Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Essentials

Last night on Twitter, I asked a question: What games would you consider essential - required reading, if you will - for anyone who wishes to be an expert in the medium?

It started as a personal project for me. While I do a solid job of keeping up with big, important releases nowadays, there were decades when I didn't have the capacity to do that - particularly before 1990, when I was, uh, born. Since I write about video games on a regular basis, and since I seek opportunities to become more knowledgeable on the subject, I'm looking to gradually fill the gaps and catch up on all of the games throughout history that I feel it's my duty to be familiar with. If there were such a thing as a video game historian, what games would they need to play, to know about?

In just the last few years, I played through Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill 2 and Ico for the first time. Even if I hadn't wound up enjoying and respecting all three games, I'd welcome my expanded knowledge on some of the industry's most notable releases. Almost anyone would label those three games as must-plays. I missed them the first time, but I've finally rectified that.

I'm looking to do that with everything else, hence why I turned to Twitter for suggestions. But since I'm limited to 140 characters there, I didn't have the space to lay out exactly the sorts of games I'm looking for. I've come up with five categories.

1. Pioneers. These are the games that changed the industry, that made it what it is today. Games that innovated, opened new doors, left their marks on future generations. This is the most self-explanatory category; if it's a crucial piece of gaming history or has become a part of our language, it belongs on this list.

2. Trendsetters. Some of the most important releases in gaming history didn't invent the wheel so much as they popularized and standardized the wheel. Trends don't spawn out of nowhere; some game, at some point, paved a path to success, and other developers and publishers decided to capitalize on it.

3. Time-tested classics. Certain games come up in conversation constantly for no other reason than that they are held as the golden standard for their respective genres. I say "time-tested" because even the best games, if lacking any particularly distinctive or groundbreaking qualities, run the risk of being surpassed. Over two decades later, for example, no mention of history's greatest JRPGs is complete without mention of Chrono Trigger. Some games are just unbeatable.

4. Cautionary tales. "Important" is not synonymous with "good," and some of the industry's most notorious disasters and disappointments warrant just as much attention as its greatest successes, if only to understand how not to design games or treat consumers.

5. Important franchises. Many of the games on this list belong to franchises, and it's often easy to pinpoint the most noteworthy entries in a series. In the case of particularly iterative franchises, however, there's no need to get bogged down with specifics. I think any gamer worth their salt should be familiar with Pokémon, for example, but I couldn't care less which one you play. So for certain entries on this list, I'll be naming not one specific game but an entire series.

What you see below is the initial draft I've put together for a required-playing list. It's almost certainly incomplete, so if you have any suggestions for games that should be added (or removed!), bearing in mind the guidelines listed above, please send them my way on Twitter. This began as a personal project, one with which to gauge my knowledge of the medium, but I'd love for us to work together and assemble a list that anyone can use for a similar purpose.

Bear in mind that this is not about favorites. Some of the best games I've ever played have been omitted from the list. This is about the games that the community collectively agrees are the most important in understanding how the industry arrived at where it is today. It's about not being left out of the most relevant conversations.

I've played the vast majority of the games listed here. Once this is finalized, I'll pick out the games I need to catch up on, list them in a separate article, and continue to gradually post updates as I push through them.

The 7th Guest
Adventure
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Animal Crossing
Assassin's Creed series
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Beyond Good & Evil
BioShock
Bomberman series
Braid
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Chrono Trigger
Civilization series
Contra III: The Alien Wars
Command & Conquer series
Counter-Strike
Daikatana
Dark Souls
Day of the Tentacle
Deus Ex
Devil May Cry
Diablo II
Donkey Kong
Doom
Dragon Quest V
Duke Nukem Forever
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Earthbound
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
F-Zero series
Fallout: New Vegas
FIFA series
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VII
Fire Emblem series
Gain Ground
Galaga
Gears of War
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
GoldenEye
Gone Home
Gran Turismo series
Grand Theft Auto III
Grim Fandango
Guitar Hero series
Gunstar Heroes
Half-Life 2
Halo: Combat Evolved
Harvest Moon
series
Heroes of Might & Magic III
Hitman series
Ico
Indigo Prophecy
Katamari Damacy
King's Quest V
League of Legends
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
The Longest Journey
Madden series
Mario Kart series
Mass Effect trilogy
Mega Man 2
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Minecraft
Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat 2
Myst
Oregon Trail
P.T.
Pac-Man
Panel de Pon
PaRappa the Rapper
Persona 4
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Pitfall
Planescape: Torment
Pokémon series
Pong
Portal
Portal 2
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero
Resident Evil
Resident Evil 4
River Raid
The Secret of Monkey Island
Shadow of the Colossus
Shenmue
Sid Meier's Pirates!
Silent Hill 2
SimCity series
The Sims series
Solomon's Key
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Space Invaders
Spelunky
Spider-Man 2
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Starcraft
Street Fighter II
Super Mario 64
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario World
Super Metroid
Superman 64
System Shock 2
Team Fortress 2
Tecmo Super Bowl

Tetris
Thief II: The Metal Age
Tomb Raider
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Uncharted 2: Drake's Fortune
Undertale
VVVVVV
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (Season One)
Wii Sports
Wing Commander
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
World of Warcraft
X-COM: UFO Defense
Xevious
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Zork

Once more, if you have any recommendations for this list, shoot me a line at @MikeSuskie. Any feedback will be appreciated. Thanks!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A ranked list of every 2016 release that I played


Hi. I do this every year and I doubt it warrants an explanation anyway. The only note I want to make is that I adore Skyrim but felt that the Special Edition was a lame cash-grab, hence its low placement on this list.


* re-releases or remasters of old games
^ games I'm still working on


68. NightCry (PC)
67. Energy Hook (PC)
66. Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
65. We Are the Dwarves (PC)
64. XCOM 2 (PC)
63. Attractio (PS4)
62. Fractured Space (PC)
61. Necropolis (PC)
60. Tom Clancy's The Division (PC)
59. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (PS4) *
58. ReCore (PC)
57. House of the Dying Sun (PC)
56. Inexistence (PC) *
55. Abzû (PC)
54. Song of the Deep (PC)
53. Seasons After Fall (PC)
52. Inside (PC)
51. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (PC)
50. Salt and Sanctuary (PS4)
49. Virginia (PC)
48. Hyper Light Drifter (PC)
47. Firewatch (PC)
46. Hexoscope (PC) ^
45. Grow Up (PC)
44. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC)
43. Deus Ex Go (Android) ^
42. Devil Daggers (PC)
41. Evolve Stage 2 (PC) *
40. Sky Break (PC)^
39. Out There Somewhere (PC)
38. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PC) *
37. Watch Dogs 2 (PC) ^
36. Ratchet & Clank (PS4)
35. Furi (PC)
34. Pokémon Moon (3DS) ^
33. Battlefield 1 (PS4)
32. Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC) ^
31. Unravel (PC)
30. Final Fantasy XV (PS4)
29. The Banner Saga 2 (PC) ^
28. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PC)
27. Hitman (PC) ^
26. Valley (PC)
25. Let It Die (PS4) ^
24. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition (PC) *
23. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)
22. Pokémon Go (Android)
21. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)
20. Dishonored 2 (PS4)
19. Another Metroid II Remake (PC) *
18. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight (PC)
17. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest (3DS) ^
16. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4) *^
15. Beholder (PC)
14. DarkMaus (PC)
13. Dark Souls III (PC)
12. Darkest Dungeon (PC)
11. Reigns (PC/Android)
10. Grim Dawn (PC)
9. Severed (Vita)
8. The Witness (PC)
7. Overwatch (PC)
6. The Last Guardian (PS4)
5. Redout (PC)
4. Titanfall 2 (PC)
3. Owlboy (PC)
2. Superhot (PC)
1. Doom (PC)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Counting down my ten favorite games of 2016, as one does


As we're all eager to shelve the year 2016, there are two important things to bear in mind: (a) Next year will be probably be worse because he hasn't even taken office yet, and (b) as we're recoiling from a bunch of major celebrity deaths and the realization that there are a lot more closet white nationalists in this country than we'd imagined, it's healthy to also reflect on the good things that happened in 2016, overshadowed as they may be.

It was a good year for games. Not an all-timer, not a 1998 or a 2007, but there were enough great releases this year that I filled my top ten with considerable spillover.

Let's discuss the honorable mentions, then. First is Reigns, a neat little kingdom-sim-meets-Tinder that revolves entirely around yes-or-no questions. It's funny and clever, though I discovered after the fact that the game takes an awful lot of cues from Sort the Court, hence its removal from my top ten. Dark Souls III offered little that we hadn't seen before but gave the series a fitting and nostalgic sendoff, and for those Souls fans looking to fill the gap, DarkMaus is my favorite of the wannabes. Darkest Dungeon also earns a mention almost by default given how much time I've spent with it, though I still haven't finished it, and given some of the late-game frustrations, there's a question mark over whether I ever will. Do play it, though.

Finally, I do want to mention Pokémon Go for being one of the most fascinating experiments in social gaming that I've ever seen. It's not "good" by the standards that we highfalutin critics hold, even after a number of patches have tightened the screws, but it's a use of technology to expand the definition of gaming beyond simply giving us prettier graphics every few years. Plus, it's probably the first game that my mother and I like, so that's noteworthy. She usually plays Bejeweled or whatever.

Before we kick off the list, I want to note that I was on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast this year, which conveniently went up right around the time I finished this article. Go ahead and listen to that for an exhaustively thorough look back at the highs and lows of 2016 in gaming.

Right. So here are the top ten.

10. Grim Dawn (PC)

I'm told from virtually every source that Diablo III eventually became a stellar game after its nightmarish launch. I don't doubt it; I could probably go play it right now, in its current state, and have a blast. But it's a matter of principle - I gave the game its time of day, and it was a broken mess, and I've moved on. Maybe it's just good timing that Grim Dawn finally rescued me from my starvation for a Diablo-style click-'em-up, but what do you want from me? With an outstanding dual-class character-building system and a setting that reminds me more than a little bit of Bloodborne (all blunderbusses and floppy hats and forbidden sciences), Grim Dawn hit exactly the right notes for me and, what do you know, actually worked properly out of the figurative box. If you're into this sort of game - you know who you are - you need Grim Dawn yesterday. (Review.)

9. Severed (Vita)

DrinkBox Studios' previous game, Guacamelee, was full of personality and light on excess. But it was also a Metroidvania, making it the easiest of easy sells for me. With Severed, they took on the task of winning me over with a grid-based dungeon crawler, a genre which (to put it politely) typically inspires extreme apathy from me. They succeeded by giving it the same lavish visuals and atmosphere, by pumping full of Metroid design philosophies where the world unravels as your inventory expands, and shifting the combat from grinding and number-crunching to Fruit Ninja. I enjoyed it enough to earn a Platinum trophy, one of only three games I've ever done that with. On a more personal note, I only found room on this list for one handheld game, so it may as well be the title that actually served me well on the road - Severed is partly to thank for getting me through a particularly grueling overnight stay on a sidewalk outside of Madison Square Garden. (Review.)

8. The Witness (PC)

Jonathan Blow pulled off a remarkable trick this year: He figured out how to turn Myst into something I actually want to play. My long-running problem with that game is its lack of a central, driving mechanic. The puzzles shared no relation to one another; you were effectively wiping your acquired skills off the slate every time you moved to a new challenge. The Witness takes the same premise - you're trapped on a beautiful island full of odd mechanisms with very little explanation as to why they're there - but ties it all together with line puzzles that introduce new twists at a perfectly accelerating rate. Every puzzle solved grants you skills that can be taken forward and applied to new situations. That's how all games should work, and certainly how Myst should have, all these years. The Witness never talks to you but constantly finds ways to teach you. Don't look for narrative weight where there is none; just get lost in a relaxing and perfectly paced exploro-puzzler. (Review.)

7. Overwatch (PC)

Now that Valve seems to have more or less retired from game development and spends its days maintaining Dota 2 and making every digital gaming storefront that isn't Steam look bad, perhaps Overwatch is the closest thing we'll ever get to a Team Fortress 3. While Blizzard has more experience fine-tuning large-scale multiplayer games than anyone (and should be commended here for one of the smoothest launches in recent memory), this is their first stab at a competitive shooter. For them to replace the formula this well, balancing nearly two dozen classes and consistently making every player feel important, is a titanic accomplishment even when the game has very few of its own ideas. The dry, witless writing means Overwatch likely won't linger after I've put it aside for good, but Blizzard can remedy that by simply giving me reasons to keep coming back, and their ongoing support, coupled with the game's overwhelming popularity, has left little to be desired. (Playcast.)

6. The Last Guardian (PS4)

By purely objective standards, there are plenty of 2016 releases more deserving of a spot on this list than The Last Guardian. They had better controls, smoother framerates, smarter AI, and less nausea-inducing cameras. But I don't think about those games as much as I think about The Last Guardian. I have a rocky relationship with Fumito Ueda's previous work, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think his long-awaited third game is his best. It preserves the gorgeous-yet-imposing environmental design and deep, dialog-free relationships that are a staple of his work, and while he's yet to produce a game that handles well, he's wise enough here to at least avoid putting you in situations where quick reflexes are required. I was watching, and the game was out for several weeks before a plot synopsis showed up on the game's Wikipedia page. It was like an unspoken agreement between fans: Don't spoil this for yourself. Develop this bond with Trico yourself and witness the pitch-perfect manner in which Ueda closes it. (Review.)

5. Redout (PC)

This is not simply a game that I enjoy. I've thought about it and I'm convinced that Redout is the absolute best of its genre, the new standard by which I will judge all anti-gravity racers. It mixes the slick audiovisual style of Wipeout with the until-now unparalleled sense of speed exhibited in the F-Zero series, and adds just enough subtle twists of its own - namely the need to pitch your craft up and down to match the contours of the track - to establish an identity of its own. Redout is still pretty obscure, no thanks to a lack of buzz and a somewhat hefty $35 price tag, so the multiplayer scene's been pretty dormant from the word go, but the game finds value in its surprisingly substantial single-player campaign. And, at the end of the day, it just feels so damn good to play and master this thing. I promise to only use the word "exhilarating" twice in this article, and this is one of those times. Using any other adjective would do a disservice to the interactive roller coaster that is Redout. (Review.)

4. Titanfall 2 (PC)

I made a grave mistake in 2014 when I neglected to put the original Titanfall, one of my favorite multiplayer games in recent memory, on my top ten. In retrospect, the move seems outright prophetic. Though I absolutely got my money's worth out of the first game, its omission of a single-player campaign makes it look downright incomplete next to its sequel, which not only includes a story mode but knocks it out of the damn park. If not for Doom, this would be 2016's true antithesis to the modern military shooter, a blazing and large scale romp that's short enough on fat to never be dull but sensible enough to save its most exciting material for the final act - a true rising action. The multiplayer features only minor tweaks, but the dynamic between on-foot and mech combat is so strong that I've already put over 70 hours into this thing and have no intention of stopping. What a grim mistake it was for EA to release this game the week after Battlefield 1. It deserves an audience. (Review.)

3. Owlboy (PC)

I struggle to summarize Owlboy in a single paragraph because the game is just so full of wonder, every level shining for its own reason. Maybe there's an exciting set piece, maybe a neat new mechanic is introduced, maybe a quirky new character shows up, maybe the story takes a surprising turn, maybe that background art just looks particularly nice. D-Pad Studio began working on Owlboy - one of the most passionate tributes to classic 2D gaming I've seen in the modern era - all the way back in 2007, but when I play it, I don't see development hell. I see patience, the desire to make every moment playing Owlboy memorable, even if it takes nine years to finish the damn thing. I had no issue deciding on my top three for 2016 but agonized over the order; it's painful to me that a game as beautiful, charming and creative as Owlboy can only place third. (Review.)

2. Superhot (PC)

You think you've seen everything, and then every once in a while a game like Superhot comes along to remind you how much juice there's yet to be squeezed out of this medium. While bullet-time has been done to death in video games, Superhot's approach - to make time only move when you do - gives its combat a turn-based vibe the transforms goofy '80s action movie scenarios into outright puzzles. It is, refreshingly, a blood-pumping action yarn that requires all brains and zero reflexes. It is a game that gives you the power to do impossibly awesome things. Its surprisingly cool meta-narrative (which had an amusing impact on social media the week of its launch) is a bonus bit of window dressing, but even if Superhot had been presented as a series of static challenges with no connective tissue, it'd still be fresh enough - and, in an impressive show of restraint, lean enough - to make for one of the year's easiest recommendations, even for a relatively high entrance fee. Because it is, after all, the most innovative... yeah, surely you know the line by now. (Review.)

1. Doom (PC)

For years, the AAA shooter scene has subtly deteriorated into something murky and unpleasant, and not without good reason. I'd rank Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the original Gears of War among the best and most influential games of the last decade. At the time, the idea of an entire console generation's worth of shooter take their cues would've made me salivate. That happened, and look where it got us: overrun with creepy American nationalist fantasies. I have to assume that Call of Duty went to space this year because, as per series continuity, we've run out of people on Earth to murder.

And Gears? I used to buy those things on day one, yet a new one came out this year and I still haven't touched it. 2016 is the year when I finally hung up on Gears, when I officially lost my patience for spending the majority of a so-called action game with my face in the mud because my character's armor weighs as much as a tank but still can't protect him from more than a couple of shots before he needs a timeout. (I did wind up putting Gears 4 on my Christmas list, because if I'm gonna play it at all, I'd rather someone else paid for it.)

I could go on - about how Halo has collapsed under its own narrative weight, or how Destiny is a toy box with no toys in it, or how The Division is that very same toy box but painted grey - but the point is that Doom looked at the state of the AAA shooter and proclaimed, "I reject your bullshit." It's fast. It's gruesome. It's metal. It does everything in its power to keep you out of cover and in the action. And it features a silent protagonist who cares as little about the plot as we do. No sappy piano cover of "Mad World" as supporting characters die. No ruminations over the cost of war. These are demons from hell. Give us a goddamn shotgun.

I want to spend paragraphs talking about how intricate Doom's level design is, and how satisfying its weapons feel, and how perfectly it runs, and how much you're cheating yourself if you're not experiencing this baby with a mouse and keyboard. But what ultimately makes Doom my favorite game of the year is that it is precisely the game that I needed at this very moment. I can now signal the end of the era in which the best modern shooters are the ones like Spec Ops: The Line and Wolfenstein: The New Order primarily for pointing out how awful modern shooters are. We've gotten the postmodern stuff out of our systems, and now, hopefully, we can go back to basics, when shooters were breezy, exhilarating, fun. And leading that charge? Doom. (Review.)

And now on to the miscellaneous categories.

Most overrated: Inside
Most underrated: The Witness
Most overlooked: Redout
Most visually striking: Owlboy
All-out best-looking game: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Best story: The Last Guardian
Best writing: Reigns, I guess? Weak year
Best character: Geddy (Owlboy)
Best original soundtrack: Virginia
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 3
Biggest surprise: Doom
Biggest disappointment: ReCore
Most enjoyable bad game: Furi
Least enjoyable good game: The Banner Saga 2
Best PC port: Titanfall 2
Game that I spent the most time with: Overwatch
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: We Are the Dwarves
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Fire Emblem Fates
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but didn't: 7th Dragon III: Code VFD
Best game that I still haven't finished: Darkest Dungeon
All-out worst game that I played: NightCry
Best non-2016 game that I first played in 2016: Elite Dangerous
Best remake/re-release: Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir
Most anticipated game this coming year: Yooka-Laylee

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review Shots: December 15, 2016

Hi there. We're rapidly approaching the end of the year, and I've got several blog entries in the works summarizing what I feel are the most remarkable gaming experiences of 2016. (I'll also be on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast for the first time, which I'm very excited about). With that said, I wanted to do some year-end cleanup and quickly talk about a handful of games that I never formally voiced my opinions on throughout the year. I've dubbed this "Review Shots," and I think it'll become a regular thing for me.

Darkest Dungeon (PC)

This is one of my most-played games of 2016, clocking at well over a hundred hours (albeit often while listening to podcasts or binging TV shows with one eye, because that's the kind of game this is), and I've actually bought it twice, on PC after the PS4/Vita versions turned out less than ideal. You'd think I unabashedly love it and that it's a lock for my top ten, yet I've hit an unfortunate roadblock. This is a roguelike, turn-based dungeon crawler with Lovecraftian setting and a focus on your characters' mental well-being. It's deep, it's stylish, and it gets its hooks in you. But it's also damn brutal, and once the later dungeons are unlocked, getting a party wipe can be utter hell, since raising a new party for prime-level questing takes hours of questing. It's discouraging, and a way to bypass more of that early-level grinding would make the endgame stuff more enticing. I've had a great time with the game and highly recommend it, but I can't say for certain that I'll ever see all of it. 8/10

Furi (PC)

Here's an odd one. Furi is basically a feature-length boss rush, a character action game that divides its time between frantic swordplay and bullet-hell schmupping, and consists of nothing but boss battles as the lead character kills the prison guards holding him captive. It's actually full of design choices that I would loathe in games where bosses comprised only a fraction of the playtime, like multiple phases (as in, say, five or six per battle) and pattern memorization. Plus, the dodge function, key to survival in many cases, has an infuriating delay that forced me into many restarts. I didn't enjoy Furi. Yet there's something about its style, openly inspired by the very strange works of Grasshopper and Platinum, that kept me going. It's got a great eye for empowering moment (even when you'll be restarting a lot), and the amazing soundtrack, by a collecting of house artists, almost gives Furi the pulse of a rhythm game. Plus, the story actually goes somewhere interesting! Honest! 6/10

Song of the Deep (PC)

Why the hell does this game exist? It was developed by Insomniac, the AAA development team responsible for franchises like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. They have the kinds of resources most smaller developers would kill for, and here they are, making the sort of vaguely quaint Metroid knockoff that'd barely inspire attention if a first-time dev churned it out (minus the production values, which are admittedly lovely). Even the novelty of setting a game like this underwater, with players in control of a submarine, was already done earlier this year in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (which I also didn't like, though that one at least took some chances). Even as someone who's always on the lookout for a solid Metroidvania, this one's been too generic to keep me interested. I hope Insomniac got this all out of their system and goes back to using the tremendous power they have more productively. 4/10

Severed (Vita)

Dungeon crawlers are typically the sort of thing I can only play with one eye while marathoning a TV show, but developer DrinkBox Studios pulled all of the right tricks in making Severed more accessible to me: removing unnecessary grinding, shaving the campaign length to a lean eight hours, giving the combat a more interactive and frenetic nature (thanks to the Vita's touch screen), basing the whole thing around a Metroid-like upgrade-based progression system, and infusing the whole package with the sharp visual style that was a hallmark of the studio's previous release, Guacamelee. That game made my Game of the Year list, and I suspect Severed will, too. It's one of the few games for which I've bothered to earn a platinum trophy, and a perfect fit for the Vita, given its smooth combination of tradition and touch screen controls. Terrific release; DrinkBox Studios is officially on my "check out everything these folks make" list. 9/10

Reigns (PC/Android)

Another game I liked so much that I purchased it twice, after realizing that the game would be a much better fit on my fit. It controls, after all, like Tinder, as the players are simply tasked with swiping left or right as they're confronted with yes-or-no questions while reigning as a medieval monarch. It's simple and delightful, boosted by both its strong (yet also concise) writing and the surprising amount of depth involved as players are forced to balance the four pillars of the state (church, population, military, and treasury) without any of them either collapsing or becoming too powerful. Also, the game actually has an overarching story! I love Reigns, though it admittedly lost a few points when I learned that an itch.io game called Sort the Court did something awfully similar first but never quite caught on the way this one did. 8/10

Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC)

I actually kind of hate the original Mirror's Edge. The controls never once felt comfortable to me (first-person parkour platforming is a very tricky thing to pull off), and the game's ultra-linear structure never gave the mechanics room to breathe. Moving the franchise to a sandbox setting makes total sense to me, and Catalyst actually feels a lot more responsive this time; I'm wondering if playing on mouse and keyboard helps, as being able to easily control where you're looking is a big advantage in these free-running scenarios. So the parkour's actually something of a thrill for once, but EA DICE is struggling to give this series a backbone. The story, characters and world are all still pretty much negligible, and the campaign pretty much just amount to a series of fetch quests and time trials while the important stuff is handled by people who can do more than just run really fast. It's a step in the right direction, but Catalyst is still little more than a very pretty, slightly above-average sandbox release. 6/10

Let It Die (PS4)

Grasshopper Manufacture, that weirdo studio headed by Suda51, recently surprised us with the late-year release of a free-to-play title called Let It Die. It's a roguelike dungeon-crawler with Souls-esque combat, set in a post-apocalyptic world where people wear traffic cones on their heads and murder each other with improvised weaponry. Pretty basic stuff, though injected with trademark Grasshopper strangeness; your guide, for instance, is a skateboarding Mexican grim reaper who calls you "Senpai." I kinda wish the combat was deeper, though Let It Die deserves kudos for being perhaps the first game in history to actually handle weapon degradation well -- most weapons only last for a handful of fights, but drops are so frequent that one of the game's hooks is constantly having to experiment with new arms combinations. Not one of Grasshopper's best games, and certainly not one of their most unique, but it's an addictive enough game, and you can't argue with free. 7/10

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review Shots: November 20, 2016

You can't formally review everything, especially when it's fall release season and there are too many games to write about and you don't want to write about them anyway because you're too depressed about the election results and also you're lonely so you spend what could be productive time flipping through Tinder but no one's to your taste because oh my god is there anyone in my area who isn't into country music?

So yeah, video games. I'd rather not have my opinions on some of the year's biggest releases not be documented for future historians, so here are some quickie one-paragraph reviews for various 2016 titles that I've deemed worthy of discussion. I mean, hey, a couple of these will almost certainly wind up on my year-end top-ten list, so pay attention.

Grow Up (PC)

When I reviewed the delightful Grow Home, I commented on how awestruck I was that such a charming, uncynical product could come from Ubisoft. That is not the case with its sequel, an open-world sandbox game full of tower-climbing and optional race challenges. Yep, this is the Ubisoft formula to a T. While expanding the scale to an entire miniature planet sounds neat, it dilutes your accomplishments, none of them feeling as satisfying or (ahem) towering as the single massive beanstalk that took center stage in the original. Its ideas aren't new anymore, so it took the only approach Ubisoft Reflections could come up with, which was to simply add more, and it's a wasted opportunity. All of these goofy physics and mechanics, and racing challenges are the best you've got? 6/10

Titanfall 2 (PC)

The original Titanfall had one of my favorite multiplayer components in recent memory, and its sequel retreads that formula with minimal changes. That's fine. It's what I wanted, in fact, and Titanfall 2 has been my cathartic release for the last few weeks, the game I come to when I want immediate, big-scale thrills. But where the sequel vastly improves upon its predecessor is in the addition of a legitimate single-player campaign that's actually fantastic. I'd rather not spoil the game's countless memorable moments, so I'll simply say that it wastes no time, features far more original ideas than you'd expect, and doesn't bombard you with wall-to-wall explosive set pieces (so when the game does finally crank it up in its final few missions, it's all the more potent). Probably the closest thing we'll ever get to a Vanquish sequel: fast, huge, exciting, and... blandly written, but hey, save some for Titanfall 3. That is, if enough of you buy this game to warrant a third entry. Please do. 9/10

Battlefield 1 (PS4)

This is strictly a review of the game's single-player campaign, since Battlefield's multiplayer isn't really my thing. Set during World War I (under-explored in this medium), the solo content is split into five individual stories chronicling the various fronts, beginning in France and then moving east into the Ottoman Empire. You can play the stories out of order, which I'd recommend, since they get worse as they go. Battlefield 1 opens with its two longest and strongest sequences (featuring a tank and a biplane), but as the campaigns get briefer, we spend so little time with these characters that the emotional impact is unearned. Although visually ravishing at times, this is actually one of the rare AAA shooter campaigns that could benefit from being longer. Final mission is a chore, too - a stealth section set in the open desert that plays like the poor man's Metal Gear Solid V. 6/10

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)

Again, this is solely my take on the game's solo campaign, since this is the first Call of Duty game I've touched since the first Black Ops and I'm sure as hell not reentering this arena when it's full of people who have been keeping up with this series on an annual basis. Both major shooter franchises took diversions this year, and Call of Duty came up with the less interesting one, because space marines have already been done a thousand times. To my surprise, though, this campaign is pretty excellent. There's great variety in the scenery, and the game's full of actual space shenanigans - zero-gravity bits where you're slinging yourself about with a grappling hook and a number of full-blown dogfights that put to shame the actual Star Fox game we got this year. I don't care that much for the story (particularly when the villains are so one-dimensionally evil), but the cast pulls its weight convincingly, and your robot buddy Ethan is honestly one of my favorite new characters to come out of a game this year. This one's worth a rental at least. 8/10

Dishonored 2 (PS4)

The first Dishonored had some of the best stealth mechanics in the business, and the sprawling and very three-dimensional level design offered players such a wealth of options that I was honestly reminded of Deus Ex. Gameplay-wise, there isn't much to improve, so Dishonored 2 being more of the same is largely just fine. But would it kill them to make just one of these characters likable? Just one? Just for me? So much detail is poured into this world and its history that I feel guilty for not caring at all over the course of two whole games, but it's Arkane's fault for not getting me emotionally invested in any of this. The dialog's so static and perfunctory that not even A-grade Hollywood talent like Rosario Dawson can inject any life into it. This one's a missed opportunity, but play it for the Clockwork Mansion, a steampunk wonderland that will rank as one of 2016's most memorable levels. 7/10

Doom (PC)

I just bought a new SSD and am in the process of reinstalling my games on it. I thought I was done with Doom, having played the hell out of it back in May and ultimately scored all of the single-player achievements. Since then, though, id Software added a score attack mode to the campaign, which is the only excuse I needed to jump back into this masterpiece. It's honestly the purest fun I've had playing a game this year, and while I recommend it under any circumstance, play it on PC if you can - its handful of launch issues seem to have been ironed out, and I can't overstate how good this thing feels with a mouse and keyboard. I can't imagine myself spending a lot of time with the multiplayer while Titanfall 2 and Overwatch are in my library, but this is the best single-player twitch shooter I've played in years... or possibly ever. 10/10

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel (PC)

The expansions for the previous Souls games rank among the very best of the series' content, and with Dark Souls III's plot leaving so many unanswered questions, Ashes of Ariandel should have been a knockout. Instead, it's an overly murky side-story that plays like a directionless homage to the Painted World of Ariamis from the first game, marking the point where Dark Souls III's constant callbacks officially became insufferable to me. If this expansion feels light on bosses at first, that's because From Software crams three of them together for the finale and forces players to defeat all three consecutively. I've mastered everything else the Souls series has thrown at me, but this encounter felt pointlessly cruel, and it's the only instance in the history of the franchise in which found myself unable to win without summoning help. Despite a few creepy moments (that fly pit is gross) and some typically lavish visuals, this is one of the series' low points, unrewarding and unsatisfying. 4/10

So that's that, but why not have a look at some of the recent releases I did formally review?

Necropolis
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
ReCore
Virginia
Redout
Seasons After Fall
Divinity: Original Sin II (preview)
Owlboy

Also, why not have a listen to the two-man podcast I recently did with Richard Naik, in which we pretend-drunkenly complain about ReCore?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My favorite Souls boss themes, in the form of a top ten list (spoilers)



I'm still working on my review for Dark Souls III (there's a lot to process and I want to make sure I get my analysis right), so in the meantime, here are what I consider to be the ten best boss themes across the entire series. Souls games don't tend to have a lot of music, which gives it that much more impact when the music actually does kick in.


Honorable Mention: Soul of Cinder (Dark Souls III)

Dark Souls boss themes like to go awfully high on wailing choirs, particularly in the first and third games of the Dark Souls series. This track seems to fit that descriptor until the 2:15 mark, when an unexpected shift suddenly turns this battle into a throwback to the Gwyn battle in the original Dark Souls, the theme of which will be referenced later in this list. This theme isn't altogether one of my favorites but that's a clever way of telling a story without words.

10. Ruin Sentinels (Dark Souls II)

Not a whole lot to say about this one - it's a rollicking theme that gives its brass section center stage to great effect. This is one of the first memorable encounters in Dark Souls II, because I don't believe From Software has thus far had the guts to pit you against three of the same boss at once. An intense track for an intense situation.

9. Maiden Astraea (Demon's Souls)

This won't be the last time I say this, but the Astraea theme is incongruously pretty. We've been battling pretty much nothing but scary monsters up until this point, and we certainly didn't expect the pattern to be broken at the end of the repulsive Valley of Defilement. But here we are, battling two polite, seemingly un-corrupted individuals who are begging to simply be left alone. As one of the series' first "puzzle" bosses, the discomfitingly beautiful music is your first indication that this battle will not play out like the others.

8. Bell Gargoyles (Dark Souls)

The Gargoyles are among the most notorious dick moves in Souls history, and the music that plays alongside them move the battle from intimidating to outright scary. Those spindly stairstep strings are just a masterclass in maintaining tension, as if a mortal battle is being fought while teetering over the edge of a cliff. Which, in a way, it kind of is.

7. Executioner's Chariot (Dark Souls II)

I actually don't like this boss at all ("puzzle bosses" in Souls games rarely go over well with me), but the setting and atmosphere are perfect. So much of this level is spent with the coliseum towering over you that when you finally get in, it's enthralling to be accompanied by a theme that wouldn't feel out of place in a historical epic. The bit at 1:30 in particular strongly reminds me of the horns being sounded at the beginning of a match in Gladiator.

6. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower (Bloodborne)

This theme has the dual task of preparing players for one of the toughest hand-to-hand battles in the series and reminding us that this is one of the few sympathetic figures in this universe, and that having to fight her is kind of a shame. The music gets to have its cake and eat it, opening with ominous bells and fluttering strings before moving to a gorgeous, melancholy single-violin piece at the twelve-second mark (by which point, let's face it, we're deep into the battle).

5. Abyss Watchers (Dark Souls III)

One of the flat-out saddest boss themes in Souls history. If you fought Artorias in the first game's DLC, you know what happens when the Abyss corrupts you. These guys are clearly modeled after that encounter, and they're so far lost that they're battling each other, cursed to rise, kill, die, and repeat perpetually. A vocal-heavy track that keeps the number of singers to a minimum, making this track intimate, poignant and tragic.

4. Ludwig, the Holy Blade (Bloodborne)

This one places so high on the list specifically for the transition that begins at 3:40 and unleashes an all-out assault at 4:18 as the boss, presumed to be just another tragic figure lost to the beast plague, suddenly begins speaking in a calm voice, picks up the Moonlight Greatsword, and carries out the remainder of the battle on two legs. It's an unforgettable transition made largely possible by this music.

3. King Vendrick (Dark Souls II)

To be honest, I kind of wish this wasn't a boss theme at all. It's such a powerful moment - King Vendrick has been hyped as some sort of otherworldly figure for the entire game, and when we finally see him, he's a broken man, wordlessly wandering his tomb in circles while you casually take what you need and buzz off without issue. Making Vendrick a secret boss, and in fact one of the most powerful in the game, spoils that a bit, but I'll never forget the chill that went down my back the first time I came across this scene and heard that piano sting.

2. Gehrman, the First Hunter (Bloodborne)

Probably the most singularly accomplished piece of music ever to come out of a Souls game, it's almost too good for the battle, which is (a) functionally not all that different from many other bosses you've fought until this point and (b) against a character I think I'm supposed to be sadder about fighting than I am. Whatever the case, this is one of the most stunning boss themes I've ever heard.

1. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (Dark Souls)

I'd argue that this is the most iconic piece of music to come out of a Souls game, evident in the way both sequels' finales return to it like a motif. Most boss themes in Dark Souls are meant to get you riled up, on the edge of your seat, and there'd be no reason to think that the epic final encounter against the antagonist the entire campaign has been hyping up would follow suit. But then we hear this simple piano piece and see Gwyn instead as a tragic figure, one who brought about his own destruction to prolong the Age of Fire. Knowing that your character is likely to follow in his footsteps only makes it more poignant.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spoilerhot


I recently wrote a Superhot review that you can read by clicking on this hyperlink. It just went up the other day, but I want to note that I actually wrote it last week, before the embargo was lifted and the game landed in public hands. This is important because Superhot's release has morphed my opinion of the game. Not substantially, though, and certainly not for the worse. Let me explain.

See, we knew what Superhot purported to be: a shooter in which time only moves when you do. It fulfills that standard, and it is, to my mind, about as much fun as a game centering on this idea can realistically be (i.e. very). Hopefully my review explains that, so I won't waste much time reiterating anything.

But what I also mentioned in my review is how wonderful Superhot is in ways we weren't expecting. Namely, it's a cracking good sci-fi story. More accurately, it's a relatively bog-standard sci-fi story presented in a manner that I've never seen before. Here's a product in which viral marketing actually plays a tangible role in the game's plot. Superhot's developers were depending on their fans to make this narrative whole, and the gamble has paid off.

The most immediate characteristic of Superhot's story is that it's meta as hell. It tells you, point-blank, that you're playing a video game. The menu is designed to look like a DOS interface, many of the "cutscenes" are stylistically filtered to resemble ASCII art, and the campaign opens with someone inviting you, via an unassuming chat program, to open some "superhot.exe" file. When action gets heated, you're assured, frequently, that it's all just a game. None of this even looks real; the plainly visible polygons highlight the artificiality of these scenarios.

And that sells the underlying thrust of Superhot's narrative, which is that you're being manipulated into performing nasty deeds for some very powerful people. We never learn who exactly they are (unless this information is buried deep within the game, which wouldn't surprise me), but we're going along with it because, hey, it's good fun and none of this is real, right? Superhot so transparently and unambiguously being a video game is what makes this plot work so well. If this were real, these corporate overlords would want us to think this is just pure escapism.

But Superhot unveils its' villains nefariousness in increasingly unsubtle ways, namely when the "protagonist" develops doubts over the perceived innocuousness of his or her actions. That's when the bad guys make it clear that we're not in control. Video games like to present us with the illusion of choice when there's so little true emergent design in this medium; every decision that we make is ultimately something that someone on the development team planned for. Superhot pokes fun at that in amusing ways, particularly when the stranger on the other end of the line tells you to quit and you cannot continue the campaign until you've exited and restarted the game.

In a medium oversaturated with Chosen Ones, Superhot makes it clear that you're not special. You're just another drone. You can't fight the system. You're going to do bad things for bad people, and you'll go along with it because you're having too much fun, and you don't have a choice anyway. And you won't be rewarded for it. After everything you've done for your bosses, they'll thank you by forcing you to put a bullet in your own head, because you're just as disposable to them as the legions of people you've gunned down for them.

Where it gets cool is the way the developers of Superhot have deployed the game's actual, real, not-fictional fans to get this message out by relaying the game's deliberately cheesy marketing schlock. For one thing, the campaign ends with a canned word of recommendation ("the most innovative shooter I've played in years," etc.) that players willingly repeat on social media because they enjoyed the story and want to play along. The message even includes a link for a discount - an effective incentive, since if you're going along with all of this, you obviously enjoyed the game enough to want other people to try it, as well.

Even better, though, you've surely noticed that it's impossible for people to praise Superhot without at some point slavishly repeating its title. "SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT." They're always sure to put the period between the "super" and the "hot." Obviously, it's a reference to the fact that each level ends with a disembodied voice chanting the title while the words flash across the screen.

So what was the point of that, and why are we reiterating it? Well, remember that one Seinfeld episode when George keeps randomly singing his last name around a women he's dating with the hope that the annoying will become the infectious, much as a commercial jingle seems irritating but gets into your head? Same thing here. For a bit, you wonder why the game keeps shouting its title at you. Then you get used to it. Then you stop paying attention to it. Then it becomes an integral component of that experience, so central that you can't talk about the game on Twitter without joining in.

The best part is that I didn't even get to see this before I did my write-up. Superhot already earned one of my most positive reviews in recent memory, and now I like it even more, in this exact moment, at the peak of its popularity.

Of course, if Superhot hadn't been both good and high-profile, this gamble wouldn't have worked. But since the game has impressed so many people, the ultra-meta corporate marketing angle of its plot is taking full form within those of us who are just trying to spread the word about how much we enjoy this thing. We're all the slaves, and we're perpetuating the cycle. We know the truth, but we're too comfortable to care, and we don't have a choice, anyway.