Some of these things could certainly be extended into full analysis, though at the moment I'm not really in the mood to do so. However if you'd really like to see my full thoughts on something here, please leave a comment letting me know, or tell me in person.
I've played a fair amount of games this year. It's interesting to think that, because although I've been limited in finances, and busy with several things, I've still found time to play a lot of different games. One of the things that makes it easier for me is that I don't have a desire to complete games entirely. Most games, I get maybe 50% through before I feel I've gotten everything out of the experience. Some, I don't even make that far.
So, what were the most memorable games? Well...
Hypercube of Non-Euclidian Achievement:
Oh man. This one was quite an interesting ride. The whole game is a puzzle game, no real story, but using a lot of spatial perception as the core mechanic. The key to this one is understanding its internal logic, and what's really interesting here is how consistent it all is. The more you play, the more you understand how it all works. There's a bit of a quantum theme going on, with perception mattering to the existence of objects. So if you look at a path while going down it, you end up in one place, but if you look away while travelling, you end up in another.
It's the sense of internal consistency which really is important here. The game has a map with waypoints that lets you travel around, and it uses a 2d projection of the 3d space to help you out. Some people have called the game 4d, which I suppose isn't totally inaccurate in some parts, but I prefer to look at it as non-euclidian quantum 3d. Yeah, I just made that definition up (I think?) but it fits to me.
Don't be mistaken by my postulation into thinking this is some hard sci-fi romp. If anything, it's a pensive meditation on reality. Existentialism if anything. All throughout the game, you are given hints of what to do by little wall panels with simple pictographs and fortune-cookie sayings. The interesting bit is how these are all extremely helpful, and also make you wonder about their statements. In real life, it can be hard to see why choosing the direction to walk can matter, but when extrapolated into this space, it becomes more visually apparent, and thus we are more susceptable to questioning why we act the way we do.
It's, perhaps, a little pretentious, you could say. I would say that misses the point. The game was once called Hazard: The Journey of Life, but I think Antichamber is more appropriate a title. The game uses the corners of your brain for a lot of puzzle solving, and requires you to think outside the box. Or perhaps, to reshape the box you think in. I dunno. It's neat.
Silent Statue of Terrifying Accomplishment:
Dark Fall: Lost Souls
Dark Fall: Lost Souls
I absolutely love adventure games, as long-term readers of the blog and old friends would know. The emphasis on atmosphere and exploring environments results in a more pensive experience than a lot of other games allow.
Adventure games, for that reason, really lend themselves to being creepy and unnerving. They can really get into your skin, as the necessity of close proximity to the environment can bring out its subtle nightmare fuel all the better.
I originally started this game a couple years ago, and then restarted it recently with my fiancee. The game got to her more than me, but there were numerous points where we were just both far too unnerved to keep playing.
The game doesn't shock you with horrific images like the Saw films after the first, or impale you on depression and digustingly grotesque imagery like The Cat Lady. But it does use two main elements to unnerve you: Surreality, and corruption.
The game takes place in an old inn and train station, years after an attempt to rennovate it went sour and the whole place has fallen apart. Blood drips in the toilet stalls, broken glass litters the railways, and lights flicker between working and failing. Ghosts linger in the rooms, often texting you garbled messages as they try to communicate electomagnetically. (Confirmed via series canon, not in the game itself. This setting is the same as Dark Fall: The Journal, but much later and much darker.)
The game, however, takes its fears and horrors and extends it. There are three main characters, each twisted in their own way. A psychotic girl who enjoys demonology. A homeless man who eats rats and prays to a dark god of shadows. A disgraced detective who took the law into his own hands. (You.)
And the entire hotel is populated in lifeless, immobile statues. Frozen. Marble. Still. Memories of what the place must've once been. No way for them to get there. No one to put them there. No one to move them.
It all makes sense in the end, and wraps up perfectly. But damn. God damn that psycho little girl, Amy. "Please, Inspector... just one more game! It's my birthday!" The voice acting is top notch in this game, and it seems Jonathan Boakes has really grasped the nuance of walking the line of reality and nightmare. He makes a room full of glow moths next to a room full of bloody scissors seem reasonable, and you feel terrified walking out if it, realizing what you've accepted so easily.
The Jigsaw Piece of Clever Acknowledgement:
Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2
Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2
Puzzle Agent 2 picks up so flawlessly from where the first finishes off that it feels like an episodic series which should be longer than it is. And that's not because it feels unfinished, it just feels like a story universe that could expand into so much more and be relentlessly interesting.
I've heard this described as "Professor Layton if written by David Lynch" which I assume is a reference to Twin Peaks. If that is indeed an accurate assessment, I really need to watch some more David Lynch, because this game mixes a hilariously dry wit and a surreal, dark undertone that simultaneously treats itself seriously while being aware of the ludicrous nature of its elements.
Having not played much Professor Layton, I can't make a ton of comparisons, but the puzzle-heavy adventure definitely feels more gratifying than the inventory-heavy nature of many contemporaries. It's nice to never be in a situation where I have to try the foo on every bar until something clicks.
The art style of the game is very unique, and after playing the two games I looked up the artist's work, which can all be found on his YouTube. If you're not into mindgames, you probably won't get much out of this, but for those with a cerebral persuasion, the gameplay and story both heavily play to your need to "solve puzzles".
Mask of Achievement in Satirical Ultraviolence:
This game... is not for the faint of heart. It's not disturbing in a depressing way, and the gore isn't "ultra-realistic". However, it manages to be extremely graphic and violent despite its simple graphics. The game plays like descriptions I've read of really bad acid trips, mixed with the sort of psychotic killing sprees you'd see in films like Machete. However, despite that, there is no good reason for it, and that is the whole point.
Your character is a random guy who gets messages on his answering machine telling him where people are. Whether they're gangs, or police officers off-duty, or mafia, we never exactly know. There are times when it's extremely implied that the russian mafia is involved, but otherwise we have no idea. "Jacket" (as nicknamed by his iconic jacket) simply shows up, kills everyone, gets out before he's caught, then drives off. He'll then go to pizza joints, or video rental stores, or clubs, or grocers, and run into someone (always looking like the same guy) who will give him a free one "on the house". He lives out his life this way.
The game is very hard to describe, mostly because it's one of those experiences that I feel exists mostly to tell us about ourselves. Our narrator becomes blatantly unreliable by the end of the story. The game doesn't actively criticize the player, as its gameplay is extremely tight and fast. Aesthetically and mechanically, it is very much the magnum opus of its creators, especially Cactus. It feels influenced by A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick's film version) in some ways, though that could just be my personal comparison.
Ultimately it's a very fun action game which you can take two ways: You can refrain from thinking about it, and enter a sort of zen fighting mode, or you can think deeply about it, and realize things about human nature and our own.
Decapitated Torso of Failure of Cohesion:
No, I'm not even talking about the sequel, Riptide. Even aside from that whole mess, let's look at what the first game gave us. I'll sum it up:
Left 4 Dead + Borderlands + Dead Rising = Dead Island
Sounds great, right?! Eh. Like, major eh. This game simultaneously is awesome and a real let-down. On one hand, the action is stellar. The level of violence you can wield in this game easily rivals Left 4 Dead with limb-chopping and decapitations. Zombies and parts will fly! Blood will rain! Wooooo! Get better weapons, throw machetes, shoot guns, upgrade parts, craft things, make an electro-hatchet!
And then it decides to get hopelessly depressing. You find a guy, locked in a room, huddled in the corner and silently rocking as his zombified girlfriend is in the next room over, tearing the place up. A couple lies dead in their bed, their friend watching them from a chair next to them, holding his hands in his head. People starve in the church, families are torn apart...
How is this supposed to be fun?
There was a lot of controversy surrounding how this game released a really sad, moving, touching trailer, and then came out as an action romp. However there are still elements of that in this game. It's like 3/4 of the dev team was working on one game, and the last quarter decided to make a really depressing simulation of bleak destruction of hope. Also there's island natives and it gets mildly... I dunno. I don't think I'm in the place to call it racist, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone found it racist. The main cast is okay, just once you get into the island's jungle, there's natives annnnd... yeah, it pretty much goes exactly where you think it will go.
I haven't beaten it, don't really feel the need to, so eh, whatever.
Drop of Ingenuity in Sci-Fi Puzzle Platforming:
I'll be quick with this one. It shows a remarkably interesting theory about how an ecosystem could evolve to repopulate life on a dead planet, basing in some rather loose sci-fi at parts and harder sci-fi in others. It's all very interesting, and the whole game looks like the worn covers of most mars-oriented fiction that my dad passed down to me. It also has a wonderfully honest relationship between two collegues, of different race, gender, and personal drive. It's that special sort of friendship, where Hollywood might try to force a romantic ending, but it doesn't need that, because the friendship is so deep.
Gameplay isn't the most compelling, but it does have a fun sort of life-cycle thing, where plants will feed off eachother, and balancing ecosystems by planting seeds becomes important. Give it a shot if you want harder science fiction than BioWare is willing to offer, but nothing as deep as movies like Primer.
Mandated Approval of Depressing Realism:
I have been lucky enough to not live through a truly totalitarian government. Though the current Canadian party has some controlling desires, and the American government is apparently the Orwellian nightmare we all feared, I have never had to live in government-approved housing and been forced to do assigned career work. Choice has been a part of my life, and that's something special.
I think Papers, Please, is a game that really needs to be played by everyone in a privaleged country, who hasn't lived in a totalitarian regime. It'll make you really appreciate what you have, if you're lucky like I, and perhaps open your eyes to how bad it can be for everyone else.
It's also a wonderful example of why, and how, horrible systems such as the German Nazi Party can come into power and stay in power. Why people go along with it. Why does the passport officer not rebel? This game will not simply tell you why; in this game, you will experience a shadow of the depressing weight of why.
It Was Like The Previous One, But Better:
Fallout New Vegas
Fallout New Vegas
Did you like Fallout 3? Yeah? Well it's like that but better. Like Fallout 3 when you mod it to be real good. Did you hate Fallout 3? Dude, there are other things you can try your luck with. Do you hate Bethesda games? Okay come on, why would you even think you would like this one, come on, just give it a rest, move on.
I previously wrote that I wasn't super-keen on Fallout 3, but oddly enough I really warmed up to it on reflection. I had played it while getting my wisdom teeth out, and though that numbed the bad parts, it took a while for me to really remember everything about it. Honestly if I were to recommend Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas, I don't think it'd be an easy choice. Thus far I liked Fallout 3's setting much more, but I do think New Vegas really has some charm.
So check it out if you want more Fallout 3. And since it is the newer of the two, if you haven't tried either, this is your best bet.
It Was Also Like The Previous One, But Better:
Soul Calibur V
Soul Calibur V
I like the Soul Calibur series. This did not disappoint. I think by this point you're either in or you're out, and this definitely won't change your mind. If you didn't like III but liked II, either this or IV could rekindle your interest, but otherwise you've probably already played it if you intend to.
If I can say, though? Ivy is really getting rediculous. I know she's this sex symbol and stuff, now, but really, bring back the sea captain uniform. Please. That was cool.
Shooting Star of Variant Adventure:
FTL: Faster than Light
FTL: Faster than Light
Faster than Light did something that I think we'd all kind of been waiting for. It took some of the really fun elements of roguelikes, space ship sims, and squad-based tactical games, and combined them into one simple unit. You have a lot of randomization, and enough content that you won't see it all in one run, which creates high replayability. You have ship upgrading, with swappable parts, paired with a classic energy management system which will be familiar to watchers of Star Trek and players of FreeSpace. Units are controlled by assigning where they go, and they do tasks as required, while you target weapons and try to take down enemy ships.
It's really quite a fantastic combination, and I think it's important to note how it hasn't really been done since. There's been a successful Kickstarter for a very similar game, and Yahtzee is working on his own game partially inspired by it, but I think FTL is just perfectly unique enough that the lightning can't really be caught again.
Stupid Title, Fun Gameplay:
Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations
Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations
Naruto was my gateway into anime, and I kept up with it for a while, until the filler arcs started to really kill my motivation to keep up with it. The writing is all over the map, with some really good parts, but other parts which are really shoddily done. However, one thing that I always liked was that it had a lot of unique characters. I think it definitely suffers from a desire to one-up itself all the time. (It constantly talks about there being "types" of chakra (magic) but then breaks that 'mold' with every new villain.) Despite that failure, the characters are unique and interesting from a visual standpoint, and they work very well for fighting games.
I think this is why Naruto fighting games have always worked a little better than its contemporaries. Bleach is too mono, with everyone being similar until really late in the show. And One Piece is really damn crazy when it comes to super powers, which makes it hard to translate to a game.
The Ultimate Ninja series of games has, perhaps, been going on a tad too long, or releasing too frequently, but the games are pretty fun. Characters all control fairly similarily, which is a mixed blessing. It's pretty easy to try out new characters, which is fun, and lets you really revel in their flashy effects and the flavour of their personality. On the other hand, fans of specialized fighters will probably get bored really quickly.
I think one of the really cool parts of this game is that it looks just like the anime. It's really fluid, but they've spent a lot of time perfecting the shaders to the point that it really does look like a cartoon in motion. And there's a ton of little environmental touches that match the flavour of the show perfectly. Ninjas can use chakra to walk on water, so water sections of the map are walkable, however getting hit will actually dump you below the surface briefly. There's little gameplay impact, but it's the sort of flavour and tribute to the series that shows this is a game with a lot of love for its source material.
And regardless of one's feelings about the source material, I think the dedication it shows is easy to respect.
Years of Work Culminated:
I've been playing Sid Meier's series of Civilization games since the second one, and it's been interesting to see its evolution. The third game added a lot of improvements to the second, but the fourth was mostly a graphical update with few changes to gameplay. It did, however, add a fantastic mod system, which introduced a favorite mod of mine which made it into an interstellar colony sim.
With the fifth game in the series, they decided to really fix a massive problem of the game: "The Stack of Death". It became a recurring problem in the previous games, that you'd have twenty to thirty units on a single square, and resolving combat would take forever.
They've fixed that by downsizing a lot of the game. The major change is that they've prevented the stacking of military units; squares may contain one military unit and one civilian unit, and that's it. Now, the square grid of the original game made movement rather inefficient in some ways. Moving adjacently was equal to moving diagonally, which resulted in the map being laid out somewhat oddly. They've fixed that too, now using hexagonal grids, which makes sure that multiple paths of direction are still possible, while reducing the odd movement patterns of the older systems.
It also allows a lot more interesting tactical movements, more similar to Risk. You can now barricade cities by surrounding them with troops, or stop a harbour town from sending out ships by blocking all their water tiles.
Some of their changes to the other gameplay elements, such as culture, have resulted in combat becoming more of a focus. Military might and tactical prowess are even more important than in previous games. It's a bit of a trade-off: Increased capability for military conquest results in it being more of a necessary focus.
That being said, there've been some great expansions that rebalance the game, which I'm still aching to try, so perhaps that will fix this issue. Otherwise, I personally found this update to be a great improvement. I've enjoyed playing it a ton, and fans of the series, or those who just couldn't get into it, should definitely give it a try. It still takes a long time to play, though, so it's only really for those who like long sims.
Grey Skull on a Trophy Plaque:
X-COM: Enemy Unknown
The original X-COM: UFO Defense was one of my favourite strategy games on the PC. It had a heavy focus on multi-session learning, using a really strong difficulty curve and highly deterministic gameplay. It's the sort of thing good roguelikes employ, by giving you a sense of accomplishment even in failure.
The remake, when played at the regular difficulty, also gives off this feeling, and though it has made various changes to simplify and streamline the gameplay, I found it was thematically quite like the original. The new version uses a two-tiered cover system, where you either are out of cover, have partial cover, or full cover. Tactics are a huge focus; when I started the game, I barely used the "overwatch" ability, and now I use it more often than I actually attack.
The only thing I miss from the original is the action points and inventory systems. The remake lets you use move and use one action every turn, or alternatively move twice. The old action points system was more versatile, letting you potentially make several attacks per turn if your guy was fast enough, or move before and after shooting. However, they've rebalanced the game by adding character classes, many of which have actions which interact uniquely with the movement system. Assault characters can move twice then attack, and Sniper characters can't attack with their rifle on the same turn they move.
The lack of swappable inventory can be a real pain at times; if your medic gets shot early on, nobody can pick up his medkit. This makes loadout choices a lot more important, and if you really need a medic it might be better to take two on a game, but it can get really annoying. In the original, you could pick up items off dead bodies, which allowed your special items to be more usable.
That being said, base building is a lot more easy to follow, and in general the interface is streamlined enough that playing it on the PS3 was actually very enjoyable. There has been an expansion released which is apparently very good, and I'm hoping to try it out once Firaxis releases the inevitable next expansion. Waiting on that gold box deal. For now, I'd say X-COM is definitely worth trying for anybody looking for a strategic squad-based tactical game. Especially one where you have to save the human race from invasion.
Perfect Platinum Trophy of Stylistic Action:
The titular protagonist, Bayonetta, is a witch of the moon, and her character is a full embracing of the conceptual elements that go into her position in life. I really don't like focussing on whether or not she's a sexist or feminist character, as that debate has been done to death. I do, however, think that she's a very natural character. The politics of the situation are very external.
She's an authoritative badass that can kick ass and take names, and has been doing so for a long time. Her sexuality is simply a trait of her character, being a woman who has embraced the full nature of her body and augmented it with natural magic. So yes, she's unrealistic, which is precisely because she's superhuman. At one point you mash buttons to make her suplex a dragon, while a meter of damage measured in megatons ramps up on the screen. But to ignore her sexual side would be to ignore a natural part of the human body. She enjoys dancing, fully embracing the sexual side of her body, while also embracing the forceful side by investing in weaponry. She is not willing to even restrict her body with unnatural clothing, instead weaving her garments out of her own hair.
Her character has an interestingly maternal angle. Mentally, she very clearly treats the world as something to be protected by her. At one point, she must protect a young girl, and though she finds it agonizingly annoying to deal with the girl's immaturity, she still embraces her role as protector and fights tooth-and-nail for the girl. Her maternal side is not the sort of cleansed, puritan angle that modern society demands. She lives in a different sort of purity, instead embracing the apex of her body and order.
The game is absolutely fun to play, and I really do find all the characters thoroughly enchanting and fun to watch. If you haven't played it, and like action games, I'd definitely recommend giving it a shot, if even just to see a dragon get suplexed.
Golden Dragon Statue of Adventure:
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Shivering Isles
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Shivering Isles
Despite my issues playing Morrowind, I recently tackled Oblivion, attempting to finally get through an epic fantasy game. I think you've probably played it by now, if you're going to, but if you really need someone to convince you, I'll tell you straight: It's good. The game is fairly open-ended, and as with the other Bethesda games I've played, the modding community has worked hard to really improve the experience.
I found the use of markers and maps much easier to follow in this game, so getting lost wasn't as common as in Morrowind. The lore and writing is much more generic than in Morrowind, but that's the nature of Cyrodill. It's easily the least interesting setting in the game universe.
Which brings up The Shivering Isles. All throughout Oblivion you're going through portals, entering various planes, but never staying long. The planes of Oblivion are interesting, being bloody, burning hell-holes, but The Shivering Isles is really what runs with the lore in a fun way. Towards the end of Oblivion, you go to a plane of Oblivion belonging to a wizard, forged for a Daedric Prince. It's quite fantastical, and you wish you could go back. Well, with Shivering Isles, you do something similar.
Shivering Isles takes you to the titular Shivering Isles, which is the personal Oblivion Plane of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath. It has a lot of fun with the game, and the writing is easily the best out of the whole thing. I haven't played the other DLC, but let's just say that the ending of Shivering Isles is so cosmic that I think anything else would pale in comparison.
If you've only played Oblvion, The Shivering Isles is a must-play expansion to the base game.
Written Certificate of Lexiconal Fun:
This is one that kinda surprised me. I suspected that I would enjoy it, as I'm a fan of puzzle games and word problems. But what really caught me off guard was how charming it is. It's obviously a game for kids, however there's a very basic pleasure in seeing the choices you make come to life. Even though simple, it is fun. Kinda like solving a crossword, mixed with a mild-mannered saturday morning cartoon.
There's not a lot to say other than that. The story is very simple, and it's really just a fun word puzzle game. But if you want a bit of fun which tickles the brain, it's certainly a good source of that.
Magnifying Glass of Sherlockian Brilliance:
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes
Ah, Sherlock Holmes. One of the classic series of literature that I have such an iffy relationship with. I like the original stories, but when it comes to adaptations I've seen very few I like. Often Watson is depicted as a bumbling fool, a humorous stereotype of Great Britain for Hollywood film-makers to mock. There's also the autistic interpretation of Sherlock, which although quite interesting is often unsupported by the character's interactions with others. And I simply find the super-human gentleman detective to be thoroughly uninteresting when there is no negative side to him.
I think this is why I found this game so enjoyable. Right off the bat, it's clear that there's a very special relationship between Watson and Sherlock, that goes beyond flat-mates to a type of co-dependency. Watson, as an ex-army doctor, is stuck in his little flat with little to do each day except reading the paper. Sherlock is depicted as a bit of a psychotic obsessive, possessing a passion for justice and an ego that rarely pays proper respect for others.
What ends up happening is that Sherlock is the type of man who, without Watson to keep him in line, would easily "go too far" and get in trouble with anyone and everyone. He rarely respects police officers, treating them as bumbling fools, and looks down on thugs as thoroughly beneath him. Watson often has to put him in his place, reminding him of the social requirements of his extraordinary position.
But likewise, without Sherlock, Watson would have a vacant life. Sherlock is constantly dragging out Watson on adventures, and at the end of it all Watson has the thorough satisfaction of saving queen and country. They have this utter need for each other, and the rest of their abilities simply unfold around that.
This game has some fantastic writing, and even the somewhat stilted framing device of the story has a touching payoff by the very end. There's some great twists, and a truly perplexing mystery which you eagerly try to keep on top of. It keeps you guessing all the way, and perhaps most refreshingly, this game gives Watson some real time to shine, putting an emphasis on how important he really is to the dynamic. The voice actors have really come into their roles, so if you thought the previous games were a little lacking, you have nothing to fear: It's all gotten better.
On top of that, the graphics are absolutely gorgeous. The atmosphere in the game is heavy and pensive, and the ability to freely swap between perspectives (first-person, over-the-shoulder, and fixed-camera) really helps you see each environment from the best perspectives.
The puzzles are also quite ingenious and fun. A few are extremely complex, almost unsolvable, and the game does let you skip puzzles if they're too difficult. It is a bit of a mixed blessing; on one hand, you could argue that skippable challenges means that there's no point in playing. I never found this to be the case, as the skippable parts were all puzzles that are meant to be solved by Sherlock. In a sense, admitting that my intellect is not to match is entirely justified: He is supposed to be super-human after all.
If you're looking for a really interesting story, and a quite good adventure game, this is one of the best I've played recently, and I can definitely recommend it.
A Page of Glory:
Two parts interactive fiction, one part tarot, and one part RPG. Equal parts H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Bram Stoker. This is a game where you enter London, after it has been dragged beneath the earth by bats, in search of fortune, revenge, secrets, madness, or whatever else draws the natural to the unnatural.
Fallen London is a game that takes a long time to play. I've been playing for a year and a half so far and am still progressing. It uses a metered system, where you get one action every ten minutes, to a max of twenty actions in queue. So you can take a few hours off and come back and play a burst of it, or you can play it as a coffee break experience.
There's a ton of content, and it's always getting expanded, so starting now doesn't mean you're gonna hit the end of the story. I'm still playing and I'm not even at the top tier of characters yet, and I'm still coming across interesting new stories all the time.
If you feel like it, there's premium stories you can spend money to play. The good part of this is that you don't gain any special advantage for paying; there's no "pay to win" here, it's just a way to enhance your normal game by adding a new dash of flavor to the mix. Anything from small asides to sweeping story arcs are available, and the fun of discovery never fails.
Fallen London can be played in your browser. I heartily recommend it.