome; just when I was starting to find the levels and core loop a bit repetitive, the campaign wrapped up, making Void Bastards the first roguelike I’ve actually finished in many years.

If there’s a criticism of it, it’s that it’s maybe a little budget constrained; the decision to go with 2D enemies overlaid in a 3D environment is a lovely aesthetic touch, but does result in combat being a little clumsy (what is the hitbox for a flying, animated brain?), and the procedural levels do eventually get rather samey. The randomized elements also don’t radically change most playthroughs, meaning that players who want their roguelikes to offer hundreds of hours of depth may be disappointed by Void Bastards. But as a chance to revisit System Shock 2 in a very different framework, I enjoyed it.

 

Warhammer: Vermintide 2

Vermintide 2 is, in most respects, more of the same—if you liked Vermintide (and I did, a lot!) you’ll enjoy Vermintide 2, which continues the adventures of its five heroes during the apocalypse. The big change is that each hero now has multiple subclasses that change the way they play. This is a substantive improvement that adds variety to the game, but the flipside is that unlocking the subclasses for even a single hero takes considerable time. One of the reasons I really enjoyed Vermintide is that I played each of its missions just one or two times; yet, as with the end game of MMORPGs, the game’s economy seems set up to assume that you play missions dozens of time in order to grind out experience and loot. Combined with the introduction of loot boxes and a complex array of quests and rewards, Vermintide 2 is squarely in skinner box territory, something that always makes me feel a bit icky—a shame, since the core content really is lovely, particularly the ruined keep that serves as the player’s home base and expands as the campaign progresses.

My co-op group disintegrated about halfway through our playthrough, so I can’t really give a final verdict; I’m hoping to put together another one down the road.

 

Wattam

I started the lovely Wattam with a co-op partner who bailed, and this is a game that really needs to be finished to be evaluated; expect a writeup in the 2021 roundup.

 

Whispers of a Machine

Whispers of the Machine has a lot in common with its developer’s previous game, Kathy Rain: it’s a Lucasarts-style point-and-click adventure, with beautiful pixel art, solid voice acting, a tough-as-nails leading lady, and reasonable puzzles. And like Kathy Rain, it’s also a bit lightweight—writing this over a year after playing it, I struggle to remember too many specifics.

Vera, the protagonist, is a compelling lead, and you get some nice options in terms of whether you take a more diplomatic or combative approach to obstacles. But the setting—a bit post-apocalyptic, a bit cyberpunk—is underdeveloped, and the murdery-mystery plot seems like it might go somewhere interesting but ultimately descends into tropiness.

But like Kathy Rain, this is more than the sum of its parts; even if it’s ultimately not very filling, it’s a real pleasure to play, thoroughly solid in a way few adventure games are (as a genre, they tend to be fairly inconsistent; even otherwise brilliant games like Grim Fandango tend to have a few terrible puzzles). It scratched my adventure gaming itch, and I would be happy to play more games by this developer.

 

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen √ ♥

Honestly, I agree with pretty much everything XCOM obsessive Alec Meer wrote in his review of War of the Chosen. If XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a streamlined but largely faithful remake of X-COM: UFO Defense, then War of the Chosen is the polar opposite, elevating the XCOM commandos into increasingly ridiculous superheroes who fight a wide array of aliens, including broadly-drawn supervillain adversaries who haunt you throughout the game.

It’s a very different game than XCOM 1, but this isn’t a bad thing; having played XCOM, it’s expansion Enemy Within, and XCOM 2, I was definitely ready for a shakeup, and I honestly found this more compelling than any previous game. I think the key is just the sheer amount of stuff packed into it; XCOM 2 already incorporated much from the base game’s expansion while adding in its own changes, and War of the Chosen adds in three additional classes, hero characters, and a variety of bespoke missions. The adversaries that can pop up in any mission (and are absolutely brutal in the early game) ramp up the tension and keep things varied.

It also readilly became apparent that the producers went out of their way to hire Star Trek: The Next Generation alumni to play all six new allied characters; thankfully, none of them phone it in.

I’m the sort of person who tends to play through an XCOM campaign just once—too many games and all that—but if I were to replay one, it would probably be War of the Chosen.

Notes:

  1. See the classic “How Roguelike is your game?
  2. Not to be confused with 2002’s Hitman 2: Stealth Assassin, an entirely different game that nevertheless exists in the same chronology as this one. Reboots with sequel numbers will be the death of us all.
  3. Regular readers will know I think this is middling quality at best, but the bigger RPG market obviously disagrees with me