This is my tenth (!) annual shot at doing a short write-up of every game I’ve played in a year. As noted last time, 2020-2021 were crazy difficult years for me, and I got pretty backlogged on writing these up, so this was all written between January and May of 2022. To wit: sometimes I had to write up a game I hadn’t played in a year, and so the detail and incisiveness isn’t what I’d like it to be. But the show must go on! Expect better write-ups for 2022’s games.
For the purposes of Getting This Done, I shunted in-progress, unfinished games I ito the 2022 write-up (it’s better to do these pseudo-reviews if I’ve finished, after all!) They’re listed at the bottom of this post.
√ means I played the game to completion (only applicable to single-player games or games with a fixed ending).
♥ marks it as one of my favorites of the year.
Alien: Isolation √ ♥
I first played Alien: Isolation in 2015, and praised it as “possibly the best use of a film license in gaming.” But I never actually finished it, for the simple reason that this is a frequently tense horror game, and I’m a big scaredy-cat. I always meant to see it through, and in 2021 I finally did (including starting a new save because it had been so long).
I stand by my initial judgment, even though Isolation definitely begins to lose its way in the final third. To me, the most notable thing about the original Alien is not its space horror or iconic creature design, but the set design and worldbuilding. It’s a landmark in working-class sci-fi, presenting a lived-in, analog universe, where concerns about working conditions and fair pay outweigh any worries about space travel itself. Isolation gets this, and the developers built what’s essentially an immersive sim rather than a traditional survival horror game. Every environmental interaction is tactile and a bit clunky, and the entire game takes place on a space station seemingly built out of 1980 technology. The pacing is excellent for most of the game, and the alien itself isn’t overused, retaining its ability to frighten throughout (in fact, I had to switch the game to Easy just to calm my nerves).
Recognizing that continuously hiding in lockers can only entertain for long, Isolation regularly provides the player with new weapons and tools against the alien, while introducing new enemies and greater dangers. This escalation mostly serves it well, but in the final third the game jumps the shark in its set-pieces, and bores you with mandatory backtracking. Despite these letdowns, I still enjoyed it all the way to the final scene, which left me unsatisfied; without spoiling anything, it seems more interested in setting up a sequel than resolving the character arc of Amanda Ripley (the PC), much less any of the other characters in the game.
But despite this, it’s both a marvelous follow-up to one of science fiction’s greatest films, and a surprisingly fleshed out stealth game. It demonstrates that Creative Assembly is more than capable of making games other than Total Wars, and it’s a shame that they haven’t branched out from that series since this was released.
Avernum II: Crystal Souls √ ♥
Like Avernum: Escape from the Pit , Avernum II: Crystal Souls is a remake of a remake. Having never played the originals (1995’s Exile II: Crystal Souls and 2000’s Avernum 2), I can’t comment on how it compares, but I very much enjoyed the game on its own terms. It’s a largely straightforward sequel, to the point where all fans of the original will enjoy it, and almost nobody who disliked the first will be won over. I played through Crystal Souls at a particularly difficult time, and having something that was simultaneously engaging and familiar was truly helpful. But it’s a subtly different game, not just more of the same.
The principal joy of Escape from the Pit was in exploring a massive, novel underground world, richly detailed and much more grounded than traditional high fantasy RPGs. Crystal Souls takes place in the same world six years later, now wracked by war and mysterious magical phenomena. The satisfaction here is traveling a world you already know and seeing how it has changed, and Crystal Souls does a marvelous job of this: the geography may be the same, but even the smallest town have seem new stores open or close, and residents age or move away. Some are destroyed or conquered; others are newly important. Crystal Souls also introduces a new race, and their even-more-underground domain, so there are also genuinely new areas to discover.
The appeal of Spiderweb games, I think, is that they are retro without being grognardy. They have the content and stylings of the great RPGs of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but the remakes ensure that they are accessible and not particularly difficult (at normal difficulty, even an RPG novice should have no trouble finishing these games). The combat is simple and does its job of presenting the danger of the world and enabling your heroes to grow stronger. There are many sidequests, but none are truly essential, and you can focus on the main plot if you like. And there’s no magical auto-scaling from enemies, so you genuinely do benefit from new levels, gaining access to new areas and causing lower-level monsters to flee in terror rather than drag you into grindy combat.
As with Escape from the Pit, the plot and characters are well-written but unremarkable; you’re here for the world and the adventuring experience. Because these games are so similar to each other, I risk burnout if I do more than one a year, but Spiderweb RPGs are now up there with good point-and-click adventures for comfort gaming.
Barotrauma is an odd duck. One of the many games inspired by Space Station 13, it changes the setting to a submarine on Europa, whose oceans are filled with ancient ruins and monstrous creatures. But this is a simulation first and action-horror second; every subsystem is simulated and controllable, leading to all sorts of emergent ways to die horribly under the sea. It’s genuinely impressive how much it models, but it’s also very much Early Access still, and there is a lot of jank, particularly surrounding character movement and combat; me and my co-op partner ended up deciding to wait for further development. I look forward to playing this more once it’s finished and the campaign is fleshed out.
Battlefield V √
Set during World War II, Battlefield V is in theory the spiritual successor to Battlefield 1942, the original Battlefield and one of my favorite games of all time. In practice, it bears almost no relation to that game, having fully embraced every modern trend of online shooters, with the notable exception that disappointing sales resulted in them ending the “live service” component of the game well before the planned date.
I miss the goofiness of Battlefield 1942, and would take it over the gritty, unlock-driven modern shooter any day. And yet I did genuinely enjoy Battlefield V. The levels are enormous and detailed; building fortifications (the one truly new feature from previous Battlefields) is fun, and gives defenders something to do. The classes are distinct and have substantive differences in play, and the “breakthrough” game mode works well with the setting. Battlefield has always excelled at spectacle, and even as a mediocre player, I found it weirdly relaxing to just inhabit the no-stakes chaos. The fact that I picked this up for $5 surely influenced my feelings. I’ve never been into competitive online shooters, and I don’t expect to buy one at launch anytime soon, but it’s nice to be a tourist on occasion. My one complaint is that flying the planes is somehow way harder than it was in the original. In 2002, I was a great pilot; in 2021, I couldn’t do a strafing run without crashing. This may just be me getting old, but I think it has more to do from shifting to keyboard/joystick-centric design to gamepad-driven.
Blacksad: Under the Skin √ ♥
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a narrative adventure, mostly in the Telltale model, but retaining the inventory and actual puzzles of classic point-and-clicks. It’s based on the cult Spanish graphic novels, but does not require any familiarity with them.
It makes a bad first impression, for the single reason that Blacksad’s English voice actor is criminally miscast, playing the hard-boiled, 39-year-old lead as a wheezy old man. Fortunately, the game’s European heritage meant there was full voice acting in French, Spanish, and German; I ultimately settled on the latter for my playthrough, and thoroughly enjoyed the performances.
Apart from the terrible English dub, the game also has sluggish performance and awkward ‘tank’ controls for Blacksad himself. But pushing through these issues, I found a game I liked better than any of Telltale’s latter-day efforts. Blacksad is a compelling lead, a complex man(cat) who avoids straightforward hard-boiled tropes. The central mystery is sufficiently complex, and weaves together numerous sub-mysteries before its dramatic finale. The game does a reasonable job of respecting the choices you make, which are more about role-playing Blacksad than picking between binary moral dilemmas.
Ultimately, Blacksad is more about playing detective than delivering a truly memorable narrative, and as a result stops just short of greatness, but it’s genuinely solid, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good adventure (and willing to play in a language other than English).
The last few years have seen an explosion in combat-free, storybook indie games. This is great, since it means there are a lot more games accessible to people who aren’t interested in action games, or don’t have the muscle memory to play them.
Carto’s core mechanic is mapmaking. The world is divided into square pieces, and the protagonist has a magical map that can rearrange those pieces at will. You progress in the game by finding more map pieces and solving light puzzles using the magic map. It’s charming and not too difficult, and the game has a papercraft visual style that’s easy on the eyes.
The flipside of this ease of play is that the whole game is rather lightweight; the dialog is charming in its own small way, but doesn’t communicate any real story, and you generally only meet characters briefly before moving on. And the surfeit of similar games I’ve played lately meant I drifted away despite it being something I’d generally recommend to people.
Control (including DLC) √
I played over 50 games in 2021, and Control was the most disappointing. I’m a long-time fan of Remedy, the developer; Max Payne and Alan Wake both rank in my top 100 games, and while Quantum Break (see below) was a lesser work, I still enjoyed it overall. So I figured it a given that Remedy’s most successful and acclaimed game to date would be one I’d love.
I didn’t, and the short and banal answer why is that the game was often dull, and never more than mildly interesting. I’ll try to see if I can explain why.
All of Remedy’s games follow the same blueprint: linear third-person action games, set in the real world, with an unusually strong focus on narrative. For that blueprint to function, you need the moment-to-moment action gameplay to be compelling, you need it to continue to be compelling (or at least painless) for the complete length of the game, and you need the narrative to really grab the player, both to drive their progress and to add variety so the game isn’t just 100% shooting people. And to state the obvious: there are a LOT of games about shooting people, so the narrative (and associated production values) are really what you come to a Remedy game for.
Control has an evocative setting, a secret government agency that deals with all manner of supernatural phenomena from other worlds (heavily inspired by the SCP Foundation). There’s a huge range of story possibilities here, but the plot centers on the most banal: an non-corporeal, extraplanar organism has broken through and mind-controlled almost everyone in the bureau, and you have to shoot hundreds of them in a quest to ultimately kick them out.
An interesting lead would help a lot, and Control just doesn’t have it: protagonist Jesse is a civilian who has just wandered into this bureau looking for answers, and through dubious narrative magic ends up suddenly being the director. I can only imagine the flood of conflicting emotions if something like that happened to me, but her reactions to everything in the entire game were so cool-headed as to almost be disinterested, usually with a wry comment like “oh, of course X would happen.” She checks the box for Strong Female Protagonist, but rarely is she anything more. It’s telling that the scattered audio logs of the former director (played by Max Payne himself, James McCaffrey) are infinitely more compelling that Jesse’s dialog. There is a genuinely interesting backstory for Jesse and her long-lost brother, but it’s all contained within a pretty tiny portion of the narrative. Everything else is just MacGuffin-chasing and “mystery box” storytelling of the J.J. Abrams variety: either the mystery is never solved, or the reveal is inevitably disappointing.
Likewise, the game’s setting means that every single level is just rooms in a Brutalist office building. They’re dull to a tee, and I say that as someone who likes Brutalism.
Jesse quickly gains telekinetic powers and a pistol that can transform into different weapons, which sounds like a good basis for an action game; but 90% of fights play out the exact same way, with the best strategy being to spam telekinetic detritus at enemies, mixed up with a few headshots. There isn’t much variety between enemy types, and you’ll have seen most of them a quarter of the way into the game. It’s a system that looks better than it plays, and for a while it’s fun to just wipe everyone out with flung lamps, but it never develops into something more. It’s also a finicky system, and on the more difficult fights it became actively obnoxious, rather than something I found new complexities in.
But it mostly comes down to the narrative. I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters (despite excellent performances from the entire supporting cast, with special mention of Alan Wake voice actor Matthew Poretta turning in a marvelous live-action performance), I didn’t buy Jesse’s motivations, and I didn’t find the few attempts at humor particularly funny (a shame, since I genuinely consider Max Payne to be one of the funniest games ever made).
The DLCs are just more of the same, to the point where it’s not even worth reviewing them separately.
Clearly, the press and gaming public saw something in Control that I didn’t. I genuinely wish I knew what it was.
There are few guarantees in game development, but Cozy Grove seemed preordained to move serious copies. I’ve previously talked about how there’s a huge market for “cozy” games that are more about pottering around in a comfortable place than overcoming challenges, as evidenced by the astounding 37.6 million copies that most recent Animal Crossing has sold . Yet despite this, it’s not a crowded genre.
Cozy Grove is laser-focused on that underserved market. While heavily inspired by Animal Crossing, it swaps out that series’ essentially identical cast of villagers for unique characters, each a ghost of a deceased anthropomorphic bear, with their own slowly-unfolding backstory. The core loop is that every day, you can go to each of the spirits you’ve met and help them with some small task. This is usually finding objects hidden around the island, but can also can include fishing, or picking up something from the store. Helping the spirit advances their story and eventually lets you meet new characters. Along the way, you’ll get all sorts of cosmetics (namely clothing and furniture) to build out your campsite.
It genuinely is cozy, and for a month or so I really appreciated playing it as a morning ritual. Because you can’t help each spirit more than once a day, there’s a built-in time limit for how much you can play per day, though you can rearrange furniture and fish to your heart’s content.
Yet the game’s focus on being welcoming and unchallenging also means that it just isn’t very interesting. For a thing to be interesting, it has to be distinct; and for any given thing that is distinct, there is some population that finds it alienating. Cozy Grove works hard to have flavor—the characters speak in a Very Online way, playful, cheeky and slightly absurd—but staunchly avoids engaging in anything of substance, unless it’s the character’s Backstory Trauma. I haven’t gotten far enough in to have a spirit bare their full past to me, but it seems to be the classic “get a ghost to remember who they are and why they died, and accept it.” And because Cozy Grove wants to be a game that you return to over months, it stretches their story out to a ridiculous extent; it has the effect of trying to finish a book by reading three sentences a day. I’ll also admit to being pretty burnt out on the Bioware style of character development, where every NPC unloads their personal baggage on a total stranger (the player) in order for them to help them come to terms with it. It’s overtly artificial and slightly creepy.
All in all, Cozy Grove is still a well-designed game for its niche, sold for a more than reasonable price; but it’s also one of those games that relies on the player appreciating the ritual of repetitive work, as you have to do the same object hunts, the same fruit harvesting, the same animal caretaking every day, ad nauseum. It is a type of cozy, and I enjoyed it in the short term, but in the long term I needed something more engaging.
The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark √
A Fumble in the Dark is a solid follow-up to the original Darkside Detective. It’s not so much an iterative sequel as an additional set of cases; it’s the exact same point-and-click mechanics, same art, same characters. Yet I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first one. The developers seem to have upped the difficulty of the puzzles; most are fine, but there are a few that are particularly complex and obtuse, and required me to hit walkthroughs to progress. I also found it less funny; I can’t tell if this is because the jokes aren’t as sharp, or if it’s simply a result of the fact that a sequel is inherently less surprising than the original, and familiarity is the death of comedy.
These complaints aside, it’s still an amusing point-and-click, crafted with love, with a nice episodic structure to break things up and at least one additional free episode added post-release.
Death Stranding √
Death Stranding is so overflowing with novel ideas that it’s genuinely hard to write a short review of it.
On one level, it’s the sort of thing you might expect to see come from director Kojima after finding a publisher (Sony) seemingly willing to give him a large bucket of money to make whatever game he damn well pleased, no matter how unusual or against market trends it was. Death Stranding is in-your-face weird, sprawling, self-indulgent, and desperately in need of an editor for its cutscenes.
At the same time, the actual gameplay is a stunning success; it takes the pejorative “walking simulator” and uses it as inspiration for a game of genuine depth and complexity. Cast as Sam, a delivery man in an ongoing apocalypse, the vast majority of the gameplay consists of delivering loads of cargo from point A to B. What elevates this above being a literal Fedex quest is that the terrain, luggage, and protagonist’s own body are extensively simulated, and trying to deliver things undamaged and on time is a constant battle against the terrain and the elements. I realize that this is still going to sound boring to people, and for many it will be, but it’s genuinely novel, to the point where Death Stranding sort of defies genre; it’s an open-world game, sure, but it bears only a passing relation to the cookie-cutter Ubisoft games that most evoke that descriptor. It also does some interesting things with shared spaces, with other players’ items and infrastructure appearing in your game, and retrieval quests being procedurally-generated for other players’ lost packages. 
It has a lot in common with Metal Gear Solid V: a relatively simple core loop with a staggering amount of tools and obstacles, slowly introduced to the player over the course of the game. Just as you get tired of walking around, the game gives you an ATV; as that wears thin, you find yourself building a road network for truck transports.
Of course, many people—including me—were disappointed in MGSV despite it being, in ludic terms, the best stealth-action game ever made, because the storytelling was sloppy: not just messy and discursive (as all of Kojima’s works are) but largely boring, conservative, and threadbare, seemingly having little to say that hadn’t been covered in previous Metal Gears. Death Stranding goes the opposite route; the game’s setting, and the rules of its world, are so out there, so different from any AAA game you’ve ever played, that it’s a real treat for those who appreciate novelty. I relished the opening hours of the game, even as I immediately recognized that cutscenes were running twice as long as they should. And there is genuine thematic unity, at every level, between the gameplay and the narrative: both are about the act of building connections, and the ways in which the decline of our physical infrastructure, and retreat into atomized online spaces, has stunted us as a species and a society. As a provocative set of themes and ideas, this is Kojima’s most insightful and mature work.
But ideas do not, by themselves, make a good story, and ultimately Death Stranding’s storytelling doesn’t work. The problem isn’t the enormous amount of exposition (though this will certainly grate for some) but the apparent need to graft on a fight-the-bad guy quest, and stretch it out far past the point where it becomes interesting, particularly because the villain’s motives never make a lick of sense. But the bigger problem is Sam himself; he’s closed off to other people, speaks in as few words as possible, and generally just frowns through every event and encounter. This would be okay if it was a starting point for substantial character growth, but there isn’t much; he spends the vast majority of the game just as sour and monosyllabic before some small, late-arriving change. Norman Reedus’ performance did absolutely nothing for me, but he has so little to work with that I’m not sure I can fault him.
So you end up with a weird duality that’s the inverse of most games. During the game’s quiet moments, as you trek through a vast and hostile wilderness, the game’s themes and world are almost sublime, shown and not told. During the actual dedicated narrative portions, all subtext is made text; and the interpretation of that text is then dictated by the emails various characters write to Sam, which all appear to be Kojima using the characters as mouthpieces and explaining all the feelings and theories the game is supposed to evoke.
Death Stranding is a game I played compulsively for the first two thirds of it, only to find myself having to drag myself through the final stretch. Part of this was my own doing, as I spent quite a lot of time on sidequests and just expanding infrastructure for the fun of it; but ultimately I became disenchanted with its world. Humans are adaptable creatures; even the strangest ideas and realities become normal through exposure, and given enough time, normality becomes banality. Death Stranding is brilliant and flawed; I am glad I played it, and I never want to play it again, though a part of me already misses its landscapes.
Deep Rock Galactic ♥
Deep Rock Galactic, a co-op shooting-and-mining game for up to 4 players, was 2021’s most pleasant surprise for me. At this point I have little interest in competitive shooters, but playing co-op games either requires willing friends with the same tastes in games (which I often lack) or risking significant toxicity by playing with strangers (as MOBA games are infamous for). Yet Deep Rock Galactic is not only a great game, but one that has managed through thoughtful and clever design to create an online space with a strong sense of camaraderie, where the vast majority of players are generous and accommodating.
DRG casts you as a dwarf miner working for the titular company. As one of four classes (Scout, Gunner, Engineer, and Driller) you’ll join three other dwarves in a drill-shuttle, launched from an orbital mining station down to the planet of Hoxxus. Hoxxus is full of two things: valuable minerals, and enormous bugs that want to kill you. Armed with weapons, tools, and your trusty pick, you’ll need to explore procedurally-generated caves, mining valuable minerals, completing varied mission objectives, and trying not to die when the bugs attack.
The classes are well designed, with substantially different primary and secondary weapons (all of which can be customized with various upgrades and modifications you unlock as you level), and different means of traversing the environment. Their skill sets are designed to complement each other: a Scout can use their grappling hook to reach a mineral vein far above the floor, but won’t have anything to stand on while mining it, whereas an engineer can’t reach it themselves but can use their Platform Gun to create a platform for the scout to stand on as they mine.
One of the ways the game cuts off toxicity at the pass is by making all resources equally shared amongst the team, regardless of who mines them; so engineers are strongly encouraged to help scouts mine. Likewise, death is not permanent; if a dwarf is taken down by bugs or a bad fall, any other dwarf can revive them, and almost always rush to do so. Because death isn’t final (a mission is only lost if all 4 dwarves die, or if they fail to make it back to the escape shuttle after completing the mission), people don’t get too worked up over someone dying from a dumb mistake; dwarves automatically thank their rescuer when revived.
Treated purely as a co-op shooter, the variety of mission types, class abilities, and different environments make this a rich and rewarding game. But Deep Rock Galactic goes above and beyond by fleshing out the setting. You reside on a ramshackle orbital station between missions, complete with a jukebox for dancing and a bar where you can buy beer for yourself and other dwarves. There’s a dedicated key for raising your pickaxe and shouting “Rock and stone!” to your teammates. There’s an achievement for higher-level players helping out new ones in missions. When selecting a mission, the host can choose from five different difficulty levels, and this is displayed to other players before they join a mission; this minimizes situations in which players might get frustrated by skill imbalances on the teams.
But my favorite thing about Deep Rock is the atmosphere. The Orbital Rig is a lovingly detailed space. Every dwarf has a laser pointer, and they’ll provide commentary on anything you select with it, including the different flora and fauna in biomes (many of which aren’t hostile). There’s genuinely relaxing downtime between the waves of bug attacks, and some of the biomes on Hoxxis are genuinely beautiful. One skill lets you tame a hostile bug, at which point he is automatically renamed “Steve” and you and your fellow dwarves can pet him and tell him what a good boy he is.
2021 was the hardest year of my adult life, and Deep Rock provided a pleasant escape when I badly needed it. It’s one of my favorite games of the year, and I can’t wait to see what developer Ghost Ship Games comes up with next.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is an aggressively weird game with a colorful, hazy art style reminiscent of Bernband. Your character wanders the many districts of the spaceport, picking up trash and recycling it for meager wages. The spaceport is a lively and vibrant place, a far cry from the largely empty spaces that dominate video games.
There is, as far as I can tell, a larger puzzle to solve, and an optimal way to plan your days, pray for the blessings of alien gods, and ultimately make enough money to get offworld. But there’s an intentional amount of tedium baked into this, sort of a janitorial Shenmue, and that was enough friction that I bounced off this game. But I find that even though I’m writing this a year after I last played, the spaceport is still vivid in my mind, and I’d honestly recommend this game for anyone who wants an intriguing and strangely beautiful walking sim, or just to soak up some alien atmosphere.
Disco Elysium √ ♥
Writing a short review of Disco Elysium feels like a fool’s errand. I suppose there’s an alternate universe in which the game is a hidden gem rather than a breakthrough success, but it’s hard to imagine; it’s so self-confident, so willing to be straight-up literary in a way few videogames even try to be, and so ambitious in its radical reimagining of the isometric RPG, that it seems destined to spread by word-of-mouth. In many ways it reminds me of Kentucky Route Zero, which is about the highest praise I can give to a game, much less one by first-time developers.
The most obvious difference between Disco and every other RPG is that there’s no combat engine; every conflict is resolved by skill checks, including any violence that may emerge. The skills themselves are also unusual; instead of “lockpicking” or “melee weapons,” you have “inland empire” (to help you see the hidden truths beyond reality, David Lynch style) and “visual calculus” (to help you reconstruct crime scenes). In addition, high levels of skills are not always good; I raised my “Encyclopedia” stats very high, allowing me to recall all sorts of useful information, but also leaving my character obsessed with trivia that wasn’t relevant to anything.
This system allows players to build their protagonist how they want without worrying about “trap builds”, the total opposite of traditional RPGs like Pathfinder. The mechanics couldn’t be simpler: every attempted action in the game does a skill check with the relevant skill, which is simply rolling two six-sided dice and adding the skill’s value. But it’s such a flexible system that it allows the designers to come up with interesting and novel uses of skills, and ensures that each playthrough of Disco Elysium is substantially different.
The other distinguishing feature of Disco Elysium is just how dense it is. The entire game takes place within a relatively small neighborhood; I’ve honestly never played an RPG with so small a map. But this is more than counterbalanced by the sheer number of characters to interact with, interiors to explore, and mysteries to solve. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve seen to Warren Spector’s “one city block” design. And you do this all as a complete mess of a cop, struggling with his sanity and the decisions he has made. It’s a welcome break from being the chosen one.
It’s hard to write about Disco Elysium without making it sound like a difficult art game, the sort of thing you might admire more than enjoy, but it’s surprisingly accessible, and it never talks down to its audience; it’s not interested in dropping references to erudite works, but in embodying their best features. And the protagonist’s partner, Lt. Kim, is both a source of help when you get stuck, and perhaps the best “companion” character I’ve seen in an RPG (complete with absolutely top-notch voice acting by someone with zero previous credits to their name).
Last, but certainly not least, Disco Elysium is very, very funny, and allows the player to lean more and more into the absurdities they encounter if they wish; as someone who usually “plays it straight,” I often found myself pursuing chaotic approaches just to see what would happen, and was never disappointed. This is a highly reactive RPG, that pulls from a seemingly infinite script to tailor the experience to your character’s skills and flaws.
There’s a lot more to write about (the method of unlocking memories and ideas that influence your character; the brilliant, haunting soundtrack by band British Sea Power; the absolutely stellar pacing), but it’s safe to say that Disco Elysium is one for the ages. Many of my favorite video games are already largely obscure and forgotten, and are hard sells to a modern audience less willing to put up with their antiquated designs. But I’m confident people will still be discovering and playing Disco Elysium for many decades.
Doki Doki Literature Club √
[Spoiler warning! Skip this entry if you don’t want to know the twists of DDLC!]
Doki Doki Literature Club is one of those rare games that’s small in scope and content, and yet maintains an intensely dedicated fan community years after its release. All I knew about it, going in, was that it was highly recommended even to people who don’t normally play visual novels, and that there was some metafictional element.
So I was quite surprised when the majority of the game was a traditional, extremely tropey visual novel, of the “dude joins a community of beautiful women who are all into him” vein. I will say that it’s well done for what it is; dialogue is sharp, sometimes even witty. But knowing there was some sort of twist, it was a real slog; I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Eventually, DDLC does descend into psychological horror, and it’s again well done; I can only imagine how shocking it would be if you were expecting a traditional visual novel. The game ends with a clever meta-puzzle that requires you to manipulate files on your computer. But for me, the twists didn’t make up for the extensive buildup.
If I had to guess why this has such a devoted following, I’d say being free makes it attract both a bigger and younger crowd than it otherwise would (kids without disposable income will go through a lot of effort to find free games on the internet; adults mostly just stick to established storefronts), and this is exactly the sort of polished-but-unusual game that will make a real impression on people who play it in their formative years, with the horror and romantic elements giving in the allure of the forbidden. When I was 11, Final Fantasy VII blew me away not just on its own merits, but because I’d never played an RPG before; it expanded my ideas of what video games were capable of.
Doki Doki Literature Club is an impressive attempt for a first-time game developer, and you can’t complain about the price, but I’m allergic enough to anime tropes that I think I would have rather just played a full-on horror game (and I don’t much like horror!)
Embr is a distinct, if limited, co-op firefighting game from the developers of the cult Guns of Icarus games. The primary appeal is in the concept: it’s very difficult to find co-op games that aren’t focused on combat, and having one that’s about saving people (and their stuff) is a pleasant change. It’s easy to pick up, has a decent (if arcadey) flame propagation system, and gives you a surprisingly large variety of tools to fight fires with. In a time when games are filled with tacked-on progression systems that just make numbers get bigger, it’s nice to have a game that regularly gives you fundamentally new abilities.
Surprisingly, the game is also a satire of the gig economy, with the titular Embr being an app that allows anyone to be an untrained firefighter for paltry pay (with often disastrous results for the victims). The humor is broad but charming, and more clever than it needs to be, particularly with the regular appearance of HOSR, the rival Canadian corporation that actually supports its workers.
All that said: I strongly dislike the game’s art style. It shares an aesthetic with cheerful, grossly exploitative free-to-play mobile games, and while it isn’t that (in fact, it’s pretty generous, being a cheap game that doesn’t sandbag content for DLCs) it evokes it enough that it’s hard for me to really enjoy inhabiting the gamespace, even if it’s otherwise well done.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark √ ♥
Some games aim to challenge our conception of what video games can be. Some games are happy to iterate on established genres. And a few games have an even narrower focus: using a single beloved video game as their inspiration to craft a sort of spiritual sequel. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is a tribute act to Final Fantasy Tactics, one of many to come out in the last few years.
It does a pretty great job at this, particularly when you consider that the principle design, programming, art, and writing was done by only two people. And if the character art isn’t as accomplished as Tactics, and the storytelling is more pedestrian, well, that just means that a small developer’s first game isn’t the equal of one of the greatest strategy RPGs of all time.
But it comes closer than it has any right to. The moment-to-moment gameplay is just as compelling as Tactics, featuring a wide array of different classes, varied encounters, and satisfying character progression. While it never approaches the political intrigue and moral ambiguity of its predecessor, the game has genuinely likable characters that grew on me the more I played.
Best of all, the game has a few novel ideas all its own. My favorite is that items aren’t single-use consumables, but rather replenish after every encounter, giving the player an array of tactical tools and discouraging hoarding behavior (which I normally succumb to in RPGs).
I also played with the Missions and Monsters DLC, which was exactly the sort of thing DLC should be: not required to enjoy the main game, but giving you things you never knew your were missing. In this case, it’s a “missions” system that allows you to send party members on missions for experience and loot, idle-game style, and a Pokemon-esque “monster trainer” system that allows you to recruit or capture nearly every monster in the game, each with its own skill tree and array of abilities.
Fell’s Seal: Arbiter’s Mark hooked me for the vast majority of its running time; I started to run out of steam in the final 10%, but only after logging over 50 hours. Like its predecessor, the story starts to get a little silly/over-the-top towards the end, but nothing too egregious. Overall, it’s a charming tactical RPG, and I look forward to what the developer does next.
Forager’s raison d’être is to make a more active idle game, a sort of combination of Cookie Clicker and The Legend of Zelda. It’s largely successful, giving you an array of things to build and craft while also letting you explore new areas, fight some enemies, and solve a few puzzles. The drawback is that the inherent repetition of the idle game and the more active nature of Forager means there’s some real grinding involved, and I eventually burnt out. But it’s a cute game that does what it says on the tin, and has a top-notch chiptune soundtrack to boot.
Four Last Things √
Four Last Things is an anarchic point-and-click adventure with art created entirely from Renaissance paintings, and an entirely classic music soundtrack; it evokes both Monty Python’s humor and Terry Gilliam’s animation, and if it never reaches the heights of Python’s best sketches, it’s at least consistently amusing and wholly distinct from any other point-and-click I’ve played. You guide a poor soul who, for plot reasons, is required to commit all seven deadly sins, which inevitably involves lots of silly dialog and solving a few puzzles. The animation is top-notch, and the aesthetic is really the best reason to play this game. The puzzles are fair and reasonable, and the few stumpers made sense when I looked them up. Your mileage is gonna vary with the humor—it’s very much of a type—but it springs from the writer’s unique sensibilities, and isn’t just channeling Lucasarts adventures like so many other modern point-and-clicks.
It’s a fun little thing, and I definitely plan on playing the follow-up, The Procession to Calvary.
Gloomhaven is one of the most famous tabletop games to come out in the last decade; a work of staggering ambition (and weight!), it’s currently the highest-rated board game of all time on BoardGameGeek. Combining Eurogame sensibilities (no dice!) with a traditional dungeon-delving campaign, Gloomhaven is a deep and rewarding adventure.
Yet there are significant barriers to access. At retail price, it costs $140; this seems absurd until you witness the sheer mass of the box and its contents. Gloomhaven’s sprawling campaign contains 100 missions, each of which would take a party of 4 an average of 2-3 hours to play. So not only is Gloomhaven a large upfront expense, you also need to either have a group of dedicated friends willing to play a lengthy campaign, or be someone who really enjoys solitaire board gaming.
So a digital adaptation makes a lot of sense! You can play with friends or even strangers online, it’s much cheaper (When playing with 1-2 players, anyway; 4 players buying the game costs as much as a single physical copy that could be shared amongst the group), and the transition to digital brings a number of quality-of-life features, like having an AI manage all the enemy movement and attacks, and avoiding the lengthy set-up and breakdown of the massive physical game on a dining room table.
Now that it’s out of early access, the digital adaptation is almost perfect; the vast majority of the game is ported over exactly as is, with only a few small features from the board game (like a meta-puzzle hidden in the game box) missing. Gloomhaven’s strengths—the highly tactical card-driven combat, the depth and variety of classes and scenarios—are fully present, and its weaknesses (a generic story and setting, a sharp learning curve) aren’t any worse than they already were, even if they present missed opportunities. The voiced narration is fine but unremarkable, and particularly disappointing when you realize that the incredible Foreteller narration (featuring music, sound effects, and a varied cast) was available for licensing. The included tutorial covers many of the basics, but is woefully inadequate for preparing people for just how idiosyncratic Gloomhaven is; players will either have to take the time to read the manual, or learn through trial and error. There is no easy start to Gloomhaven; the very first mission expects you to have a decent handle on the game’s mechanics (namely, the importance of not burning cards until late in the scenario) and it’s a chokepoint that a lot of players won’t make it through on the default difficulty.
The game has a few other wrinkles—a somewhat awkward multiplayer hosting system, character art that’s considerably worse than what’s in the board game—but the quality of life improvements, and the addition of the Guildmaster mode (a sort of procedural roguelite, filled with generally simpler scenarios than the campaign proper) more than make up for them. If you want a tactical, cooperative game to play with friends on your PC, it’s hard to do better than Gloomhaven (at least until Frosthaven comes out!).
Golf With Your Friends ♥
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises, Golf With Your Friends is as (w)holesome as multiplayer gaming gets. The game includes a nice variety of courses, and Steam Workshop support for tons of fan-made ones. More surprising, it includes multiple game modes outside of traditional mingolf, including a sort of golf-hockey and golf-basketball. You can also create custom modes from changing everything from over-par penalties, to the shape of the ball, to the force of gravity itself. I’d recommend Golf With Your Friends to anyone looking for a highly accessible game to play with friends online.
Heaven’s Vault √ ♥
One of my favorite games of 2021, my main reaction to Heaven’s Vault was “Why didn’t I play this sooner?” I’ve loved every other Inkle game I’ve played, and this was high atop my list of most-wanted games. The best explanation I can give is that I sometimes find brilliant literary games to be almost intimidating in their richness; I feel the need to space them out with more traditional video game fare.
Anyway: Heaven’s Vault is a truly original sci-fi story, in a highly unusual setting (a group of small planetoids connected by a river-in-space). You play an archaeologist who, with the assistance of an ancient, unearthed robot, travels the known universe in search of relics and answers. This is adventure game storytelling at its best, drip-fed through grounded-but-witty dialog and environmental examination. It’s also surprisingly non-linear; past the opening moments, you have an enormous variety of locations to visit and explore. This is not as simple as picking an icon on a world map; you have to sail there, via a simple-but-satisfying minigame.
Exploring a world isn’t as simple as picking up items and putting them in your inventory; your main task is translating the ancient language you find in ruins. It’s a proper language, not a simple cipher of English, and I was initially intimidated by it; but the game gives you just enough clues and context that you can readily make progress, and the more translations you find, the more you’re able to be confident in the rightness (or wrongness) of prior translations. Intuitive educated guesses are enough to get you through the game, but if you want want to actually learn the pictographic language, you absolutely can (be prepared to take a lot of notes!).
Heaven’s Vault absolutely nails the feeling that your choices matter. Some are bigger than others; there was one, partway through the game, which seemed so substantial as to warrant a replay just to see the other path. And these are naturalistic choices that emerge from the circumstances on the ground, not railroaded Big Moral Decisions of the type favored by Bioware RPGs and Telltale games. It all leads to a grand conclusion that’s both satisfying and intriguing, while leaving just enough mysteries to investigate on a replay (even going out of my way to see as much as possible, there was definitely content I missed!). There’s even a New Game Plus mode that allows you to keep all your knowledge of translations, enabling the developers to provide more complex fragments to translate.
I’ve never played anything quite like Heaven’s Vault—not even Inkle’s prior titles, though there’s at least a little overlap with the dense, non-linear exploration of 80 Days—and it’s a great demonstration that a game can be literary and thought-provoking without being inaccessible. This is excellent sci-fi, using interactivity to help its world come alive. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a great tale of discovery, history, and fate.
House Flipper is a popular exemplar of a new game genre I’m going to call “fake sims.” These are games that give the experience of doing a specialized, usually mechanistic task (like building computers or repairing cars) but abstract the actual process rather than simulate it. Learning Microsoft Flight Simulator will give you real knowledge on how to fly a plane; my hours with House Flipper have in no way prepared me to retile a bathroom.
This is not a criticism. These games aren’t meant to be simulative, or even challenging; they’re pleasant fantasies. If the traditional action game or RPG are power fantasies of being a great hero, then House Flipper is based on the fantasy of being able to afford to buy a house in the United States, and the idea that you can make ever-increased amounts of money through the straightforward application of manual labor.
It’s a game of two halves. In the first, you take specific handyman jobs from people who want you to clean and renovate an improbably trashed house, entailing everything from vacuuming broken glass to installing new toilets, with each task detailed on a checklist. In the second, you straight-up buy damaged homes, and freestyle renovate them, either to your own design sensibilities, or to those of a specific interested buyer.
I mostly did the first mode as a sort of zen activity, akin to playing solitaire; I thoroughly enjoyed it, and actually did every single errand job the game offers. The second mode more resembles a traditional game and allows for actual creativity, but I bounced off it hard; the sheer number of potential choices was overwhelming, and the game was pretty opaque on what made actual financial sense (will putting in a fancy sofa bring in more money than a cheap one? Hell if I know). But this isn’t a criticism of that mode, more a reflection on the enormous number of games in my backlog and my general preference for games that offer direction vs. a total sandbox experience, and that if I need to start designing things, I’d rather try Cities: Skylines than do interior decorating.
Overall, it’s a well-put-together package, albeit one you’ll probably want to play while listening to music or a podcast.
Ironcast is a match-3 roguelike, in which you pilot steampunk ‘mechs into battle against same, but where the the match-3 gameplay is the combat engine.The battle isn’t merely window dressing; you can actually configure your ‘mech with different weapons and equipment, each of which provides different abilities; the matching gameplay provides the fuel, ammunition, and shields for your vehicle.
It’s genuinely well done, and I have few complaints other than that this is from the newer, Rogue Legacy school of roguelikes, where it’s essentially impossible to finish a run on a first play, and you need to grind to unlock more powerful components and abilities so that eventually you’ll be able to finish the game. I’ve always preferred the older school of roguelike in which information, player skill, and luck—rather than fixed mechanical progression—determine your success. But it’s still the most interesting match 3 I’ve played, and there’s a decent chance I’d go back.
I specifically bought Islanders because I wanted a relaxing, puzzle-light game to play before I went to bed, and Islanders delivers in spades. It’s a little hard to describe in genre terms; it’s basically a mix of a traditional city builder and a European board game. As in the former, you can freely place down buildings, and work to build a mix of residential and industrial buildings. As in the latter, you are limited to only a few buildings at a time, pick “cards” that determine what you build next, and are ultimately playing for points; each island is a short (~ 10 minute) game, and when that island is built up to our heart’s content (or simply can’t fit any more buildings), you can move on to another one.
There’s a roguelike element of seeing how far you can go in a single run, but it’s easy enough that I’ve yet to actually lose my initial run. It’s a very simple game, and as such I eventually drifted away from it, but it’s still installed and in a highly visible spot in my library, because it is truly the perfect combination of engaging and relaxing, and I suspect I’ll be playing this off and on for years to come.
It Takes Two √
I cannot recall the last time I found such an irritating game so delightful, and such a delightful game so irritating.
To wit: It Takes Two is a co-op adventure incorporating platforming, puzzle-solving, and light combat (including boss fights). It’s surprisingly full of content, and all of it is polished and has the small details that indicate a labor of love. Over the course of the game you’ll explore a wide variety of genuinely beautiful environments, and each stage gives your characters different asymmetrical abilities and tools, to the point where It Takes Two feels like playing a succession of separate games with a shared control scheme. The design has clearly benefited from extensive playtesting, such that every element is accessible even to people who don’t regularly play video games. The downside of that accessibility is a certain lack of depth in every new mechanic it introduces, but this is solved by the constant retirement of existing mechanics in favor of new ones. It’s a brilliant solution to the challenge of building a game that appeals to both casual and enfranchised gamers. And, of course, video games are almost always more fun in co-op, which further elevates the experience. This is the delightful bit.
The irritation comes in the fact that, rather than playing the sort of silent protagonists you’d often find in this sort of game, the two players embody Cody and Mae, a deeply unhappy married couple who spend most of the game needling each other, trading blame for their myriad failings, and generally being insufferable. This is not a clever Battle of the Sexes tribute; it’s time spent in the company of people who loathe each other almost as much as they loathe themselves, and have neither the wit nor self-awareness to trade proper quips. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds. Cody and Mae’s sole redeeming feature is that the other principle character, an animate book who communicates primarily in hip thrusts, is even worse, and the protagonists are never more relatable than when the book shows up and they briefly stop squabbling to go “Christ, not this guy again.”
A lot of video games have unsatisfying and unambitious narratives, but these are typically conveyed in isolated cutscenes or exposition dumps in games that otherwise “focus on the gameplay,” where the narrative is simply there to communicate the game’s objectives. It Takes Two is the polar opposite: Cody and Mae will not shut up, and will constantly chatter over and comment on every single thing that happens on screen. I’ve never played a game with more vocal protagonists.
To give credit where credit is due, It Takes Two isn’t phoning it in; the writers seem to genuinely want to tell a moving story of a troubled family finding a path forwards aside from the “easy out” of divorce (if that framing bothers you, you’ll find you have a lot of company). And it does have its moments; a now-infamous scene involving a plush elephant is an excellent slice of horror, and it’s true that Cody and Mae become at least somewhat less irritating as they learn to like themselves and rediscover what brought them together. Unfortunately, that really only happens in the last quarter of the game, and by that point I had long since tired of their company. The entire plot also rests on the premise that their daughter (who approaches Stepford Wives levels of implausible perfection) is so dumb that she doesn’t notice that both her parents are in magically-induced comas as they lie splayed on a couch, and assumes they’re just ignoring her.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC √
[This review contains spoilers for the first Trails in the Sky; I’ll avoid substantial spoilers for SC].
Trails in the Sky SC is infamous for the difficulty of its localization to English, but outside of that I didn’t have a good sense of it going in; I just knew this was Part 2 of Trails in the Sky, which ended in a substantial cliffhanger. For both better and worse, SC really is a direct continuation of the former game.
It doesn’t exactly start where the last one left off; there’s a time gap, and a slow re-establishing of the characters and where they’re at. But to its credit, SC doesn’t immediately try to reverse the party-shattering conclusion of the first game; you just play Estelle, and won’t be reunited with the deuteragonist Joshua till most of the way through the game, though he appears in various “Meanwhile…” segments as the plot progresses. It’s a structure no less pleasing due to its predictability, and the ultimate reunion is one of the game’s most satisfying moments.
It quickly becomes apparent that SC isn’t going to be just a narrative continuation, but a mechanical repetition of the first game. Once again, you’ll travel to all five regions of Liberl, investigating mysterious circumstances wrought by villainous characters. You’ll meet (mostly) the same party members, use (mostly) the same combat system, and visit exactly the same locations while listening to the same musical tracks. There are some people who feel that asset reuse in sequels is criminal or lazy; I’m not one of them, but there are definitely times where it seems like Falcom was trying to figure out just how cheaply they could make a sequel for. There are substantive new locations, but they’re typically smaller dungeons rather than actual towns or places to explore.
The net effect is a game that will appeal to fans of the original, but has even more glacial pacing; after the crescendo of Trails in the Sky’s conclusion, it’s almost jarring how much SC hits the brakes. The vast majority of this SC is solving what are more-or-less independent quests, whose main appeal is checking in with familiar characters. This being a Trails game, that means not just main characters, but every single random townsperson; if you had the stamina to follow the thousand interweaving tales of NPCs in the original, you are going to have a field day with SC. This is something about the series I greatly admire, and I told myself that this time, I really would talk to every NPC every time the plot moved forward, but I quickly ran out of patience; it will probably add a good 45 hours to your playthrough to do this.
As with the original, SC combines very tropey plots and characters with consistently great dialog and a laid-back sense of humor; at its best, it has the feeling of a good sitcom, where you’re just hanging out with characters you like. That said, SC definitely leans harder into anime tropes than its predecessor, complete with everything from giant ‘mechs, to mysterious ancient civilizations, to murderous little girls with oversized weapons. Towards the end it gets a bit silly, but it never quite jumps the shark, and the epilogue is genuinely satisfying.
Difficulty-wise, it’s on par with the previous game—not too difficult—until the brutal final battle. It didn’t take me *too* many tries, but it is a substantive difficulty spike at the very end and I had to resort to a guide, which I maintain is pretty bad design; there’s nothing more frustrating than making it 99.9% of the way through a game and not being able to finish. Fortunately, it comes so late in the game that you could just watch the rest on Youtube if need be.
This is a pretty long way of saying that if you liked Trails in the Sky FC and want more, this will make you happy; but it’s not going to win any new fans, and it did made me realize I’d really have to pace myself going through the Trails games.
Also: about halfway through the game, I realized that examining an empty chest would give a unique description for almost every chest. These “chest jokes” are frequently hilarious, and entirely the invention of localizer Jessica Chavez; they don’t exist in the Japanese original. They were honestly the most highlight of the game for me, so be sure to examine every chest after you open it!
The Long Dark: Episode 4 (Fury, Then Silence) √
In 2018, I wrote up Wintermute Redux, the remake of The Long Dark’s first two episodes in response to a poor critical reception. I praised the core survival gameplay and the atmosphere, while criticizing the actual narrative as a missed opportunity. This goes double for Episode 4, which has probably the most interesting mission design (and certainly the best puzzles) of any episode yet, but descends into an ugly and obvious series of tropes when protagonist Will Mackenzie finally catches up with, and is captured by, the escaped convicts whose trail he’s been intersecting since the first episode.
These people don’t have an interesting backstory, no real explanation as to why they act the way they do; we’re just supposed to understand that Convicts Are Monstrous People, and that’s that. I’ll admit that my politics make this particularly grating, but it’s also just fundamentally bad storytelling; there just aren’t that many characters in The Long Dark, and having an episode where the majority of characters are thinly-drawn villains doesn’t make for a compelling reason to leave the sandbox mode (which I still haven’t tackled, but I’m told is excellent). We’re also led to believe their leader is a villainous mastermind, even though he repeatedly lets Will out of his cell to run around and sabotage their nefarious plans.
This is also the least interesting region we’ve explored in the story, with almost all of the action centered around interior spaces rather than the great outdoors. But the interiors—including an abandoned coal mine and the prison itself—are very well done. The game remains extremely generous with supplies on normal difficulty, and I once again build up an absurd hoard.
Despite my criticisms, I like the structure and sense of progress on the episodes; but if we’re being honest, the only reason I haven’t done sandbox is the fear that I’d just disappear inside of it for a hundred hours. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Loop Hero came out of nowhere, took the gaming press by storm, and then seemed to fade away almost as quickly. This makes sense; as the title suggests, Loop Hero is singularly focused on its literal core loop, and this results in a game with compulsive playability, but without much meat on its bones; it is, as one of my friends put it, “so close to being a good game.”
Here’s the gist: an adventure runs laps in a sort of abstracted RPG world, auto-battling enemies, leveling up, and getting loot; your job is to place tiles on the world that control what enemies spawn, and what bonuses the hero gets (as well as occasionally managing the hero’s equipment). The game is pausable, so this isn’t a frantic race against time. It’s just involved enough to go beyond being an idle game, but still far more stripped-down than a traditional RPG or roguelike. It’s a distinct space to carve out, and that precise level of engagement is actually one of the things I liked best about the game (the other is its gorgeous pixel art).
Yet what initially seems like a fairly open-ended progression system slowly reveals itself as a trial-and-error puzzle; there are fairly limited ways to make substantial progression, each requiring very specific placement of very specific tiles and abilities, and there’s no way to figure this out other than doing many, many runs and a fair bit of mental math/gametheory. This is going to be some people’s idea of a good time, but I’m someone who gets frustrated by futility; if I have a “time loop” game, I want each loop to feel like I really learned something or made real progress (ala Outer Wilds); if I’m just repeatedly failing with no clear path forward, I am going to move on to a different game.
Milkmaid of the Milky Way √
Milkmaid of the Milky Way is clearly a labor of love, and I don’t have anything bad to say about it, other than that it feels a bit slight. But it’s always charming, usually pleasant, and rarely frustrating.
Its main distinguishing factor is that all text in the game, from dialog to descriptions, is in rhyming verse. It’s well-done enough to avoid annoyance, and it’s certainly endearing, but it’s more of a stylistic choice than a source of great wit or humor. The story—of a rural Scandanavian milkmaid whose cow is abducted by aliens—is intentionally simple, but tonally perfect; it’s not the madcap adventure it sounds like, but rather has more in common with a classical fairy tale, including some pretty strong reflections on loneliness. The puzzles are mostly simple, and I think I only had to look up help once (and that was only because I’d missed an area transition screen).
If you like point-and-click games and want something short and comfy, I’d recommend it. If you’re not a fan of the genre or looking for the next Great Adventure Game, you should probably pass it by.
A Mortician’s Tale
A Mortician’s Tale gets huge points for covering fresh territory, being a deep delve into a mortician’s work. The entire tone is hyper-respectful, very much an outgrowth of the “death positive” movement, while still leaving room for an interesting main character.
I can’t really evaluate it more than that, because it turns out I’m really, really squeamish about medical/body stuff; as soon as I had to pump a body full of formaldehyde, I had to nope out. Not the game’s fault, but something to be aware of if you have similar hangups.
I rarely buy games in Early Access, but Ooblets had a fantastic sale, and I’d read good things on RPS. While I ultimately paused my playthrough to wait for 1.0, I was pretty happy with what I found.
First: yes, the game is exactly as lovely as its looks, with a visual design that strikes a fine balance between comfy and lively. The ooblets—a sort of vegetation-based Not-Pokemon—are universally adorable, but still feel handcrafted and not phoned-in cute. The farming and crafting system is a little threadbare, but focused and not overly grindy.
The standout for me were the characters and dialog: there’s a consistently twee, playful, absurdist voice, filled with nonsense words and turns of phrase, that is going to drive some people absolutely bonkers. But for me, in context, it played well; wordplay is used as a way to express character, rather than cover up a lack of it. “Cozy” games tend to embrace extremes of Everyone Is Happy And Wonderful, or Every Character Has A Tragic Backstory And Needs You To Heal Them. In Ooblets, the characters are happy to have you help with chores and projects, but are otherwise independent, and lead their own lives, with their own ups and downs. For me, the most compelling part of the game is just talking to the townspeople every day and developing friendships.
The game’s most distinctive feature is also, sadly, its worst. Rather than the thinly-obscured animal abuse of a traditional Pokemon battle system, ooblets have “dance-offs.” Each ooblet has a deck of cards that reflect their differing abilities; dance-offs feature 3-5 ooblets per team, each playing one card a turn. They’re adorable, and I really appreciated the aversion to violence, but they’re also slowwwwwww. For many people, this won’t be a problem, but combined with the combat’s relative simplicity and ease, I quickly found it tedious, and was left in the awkward position of mostly avoiding half of the game’s core.
As early access progressed, cool new areas and minigames have been added, and this is already worth a purchase; my primary hope is that, if nothing else, the final release will have a “speed up battle” button.
PC Building Simulator
PC Building Simulator is an odd beast. Like House Flipper, it belongs to an increasingly crowded genre of “chore” games, that abstract and simplify normally banal labor until it’s simple and compelling. It basically has three pitches:
1) “Do you love building PCs, but can’t afford to do so more than once every five years? Now you can do it all the time!”
2) “Are you interested in building a PC, but have no idea what goes where? Consider this a safe place to learn and experiment!”
3) “Do you really like skinner boxes and progression systems? Of course you do, that’s all video games today.”
1) is moderately successful, with an array of parts and graphics just good enough to reflect the aesthetic appreciation of your PC, but ultimately this is still a pretty different experience from the physical building process; there’s none of the satisfaction of building something with your own hands. As a tutorial (2), it fares better; the campaign does a good job of introducing different parts and aspects of building a PC, and if nothing else is excellent at reinforcing that you cannot forget the thermal paste on the CPU! If I didn’t already know how to build a PC, I would have found this a real confidence-booster.
As for its performance as an actual game and not just a sandbox builder, it’s…fine, but pretty quickly becomes a transparent repeating of the same tasks, so you can unlock more PC parts, so you can build more PCs, etc. The campaign is clearly budget and not trying anything particularly interesting; this is not going to give you even the slightest sense of what it’s like to run a PC repair and building shop.
Portal 2 (co-op) √ ♥
When Portal 2 came out, I didn’t have anyone to play its co-op campaign with, and over the intervening years it was hard to find anyone who was interested and hadn’t played it already! But in 2021 I got to go through it with a friend and, yep, it’s really good. It has the same pitch-perfect progression as the original Portal, ensuring you always have the tools and skills you need to tackle the next puzzle while never making it easy or obvious; we never had to look up a single puzzle solution, but just iterated and bounced ideas off of each other.
I loved the original Portal, but its distinctive humor was quickly ruined for me by extremely obnoxious people at college who decided yelling “the cake is a lie!” every day for years on end was funny, and that affected my reception of Portal 2’s single-player campaign in 2011. But years removed from that spoiling influence, I can say: Portal 2’s co-op writing is stellar, and I laughed many times. Comedy writing is hard—maybe the hardest type of writing—and this is as good an example as any.
While I haven’t been able to play Half-Life: Alyx (No VR set), I do hope it’s the first of more single-player, or co-op, games to come from Valve.
Prey: Mooncrash √ ♥
Prey: Mooncrash is the single most interesting piece of DLC I’ve ever played. Most downloadable content is, as the name implies, simply more content; extra levels, or items, or other bits that expand the game that already existed without fundamentally changing it. Yet Mooncrash is a radical, self-contained roguelike built from Prey’s pieces, yet substantively different. It’s brilliant, and it’s almost shockingly brave, though we now know it was something of a testbed for Arkane’s Deathloop.
The fundamental premise of Mooncrash is that you’re a hacker exploring a simulation, trying to piece together what happened to various characters in a historical event (think 2011’s Source Code). Through elaborate-but-elegant narrative justifications, the simulation resets upon the character’s death. The ultimate goal: complete every character’s story, and then do a single run, with no deaths, where all five characters escape the lunar base using five different methods.
Initially, this seems (and is) impossible, made even worse by the fact that the missions are timed; as time progresses, more hostile enemies spawn, until your character is overwhelmed. This flies directly against what I love about immersive sims, which is slowly and methodically exploring a simulated space. Who wants to read a fictional email when they’re timed in doing so? So despite my love of Prey, I avoided Mooncrash, but eventually gave it a shot because so many people in similar boats told me it was worth it.
The trick is that Prey does an amazing job of creating discrete goals. You aren’t repeatedly trying and failing in the quest for perfection; in each run, you can advance character’s stories, unlock new items, and otherwise make it possible to do the final run without perfect play. And until that final run, you can actually ignore the timer; you have more than enough time to explore the spaces and accomplish one discrete goal before calling it a day and resetting. Even better, you eventually earn a way to stop and even reverse the timer, letting you play as long as you want.
Using this method, I got to fully explore the space, and ultimately was so prepared for the final run that I did it in a single try without much difficulty. As a result, this is one of the few roguelikes I’ve finished, and probably my favorite. It allows you to fully experience Prey‘s diverse array of weapons and tools, and forces you to adopt different playstyles for each of its characters. The storytelling is a compelling extension of Prey’s, and while it’s ultimately a little too mysterious for its own good, it’s a fun ride while it lasts.
We’ll probably never see a true sequel to Arkane’s Prey, but this is an excellent alternative.
Psychonauts √ ♥
I was one of the few people who bought Psychonauts on release. I liked it quite a bit, and yet found it a slightly disappointing narrative relative to Grim Fandango, even though it’s a better and more enjoyable game. Part of this was simply that I was never that into platformers, and part of it was that the game felt lightweight; it’s very much working within the summer-camp-movie genre, and lacks the pathos that Full Throttle and Grim Fandango channeled so well.
In 2021, I replayed it with a friend (who struggles with platformers) in preparation for Psychonauts 2, and I liked it more than I did the first time around. The art style has aged wonderfully—this is probably the best-looking Xbox game there is, precisely because it avoids graphical realism. This was also one of the last prominent “character platforms” outside of Mario, and so the gameplay felt fresher than it did when it was released. More than anything, I appreciated just how ambitious the game was, how each level substantially changed the formula, how it seems to have a faith that its audience will go along with a lot of weirdness as long as it’s charming and well-executed. And it is: in fact, the levels probably get better as the game goes on. There are a million retrospective odes to The Milkman Conspiracy, but while it’s a great level I don’t think it stands head and shoulds above the rest, and it isn’t even my favorite (that would either be Lungfishopolis or Waterloo World). And what I saw as slightness back then, I now see as a light touch, an excellent genre ode that is full of delightful characters who are fun to spend time with.
Psychonauts isn’t a game that needed a sequel—a last-minute cliffhanger aside, it’s wonderfully self-contained and does everything it needs to—but it certainly deserved one, and I’m heartened it found a bigger audience in the years after its release.
Psychonauts 2 √ ♥
As the long-awaited sequel to a beloved cult classic, Psychonauts 2 has big boots to fill, and I’m delighted to say that it not only is every bit as charming and brilliant as the original, I think it’s a genuinely better game in every way.
First things first: the levels are even more fantastic and varied than the first games. As much character as each Psychonauts level had, the fact was that the first half of the game was a tutorial, mechanically, with powers being slowly introduced and the real formal innovation loaded in the back half. But after a single, narrative-heavy tutorial level, Psychonauts 2 leaps right into the elaborate, high-concept levels you desire, and I was constantly taken aback by just how ambitious they were. The twists are best left unspoiled, but to give an example, an early level centers around a fictional reality cooking show, with you racing between different gigantic prep stations to prepare a meal, in a sort of action-platforming version of a cooking game. It’s so fleshed-out that it feels like it could be its own game; after playing, I learned that it was actually adapted from an entirely separate game made for Amnesia Fortnight, Double Fine’s annual game jam.
It’s said that art is never released, it escapes, and that’s generally true; but Psychonauts 2 seems to have genuinely benefited from its protracted development. My play experience was completely bug-free, and I can’t think of anything that seems like it needed polishing or improvementThe game is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, there’s so much wonderful music that they’re having to release it across three separate soundtracks, and the narrative is surprisingly ambitious.
It’s that narrative that’s going to put some people off; this isn’t content to be Psychonauts Part 2, but goes in a very specific direction with its worldbuilding, one that’s more mature and filled with the explorations of adulthood and obligation that characterize Schafer’s earlier works. It doesn’t feel inevitable: one can imagine any number of other stories told in the Psychonauts universe, and it features such a large cast that some characters (like Raz’s fellow Psychonaut Interns) inevitably feel a bit underdeveloped. But it covers a lot of ground, hits some high highs (including more than one great musical number), and is ultimately faithful to its characters. There’s some real weight here, and it’s something I look forward to replaying.
Quantum Break √
Max Payne may be my all-time favorite shooter. Alan Wake is the only horror game I really like. So you’d think Quantum Break would have been a day-one purchase for me upon its release 2016. It wasn’t, not because it got bad reviews, and not even because it was initially a Windows Store exclusive at a time when that app was largely dysfunctional, but because by 2016 I was already fully in backlog-fighting mode.  I finally got around to playing it this year; I’m glad I did, even if Quantum Break is ultimately more of an interesting detour in Remedy’s exploration of narrative shooter rather than a landmark title.
On the whole, Quantum Break is a much more conventional game, and narrative, than Remedy’s prior work. Max Payne and Alan Wake both make heavy use of meta-narrative; Alan Wake in particular is a story about storytelling. And both channel their love of language into the main character; Payne famously talks in purple metaphors and similes, and Wake is literally a novelist. In contrast, Quantum Break’s Jack Joyce is as generic as video game protagonists get: he’s a 20-something white guy of average intelligence, whose only notable skill appears to be an unusual proficiency with firearms. Every other character in the game is more interesting than Jack, who largely drifts through the game going “what’s going on?” before shooting dudes. It’s hard to tell if this was Remedy attempting to make a more ‘mainstream’ game, or just a lack of imagination on the part of the writers (notably, this is the first Remedy game not penned by Sam Lake).
The overall plot fares better; this is story of time travel clearly inspired by Primer (2005), that wants to go beyond the standard tropes of the genre and make something complex and relatively grounded. It halfway succeeds; the time-travel logic and avoidance of obvious paradoxes is pretty well done, and for my money the limited supernatural elements ultimately make it more interesting. Yet Remedy is making a shooter, not a puzzle game, and so ultimately much of the narrative centers around reasons for using guns and “time powers” to kill tons of corporate security goons in fairly banal environments (warehouses, office buildings, construction sites, etc.) It’s well executed for what it is—the central antagonist isn’t just a Greedy Corporation, but has semi-plausible reasons for their nefarious schemes- but ultimately, spending most of your time on “rebel bro shoots corps” is going to tamp down on your narrative ambitions.
That shooting, thankfully, is good; it has a visceral quality that Remedy’s previous games have lacked. Guns have recoil, weapons and powers are deadly, and physics-driven objects have real weight. Jack feels appropriately fragile; he needs to use his powers and cover to survive. As with all Remedy games, it builds slowly and doesn’t have a huge amount of variety; you’re not gonna find any grandiouse Halo-esque setpiece battles here, and the boss fights are never more than adequate.
I haven’t yet gotten to Quantum Break’s defining feature: it integrates a TV show into the mix. The game is divided into five acts; at the end of each act, you’re shown an episode of a TV show, which changes based on decisions you’ve made. I didn’t play through the game more than once, so I can’t tell you how radically it changes, but it was pretty apparent that the core plot would remain unchanged, while the fates of various characters would.
How good the show is depends largely on your expectations and taste in television. The good news is that this is a far cry from the FMV ‘games of the ‘90s; this is a professionally-produced, high-budget television production, starring accomplished actors (Lance Reddick! Aiden Gillen! Dominic Monaghan!) who commit to the material and don’t phone in the performance. At the same time, it feels so dedicated to aping the style of contemporary television production that it never really feels distinct (the action sequences feel particularly 2010s, with their rapid cuts and camera shake). Characters are distinct and performances are good, but no one (save perhaps Monaghan’s William Joyce, who gets relatively little screen time) is particularly charming; it’s a show about Serious People Doing Serious Things. And yet it’s also a show about an evil corporation exploiting time travel technology so, you know, this isn’t exactly prestige television.
Ultimately, I found Quantum Break satisfying, and my evaluation of it actually went up after playing the disappointing Control; it’s well paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome, and if it’s occasionally banal, it’s still far more ambitious than 95% of shooters released in the last decade.
I almost never buy games in early access—not because I’m opposed to it on principle, but because with a massive backlog of finished games, it makes little sense to me to put them aside to play an unfinished one. I’m in no hurry, and am happy to wait for full release.
But despite the enormous popularity of the survival game genre, there are almost no good, chill co-op ones. Those that exist tend to involve fighting hostile players or zombies. I needed a game to play with some friends who were combat-averse, and Raft was already many years into release, so we picked it up.
I’m quite happy with it, but what you get out Raft will depend pretty much entirely on two things: how much you enjoy the core loop, and how much you’re interested in a slow-paced, relaxing game vs. one with lots to do, or an exciting narrative.
The core loop of raft, built off of a successful game jam entry, is simple and wonderful: you’re adrift on a seemingly endless ocean, broken only by the occasional small island. You’re able to fashion a grappling hook, and can use it to catch drifting debris: palm leaves, wood, plastic. From these, you can expand your raft, both in the sense of making it physically larger, and in the sense of adding everything from water purifiers, to cooking stations, to beds, to various cosmetic niceties.
In this sense, it’s a fairly typical survival game; the big difference is that your base is mobile, you’re restricted to pretty low-tech stuff, and there’s a shark that regularly attacks your base. The shark adds some tension, but pretty quickly becomes more of a background annoyance than a true threat, particularly if you play on lower difficulties where dying doesn’t result in a loss of inventory (as we did).
I personally love the grappling mechanic and the varied pacing, where you switch between hanging out on your raft and stopping off at islands to explore and gather materials. There’s a good 20-30 hours of gameplay in this core loop, though eventually you’ll have found almost all there is to be found; there is definitely a finite number of objects and mechanics in this game, and despite achieving financial success the developers have opted to keep their team small, so progress towards 1.0 is quite slow (though steady), and certain elements are pretty threadbare (the combat system is barely-there, the Rocs that drops rocks (really) on you are borderline-invicible and not even worth trying to fight).
There’s also a narrative mode, where you follow radio signals to unique environments; exploring these grants you unique technology as well as the unfolding story of how the Earth got flooded, and what happened to the survivors. The environments are fun to explore and significantly different from the procedurally generated islands. The story is, frankly, pretty bad: cliched, artlessly written, too full of characters that barely exist. But it’s the sort of well-meaning work of enthusiastic amateurs, rather than something phoned in, and so I don’t bear it any ill will; it’s worth noting that even this is going through the early access process, and the developers are revamping it come the next big update.
Raft is a simple game, and I can imagine various ways it would be more fleshed out, but on its own terms it’s a lovely time and well worth the low asking price.
A Short Hike √ ♥
A Short Hike is formally perfect, or at least close enough that I can’t tell the difference. By this I mean that I cannot conceive of any change that would improve it, and that it represents the height of its field in all aspects. It achieves this not by combining elements that are jaw-dropping taken on their own (the game isn’t winning any technical awards, and the soundtrack is more mood-setting than something you’d listen to outside the game), but by achieving a sort of holistic purity of vision, all bent to one purpose: providing the experience of a pleasant summertime hike in a national park, gamified just enough to provide a bit of challenge and remove the tedium.
The fuzzy, almost PSX-style graphics take a little getting used to, but I now can’t imagine the game with any other aesthetic; it evokes the haze of summer heat, of light reflecting off the water. Despite the linear idea of a hike, the game is fairly open, and features minor sidequests, characters, and unlockable abilities to pursue; but these are largely optional, and you’ll only need to find a few to summit the mountain. The platforming and flight mechanics are a pleasure, and I could happily play a much longer game built off of them. But this is A Short Hike, and it’s brevity is part of its charm; it has the joys of exploration that are the highlight of every open-world game, without the dead-ends or inevitable slide into tedious map-clearing. Every portion is a treat, and completing the hike feels like a real accomplishment.
A Short Hike is the rare game that I’d recommend to almost everyone, regardless of their tastes.
The Solitaire Conspiracy
I must be getting middle-aged, because I’ve started to develop an appreciation for Klondike solitaire, even as its limitations (namely, that a certain percentage of games are impossible to win, and there’s no sure way to tell which games these are!) keep me from actually playing it. So a novel form of solitaire would appeal to me, even if it didn’t have the gimmick of being a slickly-produced narrative game filled with FMVs.
Let’s address that first: initially, the genuinely good presentation and the self-aware silliness (your solitaire game is a computerized interface that represents your real-world work as a spymaster!) are a delight, and liven up the proceedings. But as the story progresses, it drifts too far into being a serious thriller. The story isn’t particularly cogent, given that it involves your player character stumbling into control of a massive transnational spy network, which is used to rather unclear ends. The main actor, Greg Miller, makes an admirable effort, and is a reasonably charming presence in the first half of the game, but eventually the narrative takes a turn and demands acting chops he simply doesn’t have. Cutscenes in the second half of the game were a chore, and I found myself rapidly skimming the mission briefing text.
As a game, it’s much more successful; it’s substantially different from Klondike, while using the same basic mechanics (stacking and sorting cards by suit in finite spaces) and giving each suit’s “face cards” a different power to help your game along. The mix of strategy and luck is just right, and each game feels solvable, even when it can get pretty tricky in the default mode, where you have to finish in a certain number of turns. I ended up playing on “relaxing,” which gives you as many turns as you need; for some this will defeat the entire purpose, but I enjoy challenging myself to get a good score without having to repeat levels ad nauseam.
Ultimately, it’s still Solitaire, and it’s not quite deep or varied enough for me to want to play it in endless mode, but it’s an admirable effort, and I would recommend it to fans of solitaire or other “light” puzzles games, as long as you go in knowing that the narrative content is, at best, a pleasant distraction from the core game.
I played the prototype of Sizeable back when it was in development, and couldn’t help but fall in love, despite generally feeling cool towards pure-puzzle games. Each level is a tiny diorama, with three pillars (and a tortoise) hidden somewhere inside. Your only means of interaction is shrinking or growing the objects (to one of three set sizes, so there’s no fiddling with sliders) and dragging them around. You need to find the three pillars to progress—the tortoise is just a joyful bonus, like an optional “hard mode.”
The sheer number of puzzles the developer is able to engineer out of this simple set of tools is impressive, and each one is a visual treat; what it lacks in polygon count or artistic flourish, it makes up for in bright colors and the inherent charm of dioramas, of seeing something complex reduced to a few objects placed just-so. The constrained space also makes the puzzles more solvable than they otherwise would be; few gave me significant trouble, but they did have an underlying logic to them (often in the form of environmental puzzles) so that it wasn’t merely trial and error.
The game this most reminds me of, strangely, is McPixel—another game about solving puzzles in a tightly constrained environment, and one in which simply messing around and failing to progress is almost as fun as doing it right. This doesn’t have the comic delights of McPixel, but it’s a wonderful chill puzzle game for before bed. Its only fault is that it’s so slight that I regularly forgot it existed; after I finish writing this, I’m pinning it to my desktop so I don’t do so again.
Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure ♥
I could cheekily call this the greatest dodgeball game ever made, but that would be selling Stikbold short; it’s not just a fun arcadey, sports-inspired title, it’s also wholly distinct, different from both traditional sports games and the co-op action games that seem to be its chief inspiration.
In short, Stikbold casts you as two lazy Swedish dodgeball players, whose core skills are atrophying through a lack of practice. Shortly after the tutorial, their rivals get captured, and being Honorable Sorts, they ignore their coach’s advice to leave well enough alone and race after them. An escalating series of increasingly absurd dodgeball battles (with everything from a hippie van to a madman on an oil rig) follow, recalling nothing so much as the PS1 cult classic Incredible Crisis. But rather than a series of minigames, there’s a simple-but-elegant set of dodgeball mechanics; you not only aim and throw the balls but can dodge, intercept, and pass between teammates, as well as straight-up stealing the ball from your opponents.
This is very much in the spirit of stage-based arcade games; think of it as Streets of Rage, but with dodgeball instead of brawling. As a co-op game, it’s a delight, but the AI is remarkably competent for those who want to try it solo.
If I have one criticism, it’s that the later stages can be a bit too difficult for what’s at core a pretty casual game, and as such I still haven’t completed it, but it’s happening in 2022 for sure.
Streets of Rogue ♥
While the title suggests a roguelike brawler, Streets of Rogue is in fact a full-on, procedurally-generated immersive sim. This isn’t readilly apparent; almost all immersive sims are first-person, while Streets of Rogue uses a top-down camera, with a pixel art style channeling River City Ransom. In some ways, it’s much closer to the early roguelikes (e.g. Nethack) than modern ones; those games were more about exploring and managing chaos than platforming or tightly-designed combat.
The game’s chief inspiration is made clear during its comedic tutorial, which contains an exact replication of an infamous Deus Ex scene. But rather than customizing a single protagonist, you select a different character at the start of each run. Your mission: proceed from the city slums all the way to it’s highest echelons, and take down the corrupt mayor.
You can play as a soldier, a hacker, a doctor, or any number of other starting characters, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. As you progress, you’ll unlock more, most of them pretty ridiculous; my personal favorites were the Gorilla (can’t talk, hunted by scientists, incredible melee strength) and the Doppelganger (can possess any character and gain their powers/status, but is weak and attacked on sight in its native form).
Each level gives you procedurally-generated missions (selected from a relatively small pool—destroy a generator, steal an item, rescue a specific NPC) and then throws you into a sizeable city level full of NPCs, stores, residences, bars, etc.
The missions themselves are straightforward, and honestly the least interesting part of the game. The combat is functional but simple, and not going to win any awards. But as a story generator, Streets of Rogue is fantastic. Each run will see you employ different skills, encounter different random events (a zombie outbreak! a meteor shower!), and learn a few more tricks to make it through a level without dying.
As with the Hitman games, stealth and subterfuge are the more satisfying paths, even though it’s technically possible to shoot you way through everything. I understand that a run soaked in blood leads to a worse ending, but I can’t speak to this, as I’ve never actually won a game (though I’ve come very close!)
The game is at its most delightful in co-op, where you can team up with up to three other players; this gives you not only a wider range of abilities to work with, it also makes the game somewhat more forgiving, as players can revive eachother as long as they have sufficient cash and one is left alive to do the reviving.
I usually burn out quickly on roguelikes—I’m not one for repeating content—but the sheer variety, and the cheerful chaos, of a Streets of Rogue run will keep it installed.
Subnautica: Below Zero √
Subnautica was my favorite game of 2018, so buying the stand-alone expansion was a no-brainer, even if I didn’t actually expect it to reach the heights of the original. Subnautica is all about discovery, and that puts any follow-up in an awkward position; any reused mechanics and creatures are already known to the player, taking away a lot of the mystery (and dread) that characterize a first playthrough. Yet throwing them out wholesale would be tremendously expensive, and requiring fixing a lot that wasn’t broken.
The balance the developers struck was to feature an all-new are, with mostly-new biomes, but with about 60% of the creatures, resources, and vehicles reused from Subnautica. This allows a veteran player to get up to speed and beeline for the new material pretty quickly, but the experience was one of marking off checkboxes and retracing steps, not the wonder of discovery. Below Zero is always going to be a lesser experience, unless it’s the first Subnautica you play.
Much of the new content is admirable, but faces its own failings. The two big “ideas” Below Zero has is to focus on arctic biomes (both in sea and on land), and to tell a more traditional, linear story. The former is beautiful and has novel experiences—snowmobiling across a glacier is a real joy—but ultimately feels threadbare. The low temperature mechanics are reduced to “don’t stay out in the open cold too long, or craft some warm gear” and are more tedious than immersive. And the winding ravines and caverns of the tundra make getting lost easy; there’s no map, and learning to navigate is a big part of the gameplay. I actually enjoyed this—I’m not a fan of magical quest markers that tell you where to go—until I started bottlenecking because I couldn’t find the exact hidden spot that would progress the story. The signposting just wasn’t quite up to the task.
This leads into the second issue. Subnautica: Below Zero has competent writers who want to tell a heartfelt story showing the human cost of science and the search for a lost sister. But it quickly falls into the trope of “evil corporation is reckless in its greed, does a cover-up when its efforts go awry” and ultimately isn’t much of a mystery. Yet even this is a minor criticism next to the larger structural issue.
Subnautica was a game with a huge, open expanse that was only “soft-gated” by your level of experience and what gear you’d been able to build. It did, ultimately, narrow to a single point, but as you progressed it became increasingly obvious where you needed to go. Conversely, Below Zero needs you to find four or five very specific objects in very specific locations, with no explicit clues telling you where they are; I ultimately had to turn to a guide to finish a game, discovering that there was a key story item accessible only by navigating a remote-controlled drone into an otherwise inaccessible cave. It wasn’t completely random—there were some small hints I saw in retrospect—but there’s no failsafe, no failure spectrum. You either get it or you don’t; and if you don’t, you’re left to wander in circles, not even realizing you can’t progress the game.
This experience ultimately soured me on what is a solid exploration game on its own terms. It has all the lovely base-building and diving of Subnatica, some cool new gear and creatures, and genuinely gorgeous environments. But it ultimately feels like a tribute act to its more fully-formed predecessor.
Terraria √ ♥
Terraria is widely considered the first “post-Minecraft” game, releasing six months before the already-popular Minecraft had exited beta. And it does a wonderful job of fitting Minecraft‘s block-based exploration, mining, and crafting into a 2D sidescroller with combat and exploration similar to Spelunky. If that change in perspective, and an increased focus on combat, makes Terraria a ‘narrower’ game than Minecraft, it’s still excellent on its own terms, particularly in co-op.
In retrospect, Terraria was also one of the first of a new breed of commercial single-player games: ones that sold in such absurd quantities that the developer was able to deliver free updates for years following. Terraria takes the cake here; it’s had ten years of free updates and expansions, and the game is now bursting with content.
Terraria has satisfying progression, and the core loop of mining, crafting, and creatively decorating bases is compelling for quite a long time. It has more discrete bottlenecks than Minecraft; a lot of objects, items, and missions are locked behind NPCs you have to attract to your base or find & rescue, but there’s no way to know how to do that without consulting a wiki. And while (unlike early Minecraft) it’s possible to get direction on crafting recipes within the game, you can only do so by talking to a specific NPC in one location in the world, which is inconvenient enough that you’ll probably end up hitting a wiki anyway. I’ve never been a huge fan of relying on outside-the-game resources for guidance, but it’s at least not too egregious here. I spent most of my time natively discovering things, and only really hit the wikis once I started running out of obvious things to do.
To its credit, Terraria isn’t just procedurally endless; the world is a finite size, and there’s a final boss that completes an initial run of the game. This subsequently unlocks a New Game+, which unlocks various additional content sure to satisfy those who crave difficult combat and further progression, but for me it was too little content spaced too far apart to justify another runthrough. But this isn’t a complaint; if Terraria just straight-up ended at the final boss, I would have been perfectly happy with the time I spent with it. It’s a beautiful, accessible game with a lovely chiptune soundtrack and a lot of fun things to discover (goofy mounts not least among them) that wholly deserves its success.
Trine is an always competent, occasionally brilliant puzzle platformer that’s elevated by being explicitly designed for three-player co-op. It is simultaneously tightly designed and a sandbox for goofiness, mostly due to the Wizard.
Let me back up: in Trine, each player controls one of three characters. The knight is straightforward, hacking, slashing, and using his shield to block and redirect missiles. The thief has a higher skill ceiling, using a grappling hook to swing and climb and archery to hit distant targets, but is still what you’d expect. But does the Wizard throw fireballs, shoot lightning, or summon monsters? No. He’s able to materialize crates and planks, and drag objects around with the mouse, and that’s it. While the Knight plays Golden Axe and the Thief plays Prince of Persia, the Wizard is playing some weird point-and-click game, full of enemies that he is unable to directly attack or defend against.
I played the wizard, and had a particularly absurd Trine experience; I was the only player in my party particularly good at platforming or combat games, playing the one character who didn’t have any inherent mobility or combat skills. The result: I was frequently forced to kill skeletons, spiders, and other monsters by awkwardly materializing crates on top of their heads or using planks to lightly shove them off ledges. I’m not going to tell you it was elegant, tight game design, but it was novel as heck and constantly comic.
The game’s finale is a desperate, time-limited climb up a tower teeming with traps and infinitely spawning monsters. My teammates quickly died, and I had to make it through the entire gauntlet with a single hitpoint, simultaneously platforming, creating objects, making bridges, and desperately blocking attacks from creatures with the awkward mouse-and-keyboard controls. I somehow managed to do it, and I have rarely felt so proud of my accomplishments. Wish I had a video.
Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion
Real mixed feelings on this one. Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is charming and funny right from the start, as long as you’re down with a sort of highly referential, ironic, “very online” style of humor (I enjoyed most of the jokes, but simultaneously they made me feel old). Turnip Boy himself is a delightful protagonist, and the running gag where he rips up literally every document without reading it, causing no end of trouble, never gets old.
But Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion isn’t just a comedy delivery vehicle, it’s also a game very much in the Zelda mode, and this is where it falls down a little. The combat is fine, the puzzles and dungeon rooms are fine, but they’re not the sort of thing that will stick in your mind. The boss battles, by contrast, are finicky, difficult, and frustrating. They lack the elegance and sense of control to be the satisfying kind of hard; instead, it felt like I lost because I was battling the controls, or the fight was using mechanics that the game’s simple combat engine couldn’t really support. And the fact is, this is a lightweight, comic game; even if this was Dark Souls caliber boss fights, I don’t think most of the game’s potential audience would appreciate them. We just want to hang out with a goofy turnip and laugh at silly jokes.
So my choice was to power through the game for enjoyable comic hijinks, or bounce off, and sadly I did the latter. In the abstract I’d like to give it another shot, but realistically it’s probably not going to happen unless I’m on a trip and just have my laptop to game on (it’s an excellent laptop game!).
Umurangi Generation √
One of the odder aspects of indie games going (semi) mainstream and being sold alongside AAA games has been the increased marketing of “indie” as a brand, a shared aesthetic and idea. By and large, it’s not, and insofar as there’s a shared indie sensibility, it’s only shared by more conservative indies, which use the language and structure of traditional, publisher-made video games by iterating on established genres.
But there’s a bigger, weirder sphere of games that largely exists outside of commercial games, on Itch, or Gamejolt, or even more obscure places on the internet. 99.99% of these games will only be played by a small insider audience, and maybe a few kids exploring what’s available for free, but every once in a while one escapes. Umurangi Generation is such a game; it’s absolutely inspired by known commercial titles, most notably Jet Set Radio  (with whom it shares an audiovisual aesthetic and an appreciation of graffiti culture) and Pokemon Snap (because it’s a photography game and, for some bizarre reason, Pokemon Snap remains the only traditionally published photography game, at least until 2020’s Bugsnax).
But while Jet Set Radio borrowed the iconography of punk, Umurangi Generation straight-up *is* punk, albeit a 21st century sort that embraces rather than rejects national identities.
What is Umurangi Generation about? If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure; there’s no dialog, just artful dioramas you explore and photograph. In this case, they’re of future New Zealand, occupied by UN forces as NGE-style mechs battle alien kaiju. It’s an image-and-tone driven piece, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a great visual thinker, and surely missed a lot. There’s an atmosphere of antipathy and frustration (towards globalism and foreign governments, towards a world seemingly on an irreversible course towards destruction) but also quiet resignation, and an appreciate of the beauty of life’s small joys: making art, hanging with friends.
It’s telling that I’ve taken this long to write about the actual gameplay; the photography is actually quite good, easy to use and slowly giving you more filters and lenses to keep things interesting and give you reason to return to previous levels. But for me, it was a means to end, a lens (no pun intended) to explore this strange world. There’s many bonus objectives, and to “max out” a level you have to race against time to accomplish everything in a certain window. If you try to achive this, it will greatly extend the game’s playtime, forcing you to memorize every nook and cranny, the fastest pathways through, the quickest-to-reach angles necessary for certain photographs. It’s a particuarly novel speedrunning game, and I admire it, while simultaneously having absolutely no desire to race the clock. I find timers anxiety-inducing, and thus stay far away from speedrunning.
Did I enjoy Umurangi Generation? Yes, but I probably appreciated it more than I enjoyed it, in part because it felt like a game intended for someone else: someone younger and more in tune with its ideas about the world, who found empowerment rather than disillusion in its politics, and who took a lot more pleasure from getting the perfect photograph, even if there was nobody else around to appreciate it.
There’s a consistent gap between how much I respect Dave Gilbert’s and how much I actually enjoy his output; I was hoping Unavowed would close it (in the way that The Shivah and Blackwell Unbound did), but it doesn’t, despite its admirable ambitions to be more than “just” a point-and-click adventure with lovely pixel art.
Writing this a year after I finished it, my memory is already so hazy that I can’t offer a detailed review or critique; the fact is that Wadjet Eyes’ stories and characters are consistently tropey, and while they’re elevated by competent writing and voice acting, I always find them a little dull; there is a flatness to them, a sense that the character could be reduced to an index card of their Likes and Dislikes and Strengths and Flaws. They have intelligence, but no insight; wit, but no spark.
This matters more in Unavowed than most, because it’s shtick is having Bioware-style companions, complete with regular dialog check-ins and personal sidequests. For each mission you can choose two of the four to take with you, and the narrative—and potential puzzle solutions—change as a result of who you take. This is remarkably well implemented, and I never felt unduly restricted by who I took, while the game simultaneously convinced me that it wasn’t faking its reactivity (though I haven’t done a replay to confirm this).
The plot is by-the-numbers urban fantasy; it displays a deep love for and familiarity with New York City, like all of Dave Gilbert’s games, but is otherwise not particularly notable, and I struggle to recall specifics, other than that it hews very closely to the plot of a specific Bioware game.
Part of the problem is that I’m not a big Bioware fan, and this game emulates Bioware’s ticks (the chosen protagonist with a dark past, the fat middle with locations you can visit in any order, the protagonist serving as a therapist for all of their traveling companions) without really trying to improve on them or twist them. It’s content enough to do the work to shift them into a point-and-click framework, and this is probably an improvement (Dragon Age: Origins is probably the only Bioware game with particularly good combat).
All that said: the puzzle design is fantastic, I never got stuck but still felt like I had at at least to think things through a little bit. Gilbert knows what he is doing here, and it’s readily apparently that the game was thoroughly playtested.
If you like post-Baldur’s Gate Bioware games, or if you loved Gilbert’s previous output, then I highly recommend Unavowed. But if, like me, you have issues with either, Unavowed isn’t going to change your mind, and in some ways is less interesting than either of its major influences.
Unpacking is one of the critical indie darlings of 2021, and it gives me no pleasure to pour some cold water on it: it’s a well-crafted game that is, I think, ultimately minor, and not the brilliant narrative it’s made out to be.
To its credit, Unpacking is narrowly focused: the entire game consists of moving into a series of rooms, apartments, and houses over the course of the protagonist’s life. There’s no big twists, no minigames, nothing to distract from the core premise. You unpack things, and you place them where they should go; the game gives you a fair amount of freedom in laying things out, while enforcing some basic rules in the name of having a ludic structure, some basic inventory-tetris puzzles, and forcing you to take the premise seriously (no placing the toaster in the bathroom!).
The art goes beyond eye candy to being a master class is minimalism; I was astounded at how in just a few grainy pixels, the artist was able to recognizably capture the cover art of various books and films, and my absolutely favorite part of the game was recognizing specific objects that I owned (the DVDs of Ghost World and Donnie Darko!) and had attachment to, and knowing that they were so visually abstracted that there was no way I would have recognized them if I wasn’t intimately familiar. I’m sure others will have similar experiences, and it’s a genuine artistic accomplishment worth noting.
Narratively, Unpacking has the ambitious goal of being dialog (and, with a rare few exceptions, writing) free, telling stories solely through objects and spaces. This is brave, but it’s also extremely limiting, and so it can only paint in the broader of strokes. We see the unseen protagonist’s growth and breakups, their tastes changing, their sexual identity developing, and the game uses an admirably light touch; but for me, the lack of specificity also meant there was little emotional resonance. At the end of the day, a person’s objects only tell so much about them, and the characters you infer from them are necessarily shallow. The story washed over me, and I could appreciate it for what it was, but mere months after finishing the game I can recall little except how much I enjoyed the art.
That said, the design space for “cozy” games has so far been tiny, mostly consisting of cute idle games and titles channeling Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon; Unpacking at least tries to expand new ground, and I genuinely hope more will follow its example. I don’t want my only gaming choices to be killing stuff or doing chores for animals.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus √
In the last decade, Games Workshop has gone from being fairly precious with the Warhammer license to giving it to anyone with an idea and a bag of cash.  Word on the street was that Mechanicus, a tactical combat game in the vein of the modern XCOMs, was one of the better attempts, and I can confirm that it’s a real treat. it’s clearly a game built on a budget, and it’s not the next coming of tactical strategy, but it’s also far more than a reskin.
At first glance, it is very XCOMy: there’s a overarching campaign on a strategic map, that gives you more potential missions than you have time for. There are skill trees (though this is a classless system and characters can mix and match to their mechanical heart’s content), there’s turn-based combat with cover components, enemies that take their turn when revealed, etc.
But rather than just wearing the Grim Darkness of the Far Future as an aesthetic skin, Mechanicus uses it to inform every aspect of its design; this is a game positively dripping with flavor, to the point that I (someone with no nostalgia, or particular fondness for, Warhammer 40k) became genuinely invested in each decision point.
This is embodied in how each mission giver representes a competing ideology within the Mechanicus. One argues that all Xeno technology must be captured and understood in order to better fight the enemy; another declares this blasphemy, and has a dogmatic quote to justify every argument. One just cares about keeping the soldiers alive and not unnecessary wasting their lives in pursuit of abstract ideologies. The missions themselves riff on these ideas further. There’s a stron “game book” vibe to the dungeon crawling, with most rooms having an illustrated scenario and a multiple-choice decision tree. It’s easy to choose wrong, but the result always feels flavorful and plausible, and helps convey the danger of the Necron tombs you explore.
Another differnece with XCOM is that your “hero” characters are only part of your team; you can also bring an increasing number of ordinary soldiers with you on missions, from basic Servitors to more advanced Rangers. Relative to your main units, these guys are squishy and disposable, but they can easily make the difference between victory and defeat. Their presence – and how you’re encourage to use them – underscores just how expendable the tech-priests view everyone else.
If there’s one place where Mechanicus falters, it’s the actual mission design; the combat scenarios are largely repetitive, and outside of some set-pieces you’ll mostly fight in samey arenas against only a single race of enemies (Necrons), and towards the end of the campaign I was definitely ready to pack it in. But the developer seems to realize this, and it’s an unusually short game for the genre (I clocked in about 18 hours) and for almost all of the runtime the enemy variety is satisfying, with the campaign introducing new foes at a regular clip. Combined with solid AI, a wide variety of abilities, a novel mana system, and an unusual emphasis on intelligence-gathering, Mechanicus has plenty to distinguish itself, and is sure to satisfy anyone looking for a solid tactical strategy game, doubly so if they want to soak in some grimdark sci-fi.
We Were Here Too √
The first We Were Here was a charming and innovative co-op game, and I was more than willing to forgive its scattered and amateurish storytelling for the experience it delivered. I enjoyed this sequel less; it doesn’t change the formula one slightest, so all you get is more puzzles (which are mostly solid, but sometimes finicky and frustrating, with at least one puzzle being outright bugged and requiring multiple restarts) using mostly the same techniques, and a genuinely terrible attempt at gothic storytelling (an earnest attempt, to be fair, but writing is just not the dev’s strong suits). On top of all that, it employs the classic “the defaulte ending is a bad ending” structure, with the good ending essentially impossible to discover without a guide.
If you loved We Were Here and you want more, this will give you that, but with less consisten quality; I’d still play another game, but only if I had reason to believe the developers were really trying to iterate and not just content to put out More Puzzles in an increasingly nonsensical setting (just how many Arctic explorers are getting themselves trapped in gothic castles with nothing but walkie-talkies?).
West of Loathing √ ♥
West of Loathing is a charming RPG which captures the flippant goofiness of its predecessor, Kingdom of Loathing, but without the grind or tired early ‘00s humor. My biggest surprise was that it really is a Western—a comedy one, sure, but the authors have more than a surface level understanding of the tropes and mythology of the Old West, and use that for a genuinely good array of companions and sidequests (my personal favorite being one where you visit W.K. Kellogg at his ranch and undergo his zany but mostly-historically-accurate diet regimen).
West of Loathing is mostly a joke delivery vehicle ala Jazzpunk, and you should play it for that reason, but it’s a solid RPG on its own terms; it has a great sense of exploration, with new locations, characters, and quests being uncovered at a good clip. It has a variety of genuinely intelligent puzzles, with all of the harder ones being optional. The combat is simple and relatively easy, but it’s balanced and goes fast, so there’s no tiresome, animation-intensive JRPG battles.
It’s already fading from my memory, because comedy never really sticks in my mind the way more dramatic narratives do, but in this case that’s a good thing; it’s a game I’d be happy to replay.
Yakuza 3 √ ♥
Yakuza 3 is a difficult game to evaluate. The mainline Yakuza series is now up to eight entries; ask people to rank all the titles, and most will put Yakuza 3 at the bottom (while noting that the worst Yakuza game is still a solid game on its own terms). I think this is fair, and yet simultaneously, I think this is one of the most important and visionary Yakuza titles, and will only get shortchanged by modern audiences because of the Kiwami remakes. Let me explain.
The first two Yakuza games were an ambitious attempt to combine a Shenmue-style dense, simulated world with low-brow brawling and a serious, melodramatic Yakuza story ripped straight from Japanese cinema. The fact that they were obviously stitched together from these disparate parts was part of their charm, but the underlying technology couldn’t fully support the vision; Shenmue was able to make its detailed world on the Dreamcast only through a truly stupendous outlay of time and money and clever use of the Dreamcast hardware. Yakuza had a budget the fraction of the size and was forced to work with the difficult-to-program PS2. The end result is more of a zoomed-out brawler playground that a richly detailed slice of Tokyo.
Yakuza 3 changes this. It returns to the exact same location—the semi-fictional red light district of Kamurocho—but renders it in lush detail (as well as the new secondary location of Okinawa—more on that in a sec). A first-person camera is implemented, and used in a few game modes, but is really there just to show off the detail. The pacing is tremendously improved by allowing battles and exploration to seamlessly blend, without the traditional black loading screen; a wider array of minigames are implemented, bringing the total up to 20. These changes would carry through to every subsequent game in the series, and ultimately be “backported” to its predecessors via the full remakes of Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2.
This means that someone who started the Yakuza series today, playing the games in chronological order starting with Yakuza 0 and working their way through the Kiwamis before hitting Yakuza 3, would find Yakuza 3 a substantial step backwards; the “remasterings” of Yakuza 3–5 are simply HD ports with redone localization, and so are a substantial graphical downgrade 0/Kiwami. Without the freshness and awe of its advances, Yakuza 3 can feel like a filler Yakuza game, a final spin of the wheels before the series realizes it needs to start changing to avoid becoming stale.
But I have a fondness for Yakuza 3 even coming off Kiwami, and that’s almost solely due to the brave, divisive turn it takes with its story. One of the most common tropes of the “honorable criminal” is the criminal who leaves the life of crime behind to Do Good, but then gets Pulled Back In because somebody wants to make a sequel. Yakuza 2 already pulled this trick, and at the end of that protagonist Kiryu went “okay, for real this time, I’m running an orphanage on Okinawa and not beating up any more dudes.” You’d expect Yakuza 3 to find some flimsy excuse to reverse this off the bat once again, but it doesn’t; the game spends an extended period of time with Kiryu fully in Orphanage Dad mode, helping take care of kids and dealing with the occasional financial or local crime issue.
I love this; Kiryu’s always at his best when his natural warmth is allowed to shine, and I bluntly didn’t take enough of a break between this and previous Yakuza titles, so the variety was welcome. A lot of players felt that this isn’t what they signed up for, that the Okinawa segment was a series of pointless sidequests and character moments divorced from the larger stakes of the series. And yeah, if you’re here solely to see more Elaborate Yakuza Opera, you’re going to be disappointed with the game’s first half.
I felt the opposite; eventually, Kiryu is pulled back in and goes to Kamarucho, and while I appreciate that the game took the time to ‘earn’ this and it felt consistent with Kiryu’s character, the actual story and gameplay is a forgettable retread; I can barely remember the plot writing this, and what I do remember is mostly just a variation on things we’ve seen in the first two. The villain in particular, while a notable attempt at making a more intellectual antagonist for Kiryu, is at the end of the day a thinly-written finance criminal.
The developers clearly realized that they were getting into a rut; Yakuza 4 substantially shook up the series and it never looked back. But I wouldn’t skip Yakuza 3; some of the best character moments in the entire series are found with the children of the Sunflower Orphanage.
Yakuza 4 √
As far as I can tell, the Yakuza series was always intended by Sega to be a reliable, mainstay budget series; made for the domestic market, it was never going to be a runaway international hit, but if they could pump them out at a good clip, it could consistently make a profit. This informed the series development timeline, in which a few years were spent making the first game on a given console, with code and asset reuse allowing mostly annual installments (either main-series or spinoff) thereafter. Yakuza 2 came out in 2006, a year after the first, and was basically More Yakuza; Yakuza 3 took all the way to 2009, presumably due to having to learn a new console and remake all the assets from scratch (though the first Yakuza spin-off, the still unreleased-outside-Japan Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan!, served as something of a dry run in 2008). It was thus reasonable to expect that Yakuza 4, released a mere 13 months after Yakuza 3, would be essentially a stand-alone expansion.
It’s not, and this is all down to a single change: the decision to divide the game into four acts, each with a different protagonist. The entire Yakuza series has, to this point, been built around Kiryu, his naive heroism and superhuman martial arts ability. It’s not a given that other characters could carry the series.
So how does Yakuza 4 acquit itself? Good, but not perfectly. Each character offers an interesting twist: loan agent Shin Akuyami is a more intellectual and playful character than the stoic Kiryu, with an unusual backstory (with a particularly satisfying connection to the original Yakuza), and a speed/combo based fighting style that’s a blast to play. Taiga Saejima is his opposite, a brooding, cynical thug of few words who has done terrible things in the name of the yakuza, and accepted his impending execution at the hands of the state. He basically fights like The Incredible Hulk, and if it’s a little one-note it’s at least substantially different from the other characters. And Masayoshi Tanimura is a polyglot police officer, simultaneously playing police detective and corruptly shaking down shady sorts rather than arresting them. He has a evasion/dodge fighting style that was too finicky for my tastes.
These different acts add a lot of variety to the series, at the cost of some inconsistency. Akuyami’s story feels like one of the best Yakuza sidequests stretched out for 10 hours, which is mostly a good thing; Saejima’s story weaves a dramatic prison break with some genuine character development for, of all people, Goro Majima (up to this point he’s just a comic-relief antagonist with no cogent backstory; Yakuza 4 decides to change that in dramatic fashion, laying the groundwork for his star turn in Yakuza 0). Past its opening acts, Saekima’s story runs out of steam and sort of putters along, painless but not fully realizing its potential.
Tanimura’s story, bluntly, doesn’t work. We finally have the opportunity to view the yakuza from the outside, to enter the world of Japanese police, and instead we get a rogue detective who operates entirely on his own, flagrantly breaks the law, and generally just plays like a particularly humorless yakuza. The worst part is that he is, in many ways, the lynchpin to the overarching plot; it’s only in his act that the disparate threads start to come together. The attempt to connect all the stories is admirable, but ultimately results in an absurd, over-complicated conspiracy even by the standards of Yakuza games.
Kiryu is Kiryu, and Yakuza 4’s greatest trick is to make his return feel like a real treat, rather than a tired rehash. For most of the game, we get to see the heroic Kiryu from the outside, as an almost mythic figure; when we play him, it’s like the game has given us control over the final boss.
The finale goes all-in on the premise, having four separate final showdowns for each of the protagonists, and if some of the pairings make very little sense, it’s at least suitably epic.
Yakuza 4 shows that there’s life left in the series, but also that the fundamentals are as important as ever, and that interweaving the stories of multiple protagonists presents its own challenges. It also demonstrated (to me) that I really, really need to not play more than one Yakuza game a year, lest I suffer burnout. Yakuza 4 is in most ways a better, more interesting game than Yakuza 3, but I found myself liking the former more at least in part because I took a real break from Kiwami 2 before leaping into it.
In-Progress Games (Will Be Covered in 2022)
- Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
- Hitman 3
- Kyle is Famous
- Masquerada: Songs and Shadows
- Mechwarrior 5
- Sorcery! 4 – The Crown of Kings
- Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines √ ♥
-  As of February 2022↩
- Kojima called it “strand-type” game, and at least one in-development title, Witch Stranding, is publicly working within this new genre.↩
- : By which I mean Part 2 of 2—there is a third Trails in the Sky title, Trails in the Sky 3rd, but this is by all accounts a fan-service victory lap; SC fully wraps up the story of the first game. ↩
-  I never wrote the follow-up to that post, but the experiment went well, and the only reason it wasn’t repeated is that it’s now my norm!↩
-  For other examples, I’d say Chrono Trigger is a formally perfect JRPG, and Rushmore is a formally perfect film; Watchmen is *almost* a formally perfect graphical novel).↩
- Particularly because I got it for $6, thanks to the absurd discounts Epic ran until recently↩
- Released in the US as Jet Grind Radio↩
- This leads to a lot of Warhammer (mostly Warhammer 40k) games of varying quality, but I’m a fan; in my dream world, copyright terms would be relatively short, and after that anyone who wanted to take a shot could. A great diversity of ideas and takes is a good thing, and I much prefer Games Workshop’s approach to, say, Disney’s highly-controlling approach to the Star Wars license.↩
-  To be clear, I think Kingdom of Loathing is a fantastic achievement; there was absolutely nothing like it when it came out in 2003, and it was a far cry from Neopets. But it definitely has a bit of the edgy cynicism that felt hip and daring at the time; 20 years later, it’s tired and a little obnoxious, maybe because in the last decade edgelord trolls went from eccentric internet characters to serious threats to society.↩