A Look Back at about 11 Games from 2019 and 77 That Weren't
This year my retro-game-safari really took off, and I got to hit a lot of the games I had been meaning to play for years. Just like last year, the table of contents is alphabetized so you can find the games you're interested in quickly, but the paragraphs are ordered by when I played them so you can see my memory resolution increase over the course of the document. I'm not including replays like Shatterhand or games that don't have a defined end like Starcraft 2. Enjoy, and thanks for being here.
- 428: Shibuya Scramble
- Actraiser 2
- Alone in the Dark
- Baba is You
- Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn
- Cave Story+
- Chrono Trigger
- Clock Tower
- Crash Bandicoot
- Crash Team Racing
- Death Stranding
- Deus Ex
- Devil May Cry 5
- Dino Crisis
- Disco Elysium
- Donkey Kong Country
- Doom II: Hell on Earth
- Dragon's Lair
- Earth Defense Force 5
- Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
- E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy
- Fatal Frame
- F. E. A. R.
- Final Fantasy VII
- Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade
- Gato Roboto
- God Hand
- Grim Fandango Remastered
- Half Life
- Haunting Ground
- Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy
- Jet Set Radio
- Journey to Silius
- Katana ZERO
- Killer 7
- Killer Is Dead
- Kung Fu
- Mega Man 11
- Metal Gear: Ghost Babel
- missed messages.
- Ninja Gaiden
- Ninja Gaiden 2
- Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
- Rain World
- Ratchet & Clank
- Resident Evil
- Resident Evil 0
- Resident Evil 2 (2019)
- Resident Evil 6
- Resident Evil 7
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- Slay the Spire
- Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
- Spyro the Dragon
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
- Super Mario Bros.
- System Shock: Enhanced Edition
- System Shock 2
- Titanfall 2
- The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
- The Legend of Zelda
- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
- The Messenger
- Tomb Raider
- Touhou 16: Hidden Star in Four Seasons
- Touhou Luna Nights
- Umihara Kawase
- Viewtiful Joe
- Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
- Wild Guns
- Yomawari: Night Alone
- Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
It’s a bad sign when the game I sit down to review on this beautiful October afternoon is one I have a hard time saying anything about. Starting from the basics, it’s a 2D Ninja Gaiden style platformer… until it isn’t. It’s all about exploration in the second half. Kinda. You can just get hints that tell you exactly where to go and it’s the same as before. The inelegant merging of ideas extends to the writing, which flips between clever banter and referential meme humor. The best encapsulation of these issues is how a beautiful and well-executed setpiece is followed up by the game literally stating “that event alone is totally worth a second playthrough if you ask me!”. The flicker of appreciation that had begun to grow was immediately stamped out with yet another out of place gag. If you can logically assess the quality of the gameplay, this game can be enjoyable, but the huge amount of awkward missteps prevent anything but the weakest of recommendations.
428: Shibuya Scramble
Visual novels aren’t typically my thing, but Spike Chunsoft’s Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is in a cozy spot on my top ten. These guys also developed Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, which had me completely gripped for a full twenty-four hours. 428: Shibuya Scramble got a better reception than either of those games, and was finally brought to the PC late last year, so I had to pick it up. Even without the prestigious context, a quirky live-action visual novel was still unique enough to be worth a buy. Sure enough, my first few hours were a blast. Instead of being a strictly linear narrative, you swap between various characters to see different perspectives of the plot, so you have a perfect setup to enjoy the intrigue and dramatic irony. However, starting at about the halfway point, the humor and charm this setup is made for gets replaced by straight-faced drama. To give you an idea of just how straight-faced I’m talking about, finishing the game unlocks an animated prequel story. There are no decisions or interactions, it’s just a direct telling of one character’s tragic backstory.
Wanna guess how long it is?
TWO AND A HALF HOURS. If this long-winded drama was just as good as the humor, maybe I could have finished the whole thing, but it wasn’t even close to the same quality. Even though I truly love parts of this game, the ball and chain of melodrama weighs it down too much to recommend it to anyone but an extreme visual novel enthusiast.
Resident Evil is embedded in the popular consciousness as the starting point of the survival horror genre. Given that Clock Tower was released on the SNES, it’s pretty easy to see why that perception is incorrect. Not only did Clock Tower do mansion-exploring horror before Resident Evil, it was pioneering a stealth-focused style of horror almost a decade before Haunting Ground. For such an ambitious concept to be executed in a way that holds up to this day is an amazing feat. The aspect I’m most impressed by is the physicality of the protagonist, who doesn’t have the endurance to constantly sprint everywhere and fend off monsters, which is a given in most games. You actually have to save your energy for when you really need it and to use strength as a last resort. Having limited resources is the keystone of survival horror, but this is the only game I know of where the limitation is physical wellbeing rather than the standard ammo and lifebar. It’s a cool concept that’s worth checking out, especially for fans of the genre.
Yomawari: Night Alone
Now that I’ve finished gushing about a good survival horror game, allow me to not say much about a survival horror game I don’t like. The best way to sum up my thoughts is that Yomawari copies the weaknesses of Silent Hill without the advantage of its strengths. Silent Hill has lackluster gameplay that mostly consists of walking from point A to point B, but it’s propped up by a uniquely holistic style of narrative presentation where every detail, from your controls to the enemy design, is relevant to your understanding of the world. Yomawari has wandering and item collection, but the plot and presentation are similarly point A to point B. While big-headed-child-alone-in-a-scary-world is a proven concept, Yomawari brings nothing but the basics to the table. There may be a workable concept here, but it’s not a unique one, so I can safely put this as the first anti-recommendation of the wrapup.
Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade
I can’t give any useful criticism of this game, to be honest with you. I played this game because I wanted to check out classic Fire Emblem, and just like with my other Fire Emblem experiences, I thought it was ok at best. If you’ve played other games in the series, this one will be just what you expect. If you haven’t, then this wouldn’t be the game to start with. If you are one of those newcomers, I would recommend the one just called Fire Emblem on the Gameboy Advanced.
Bastion is one of the most powerful gods on the indie-gaming pantheon, next to the likes of Braid and Fez. It was part of the first wave of indie titles which brought the concept to the public eye, thanks to its wholly original visual presentation and simple but rewarding third person action gameplay. The problem is that you’re reading a review written in 2019 and not 2011. It’s still a fun and good looking game, but indie development has gotten more ambitious since then, and Bastion’s ideas have been refined in subsequent games. If you haven’t played it yet, I would caution against thinking of it as one of the all-time-great indie titles, but I would still say it’s definitely worth a playthrough.
If Bastion deserves your attention for its spot in indie gaming history, then you know what I’ll say about this one. Cave Story wasn’t the first indie game, but it’s to indie gaming what Super Mario Bros. is to platforming, the game which set the template for years to come. However, just like Bastion, being early to the party can have its disadvantages. It has a quirky pacing for its plot and difficulty that serves as a reminder for how it didn’t have many similar games to turn to for guidance, and the lack of a unique selling point can make it seem bland among its peers today. However, the quirkiness is executed just well enough to contribute to the charm, and it never gets so difficult that people are going to bounce off of it. If you’re in the mood for a charmingly simple indie platformer, you can’t go wrong here.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Stalker has a reputation for being the Fallout for cool hardcore gamers, but this perception may be part of why the game is considered so niche in the first place. Starting up Stalker and expecting to dive into the loop of exploration, combat, and gathering will leave you feeling disappointed in all three respects. In Stalker, these pillars of open world shooting have all been designed to convey the harshness of the irradiated zone, rather than to provide a traditionally enjoyable experience. The best example of this is how looting enemies for weapons, something that’s a no-brainer in other rpg’s, is almost pointless. Life is cheap in the zone, guns are everywhere, not having one at hand means you’re probably already dead. That’s great from a worldbuilding perspective, but it goes against the open-world standards to a degree that anyone trying to play with those assumptions is going to have a bad time. This is why fans of it, including myself, will say that you should play Stalker and enjoy it specifically for the ways it alienates you. The resulting atmosphere is worth it.
Note: Appreciating some clunkiness does not mean appreciating bugs. I recommend installing the Zone Reclamation Project (ZRP) mod, as it is the lightest-touch bug fixing mod out there.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Majora’s Mask is hard to critique when its flaws are a direct result of how the game was able to be made at all. Ocarina of Time was a smash hit, so taking advantage of a veteran development team and the assets they made to quickly put out game seemed like a great idea. Even as someone who isn’t a Zelda fan, I have to say that it really, really was. The creative freedom afforded by low development risk lead to what is easily the most artistically ambitious game in the series. Taking a franchise centered on freedom and exploration and putting a timer to it was an incredibly bold move, and the morbid atmosphere it serves to strengthen is even bolder. Sadly, that ambition has a double edge, and the limitations are hard to miss. Watching different characters deal with unavoidable disaster is incredibly interesting, but either through the N64’s limited memory or the low amount of development time, the interaction with them is barebones. Most characters have about three different versions of dialog, and you complete a quest by talking to them at a specific time with a certain mask on. The rigidity and lack of depth can make you feel a certain detachment from the narrative, and the immersive quality takes a huge hit. Even so, the experience as a whole is fairly captivating, and I can attest that it holds up enough to win over at least a few Zelda skeptics.
Resident Evil 2 (2019)
This game is considered a remake of Resident Evil 2, but that’s not entirely true. That’s even when using the term “remake” somewhat loosely, like in the case of Resident Evil for the Gamecube. The key point when considering the difference between the two is continuity of the core challenge. In the original games and the remade Resident Evil, the core challenge is applying character and resource limitations wisely, allocating your reserves in proportion to the difficulty of a given challenge. This isn’t what Resident Evil 2 REimagined is about, but it’s hard to notice that at first. It’s not because of the over-the-shoulder perspective or the enhanced movement, but in the inability for players to wisely invest resources. To cut to the chase, similar to Resident Evil 4, this game has an invisible difficulty adjustment system. I won’t divulge everything it does so you can enjoy the game without being spoiled, but I believe that just knowing it exists will prevent frustration. Resident Evil 4’s adjustments could be handled gracefully with its linear structure and item drops coming from enemies, adjusting your supply levels without interrupting the pacing at all, but Resident Evil 2 didn’t use this type of system. It instead has set locations for items and a small nonlinear play space, so the only place to make changes was with the enemies. Players in a rough spot may cripple zombies with a single bullet and incapacitate them with four, when a well-performing player may require five and ten respectively. If you enter a new room and intelligently devise a plan, only for it to be thwarted by enemies that are suddenly incredibly durable and aggressive, the difficulty adjustment is why. You have to put aside your frustration and accept that the game is trying to make sure you stay on the edge of your seat, even if it means being unfair. In a genre about making smart decisions, these foggy parameters cripple the experience.
Since arguments about difficulty can easily be dismissed with a “get good” and it seems like such a minor issue get worked up about, I feel the need to finally show my badge. I beat Resident Evil 2 six times, including a hardcore S+ run with each character, where the enemies are stronger, you can only save 3 times, and have to beat it in two hours. The reason I enjoyed doing all that is the same reason why I said you should know about difficulty adjustment before starting the game. Once the cryptic mechanics are demystified, the game can be enjoyed as the most cinematic action game ever created. There isn’t a Devil May Cry level of depth, but the reactivity from each enemy in such a nuanced environment leads to an incredibly satisfying gameplay system to master. That’s why I recommend it under the caveat that you give it your full attention over multiple playthroughs. After all, if I stopped after my first run, this review would have ended after the first paragraph.
Touhou Luna Nights
Well, that Resident Evil 2 review sure got long huh. Let’s make the followup review short and sweet, because that’s a perfect description of the game itself. It’s a four hour long love letter to the Touhou series, presented as a sidescrolling search action game. That’s standard indie-game fare, but with a suite of fun time-manipulation powers and beautiful presentation, it’s elevated into a joyous experience. A lot of that joy will be derived from your appreciation for the franchise, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say everyone should pick this game up, but for Touhou fans it’s a no-brainer.
Touhou 16: Hidden Star in Four Seasons
This one will be even shorter. This is another Touhou game with all the standard Touhou stuff. Fun! If you want to check out the series, you can find the games on MoriyaShrine.org, but a few of the latest ones (including 16) are available on Steam. English patches can be found pretty easily, and older games have pre-patched versions ready to go. My personal favorite is the tenth game, Mountain of Faith. The one I started with and consider to have the most manageable difficulty for beginners is the seventh game, Perfect Cherry Blossom.
For a lot of these reviews, I expect that people have a general idea of what the game I’m talking about is like. Nothing too complex, just what the game looks like and the genre it falls into. Here, I have no such luxury: Umihara Kawase is a platformer for the SNES centered around your ability to use an elastic fishing hook to navigate levels and defeat fish. The amount of nuance this hook requires is absolutely insane. Applying pendulum physics with a standard rope would already be tricky, but the movement and complexity created by its elasticity makes for a game that seems unassuming at first, but will quickly push you to the limit. Luckily, the way you progress through the game is designed with that difficulty in mind. There are about 50 stages, but you only need to beat about 10 to finish the game. Most have multiple exits, so you can plan your route through the game based on the specific skills each one expects from you. You also start with ten lives, which will get blown through extremely quickly in your first couple hours, but feels generous once you get the hang of it. It can be frustrating at first, but it’s a great game to keep installed and visit when you have a few free minutes.
While the term “action game” is well-defined for 3D games, it’s more nebulous for sidescrollers. There isn’t a landmark title that fills the role of Devil May Cry to separate the casual hack-and-slash games from the more demanding action titles. At least, there isn’t one that’s popularly accepted, because Actraiser 2 has enough depth and challenge to fill the role. At the start, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a simple spin on the Castlevania formula with its plodding movement and combat, but the game will beat the shit out of you until begin appreciating the real capability of your moveset. It’s a fantastic example of character growth not being tied to a progression system, but through smartly designed challenges that prompt discovery of unobvious mechanics. To put it simply, there’s a reason the player character is called “The Master”. The hero of the story will be the person who pays attention and learns; everyone else will be destroyed.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
There are three well known facts about Link’s Awakening: it started out as a port of A Link to the Past, it has a lot of references to other Nintendo games, and it’s pretty good. This information can be interpreted two ways. In a direct interpretation, it’s a quirky spin on the Zelda franchise built on A Link to the Past’s framework. For the cynically minded, it’s a cut-down expansion pack with some additional referential humor. Surprisingly enough, even a Zelda skeptic like myself has to admit it’s the former. Even with the limitations of Gameboy hardware, Link’s Awakening has a personality of its own while retaining the quality of its Super Nintendo cousin. That said, it’s easy to see why this game was next on the list for a remake. Having so few buttons to work with means that pausing for item switching is required constantly, and there are a couple pacing issues with the backtracking between dungeons that could be smoothed out. I haven’t played the remake, so I can’t comment on how well it addressed those problems, but I can say that they’re not big enough problems to scare you off from enjoying a classic.
Metal Gear: Ghost Babel
While there may be three well known facts about Link’s Awakening, the only thing people hear about Ghost Babel is that it’s weirdly good for a Game Boy adaptation of such a cinematic series. While Metal Gear did start out in 2D, this game came out two years after Metal Gear Solid, so it had to find a way to join the old style of gameplay with the new cinematic presentation. Ghost Babel is somewhat successful in this regard, with a narrative that lives up to the series’ standard while maintaining adding to the stealth mechanics with some unique gadgets. However, even with fun tools, the stealth isn’t robust enough to support the level of backtracking the game relies on in the second half. The 3D games transition to action setpieces towards the end for this very reason, but the limitations of the Game Boy meant the potential for impressive cinematography was limited. While it makes for a remarkable achievement for the console, it’s probably not going to wow anyone other than series fans.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
If Skyrim had an alternate title, a natural choice would be “Dragonborn”. The narrative surrounds the return of the destined hero, who follows in the footsteps of a mythical figure at the center of a religious conflict. Oblivion’s alternate title would be similar, with something like “Hero of Kvatch”. The quests focus less on the destiny of the hero and more on their heroic role in a variety of events. What I consider to be beautiful about Morrowind is that there isn’t a title that works nearly as well. Morrowind’s story is actually about Morrowind. Progressing through the main story slowly unravels the history of the land, the values of its people, and the goals of the organizations they created. I don’t want to give any spoilers past that, because I consider it to be the gold standard of story presentation in an open-world RPG. The only caveat is how dated every other element feels. The movement is incredibly slow, which makes the sparse map features feel even more spread out. Even in the later games the combat is lackluster, so the primitive implementation here feels especially stiff. It took me three or four tries to get past how dated some of the elements of this game are, but I’m glad I was eventually able to push through. If you’ve bounced off this game in the past, I recommend doing yourself a favor and trying again, even if that means installing a couple mods to smooth things out. Get the interface and movespeed just how you like it so you can appreciate a classic.
Donkey Kong Country
Mario games are the strongest influence on the platforming genre today, but it represents just one of many styles that have developed over time. Sonic games are the first alternate approach most would think of, but cinematic platformers were the clear inspiration for Donkey Kong Country. Another World is considered a founder of the subgenre, being one of the first games to show that platformers could actually present an atmospheric experience. Donkey Kong utilizes some key sensibilities of the genre, prioritizing natural environments over readable ones, moody tracks over catchy loops, and limiting the amount non-diegetic elements on screen. One final similarity is in the difficulty, but this is where the strength of cinematic platforming turns into a traditional platforming weakness. In cinematic platformers, the difficulty is usually meant to enforce a deliberate pacing. You’re meant to feel like your life is actually on the line, and that you should carefully consider each move before making it. Donkey Kong’s implementation of that difficulty however sticks with Mario tradition, testing how well you can learn new level gimmicks. Just as you’re getting immersed in the atmosphere, brutally difficult level gimmicks break the flow and leave you wishing that the environments were more clearly defined. This means you can either interpret the game either as a traditional platformer that’s beautifully atmospheric, or as a cinematic platformer with bad pacing. With atmosphere being something I’m personally drawn to in games, I leaned towards the latter. The high difficulty of the later parts of the game let down what I felt were its best qualities, even though it still makes for an all-around decent game.
Devil May Cry 5
Reviewing the fifth game in a series is of questionable usefulness. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably followed the game’s release to some degree, and if you’re not, the fifth entry is rarely the best point to jump in. While that sounds like a cop-out to not write anything helpful at all, I would still like to take the time to say that this game is sick as hell. I’ve beaten it five times and completed the 101 level challenge mode twice, and I keep it installed so I can jump back into it whenever I want. It’s a worthy entry in what is arguably the most celebrated action franchise of all time, bringing the best bits of each entry together into one explosive package. That should be enough to convince the Devil May Cry fans, so if you’re one of them, you can stop here. For everyone else…
Like I said above, the fifth entry is rarely the best place to enter a series, and this is no exception. There is some disagreement about that among fans, with some saying that the gameplay is such a focus that people should have no qualms skipping the story, but I disagree. While the story is simple, it was designed to satisfy the fans who have been patient enough to follow the series over its 18-year lifespan. Missing out on all that context will remove a lot of the charm from the game, and if you enjoy the combat alone, you probably would have enjoyed the previous entries as well. So, if the series interests you, pick up the HD collection on your platform of choice. The first game may feel a little old, but it’s polished enough to reward your patience. If you really can’t get past its age, Devil May Cry 3 is an improvement in every way, and is also a prequel, so you won’t feel lost. If both disappoint, you at least got to try out a legendary series for cheaper than diving straight into this game would be. If you end up loving them, you’ll be in a perfect place to appreciate everything 5 has to offer.
If you were given a minute to write down every video game genre you could think of, there’s one I bet you would miss: the arcade port. It doesn’t even seem like a genre, as it doesn’t explicitly describe the gameplay, but arcade ports were big business in the early days of console gaming. Paying full price for something that can be beaten in an hour seems pretty bad to modern sensibilities, but when considering how arcade games were meant to be addictive and endlessly replayable, choosing an arcade port for one of the few games you could buy each year was a solid choice. This is the heritage of Wild Guns, a game that replicated the replayability and pace of arcade games in an entirely original title for consoles. It’s a straightforward shooting gallery, but the fun presentation is what makes me so quick to recommend it to people. It’s a beautiful pixel-art presentation of a cybernetic Old West, creating a level of energetic absurdity reminiscent of the Metal Slug series. The gameplay also has some nuance, with a system where you can shoot enemies’ bullets out of the air to charge up your special meter, granting you an Old West vulcan cannon when filled. To facilitate this system, you can always see where enemy shots are going to land, so the game feels entirely fair even when the challenge starts escalating. In this way, it’s a perfect merging of console and arcade difficulty sensibilities. Wild Guns is quick and addictive like an arcade game, without the need for token-taking difficulty spikes, making it sit comfortably near the top of my favorite SNES games of all time.
Airport business. This is a simulator about airport business on the SNES.
I feel like I should just end the review there, but I need to say that this game actually delighted me. Being a simulator on such limited hardware meant the game couldn’t be too complicated, and the limited control scheme meant that it had to be accessible. Strategy games today often require lots of time investment to understand, and Youtube research is recommended, so this game was refreshing in how simple it was to pick up and how satisfying it was to learn on my own. Naturally, these limitations have the double-edge of not providing enough depth to satisfy for more than a couple playthroughs. If you’re into the simulation genre, it could be fun to check this out and see the nascent stages of a genre that’s grown so much. If you’re not, maybe it shouldn’t be this game specifically, but I recommend trying out a simulation game. I felt a real sense of accomplishment with growing my business, a type of strategic satisfaction that puzzle games and war games never quite provided. Expand your horizons!
You can’t talk about The Witness without talking about John Blow, and you can’t talk about Killer 7 without talking about Suda 51. Well-known today as that quirky Japanese auteur developer, Killer 7 was the breakout game that established his unique style. His games commonly emphasize the visual spectacle of violence, otherworldly aesthetics, and incomprehensible plots about assassins. Describing the gameplay of Killer 7 will convey even more weirdness: it’s a nonlinear first person rail-shooter with seven playable characters. While the environments look like they would fit in a standard first person shooter, your character only moves forward and backward along a track, shooting enemies that get in your way as you find the collectibles needed for progression. It’s an odd system, but one that streamlines an experience that’s more about narrative atmosphere than gameplay. In fact, it’s streamlined to a fault. Your map shows every relevant location, where all the collectibles are located, and which character is needed in each location to surpass obstacles. The only real agency you have is in the shooting, which is kept fairly basic. The other giant caveat that I’ve alluded to is that the game is about the focus on narrative atmosphere rather than a coherent plot. This is a game for people who appreciate stories where you can form your own opinion or create your own closure, interpreting the emotions of scenes rather than a strict telling of events. I’m finding it hard to describe the appeal here, which is the best summary of why people should give it a try. It’s not so solidly designed that I would say I generally recommend it, and I think even the people who would be interested might bounce off of it, but it’s just so intriguing that you should try it anyway. You never know when you’ll win the niche-appeal lottery and find your new favorite thing.
Resident Evil 7
It’s common for Resident Evil fans to discuss the series as if it’s two different series put together. Since the first three games form a survival horror trilogy, and the next three are almost entirely action oriented, mentally separating them has helped organize discussion and view the games by their own merits. With Resident Evil 7, a new trilogy may be beginning, with a more contemporary first-person style that references our current horror media. This means that it’s a great way for series newcomers to check out the franchise, but there have been a couple drawbacks with this style compared to the others. Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4 were each revolutionary enough to launch an entire genre, and bring a new type of horror experience to the world. Resident Evil 7 doesn’t have that ambition, and is content to build off the standard set by Outlast and Amnesia. It’s a well executed game overall, but there isn’t a moment that will take you by surprise with something totally original. However, seeing as this game is a response to the criticism that Resident Evil 6 was so action-packed that it lost the soul of the series, maybe a convservative approach is just what was needed to reorient the direction of the franchise. If Resident Evil 8 does something more interesting, I’ll look back on 7 fondly, but until then I’m left thinking it’s competent but ultimately bland.
Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
Hoo boy. I love bad games because I get to drop any attempt at writing a good review.
So I really love the Zero Escape series. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is in my top 10, and its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward was also pretty enjoyable. The great characters and interesting atmosphere got me enthusiastic for visual novels in general, and they’ve served as a constant source of creative inspiration. Then, this game comes along. It’s not even like it’s a straight-up horrible game, you still have some interesting decisions to make and a couple nice bits of drama, but it’s... all wrong. The best I can do is to have you picture what it would be like if your favorite video game series got shelved for years, then had a chance with one last game to wrap up the franchise for good. The developers then decided that with such a low budget, it would be best to make it a porn parody of the rest of the series. Everyone could have some laughs, some characters could bang, and the plot could be wrapped up all at once in a way that didn’t set fan expectations too high. That’s pretty much exactly what this game feels like. Old characters are brought back in an ultra-flanderized form, the animations are laughably bad, the story is full of holes, and the amount of nonsensical melodrama makes it feel like a critique of the worst parts of the previous entries. There were multiple points where I just sat there, laughing in total shock of what the hell I was looking at. I laughed enough that I could almost recommend the game to fans of the series for that alone, but I can’t in good conscious tell anyone that they would enjoy this game.
Resident Evil 6
This is the infamous entry in the Resident Evil franchise where it threw off all pretense of being survival horror, and it took a strong critical beating for doing so. However, being a fan of the classic entries in the series, that feeling of betrayal was already pointed at Resident Evil 4. This means that I could play Resident Evil 6 without the bitterness, and enjoy it as a pure action title. On that level, I have to say it’s actually pretty successful. The shooting may seem extremely standard at first, but the melee system is an underappreciated aspect that elevates the entire game. Similar to how you could kneecap enemies in Resident Evil 4 to allow for kicks and suplexes, Resident Evil 6 lets you stun enemies and perform instant kills after you set them up with the right damage type. Appropriately enough, there are six categories of context sensitive attacks: headshot, attack from behind, coup-de-grace, mini stun, downed enemy, and counter. Headshots or sliding shots cause a mini stun, stacking two mini-stun types leads to a full stun, full stuns can be followed up on with a melee attack for high damage or set up with another stun for a super stun which has its own properties… the list of moves goes on and on. Digging into this system and developing my own style was gratifying, and ability to pull off the crazy moves that are typically only found in cutscenes was some fantastic visual spectacle. However, even as someone willing to defend this commonly panned game, I have to admit the faults. There’s a key-hunting section that appears in every campaign that is an absolute chore, and Chris’ campaign as a whole feels extremely phoned-in. The goofy B-movie plot and wrestlemania chain kills also have limited appeal, and probably won’t carry you through the 20 hours of gameplay unless you’re a big fan of the series, so even action fans shouldn’t take my praise as a strong recommendation. If you can find it for relatively cheap and can set your expectations aside, you’ll at least get your money’s worth. Just do yourself a favor and start on Leon’s campaign.
God Hand’s critical reception has become a notable moment in gaming history. IGN famously gave it a three out of ten, citing bland environments, repetitive enemies, and dumb humor as reasons why this was one of the worst action games ever produced. The game was so poorly received that it lead to the shuttering of Clover Studio, home to some of the most legendary talent in the industry like Hideki Kamiya and Shinji Mikami. Fans of action games still burn at the unfairness of it all, and will gladly take any opportunity to explain why God Hand is actually one of the coolest games ever.
I’m not an action game fan though, so I have to concede to both sides. I think that for a large amount of people, God Hand will legitimately be a three out of ten game. The environments are just as bland as IGN said, and the enemies are just as repetitive. The camera can be extremely annoying, and you’ll die repeatedly from times where it just wouldn’t move fast enough to show you what’s going on. The extreme difficulty can also be a massive turn-off, but this is a point that leads straight into my next thought, which is that this game kicks ass.
The important thing to realize about God Hand is that the intended experience is getting your ass kicked. In most games, death means you failed, but that's not the case in God Hand. This game has a dynamic difficulty system that’s put right in front of your face, and you can watch the meter ratchet up as you land attacks or dodge enemies. At the first level, you can beat up enemies easily and feel like a typical action game hero, but the fourth level is called Level Die for a reason. Enemies will block your combos and throw you off balance, with two hits being enough to send you back to the checkpoint. This enforces a pace where the game is always pushing you one step beyond your current limit, with death serving as a difficulty recalibration. The clarity of the system mitigates frustration, and it can be used to judge how effective your combo strategy is. The build-your-own-combo system seems like it would have a few setups that are objectively better than the rest, but this isn't the case. When checking out streams and let’s-plays, I was shocked at how differently everyone had set up their move list, a testament to how the system is perfectly balanced for anyone's unique style. Making changes and exploring the full potential of each move was incredibly satisfying when I could tell that the changes let me stay on Level Die longer than ever, even when it still meant I would die in under a minute. The frustration with repetitive death is mitigated with cathartic moments like unlocking special God Hand attacks, or in the beautifully absurd cutscenes which release some of the built up tension. I wish I could share some examples of some humorous or rad moments, but considering how rewarded I felt when beating a level and seeing more insanity unfold, I wouldn’t want to give any of it away. I implore that you try out this game, as it’s in my top 5 best games of the year, and there’s nothing out there like it. Play at least through the first boss, and if you aren’t charmed, then I’ll be satisfied that you gave it a good try. That’s what me and the designers have in common: we both want you to beat God Hand, and won’t let you quit until you've shown that you're truly doing your best.
Baldur’s Gate 2
What’s striking about Baldur’s Gate 2 is just how modern of an RPG it feels like, even when it’s over twenty years old. The narrative focus isn’t so much on the main plot, but in the ways the diverse cast of characters interact and are affected by their adventure. Doing side quests is encouraged with how many companion interactions are included, letting players approach the game at their own pace and build a relationship with the party. However, there’s a pretty big catch to all this, in that the game’s appeal is so centered on the party dynamic that if you don’t like your companions there’s no reason to keep playing. The presentation of the main plot is confusingly bad, with your party essentially serving as mercenaries who serve plot-relevant characters without having any motivation or agency of your own. The gameplay is nothing special, just the most basic isometric RPG stuff without anything exciting to plan around. If you’re the type of RPG player who loves chatting up companions in New Vegas or Mass Effect, you’ll be able to see why this game inspired two decades of RPG’s, but if you expect interesting gameplay or narrative payoff, this one is better left on the shelf.
Resident Evil 0
The Resident Evil series was in trouble around the time of this game’s release. While the first three installments had been massive successes, the subsequent games weren’t so lucky. Resident Evil 3 was followed up by Resident Evil Survivor, a terrible light-gun game which wasn’t actually compatible with a light gun in the American release. Code Veronica was well-received, but didn’t sell well given that it was a Dreamcast exclusive at the time. Resident Evil Gaiden was awful, another light gun game came out to minimal fanfare, and the Gamecube Remake was similar to Code Veronica in its positive reception and low sales. Clearly, something had to be done to rejuvenate the franchise and address the critiques that had stuck to the franchise since the first installment. Firstly, item boxes had to go. Critics always hated the backtracking to put away items, so this game allows you to drop items and manage inventory on the fly. Basic zombies are less common now that people had started getting tired of them. Your carry capacity has also been doubled, as a result of this game’s flashy hook of controlling two characters at once. The first of the two is Rebecca Chambers, a combat medic who will be familiar to those who have played the first game. Her focus is on healing and puzzle solving, when her new partner Billy Coen is more experienced with combat. He has more health and deals more damage, but can’t mix chemicals or herbs, so swapping characters and intelligently splitting supplies is key. Controlling both at the same time is emblematic of how the game’s goal seems to be to combine the survival horror and action oriented tones of the franchise, retaining a Resident Evil identity while streamlining it in key ways.
That was the theory, in any case. Resident Evil 0 is a perfect example of how you can design something that sounds brilliant on paper, but it won’t succeed without understanding the reality of player psychology. Having an inventory system where you can just pick up and drop items to maintain flow sounds great, but would players actually leave stuff behind scattered across the map? Most wouldn’t, and would instead deposit non-critical items in a centralized location for later. Would players split up the team to cover more ground? Probably not, you can still only control one character at a time, and leaving a character alone leaves them open for attack. Billy is also so much stronger than Rebecca that you’ll want to use him for all the combat encounters you can. To encapsulate both these issues at once, it’s commonly recommended to just throw Rebecca’s gun in the trash because she’s weak and you’ll be coming across so many items to ferry from place to place that having an extra slot can save you a lot of time. The measures meant to streamline the experience ended up making it clunkier and slower, and the rest of the game definitely wasn’t good enough to make up for it. The enemies which took the place of zombies are frustrating to deal with, and all the locations after the intro are rehashes of areas seen in previous games. You couldn’t even go into this looking for an interesting story, seeing as it’s a prequel set immediately prior to the events of the first game. Each time the game tried to add a twist, it just made the game less satisfying. It’s a shame that this was the last classic-style Resident Evil, because it’s not a high note to go out on. It’s best to imagine that Resident Evil 0 came out before the remake of the first game, so it can be enjoyed as an interesting but flawed iteration that set up the true swan song of the genre.
If you had a dream for an entirely original game concept, how much would you be willing to compromise your vision for more sales? If it was possible to quantify such a thing, imagine that making it more appealing to the mainstream by 5% would also increase reception and sales by 5%. Would you stick to your guns and create a completely uncompromised game, even if it meant a Metacritic score of 50? Maybe making it just a little easier or a little more direct would be enough, just so you get to the 70 range and get a trickle of word-of-mouth sales. It wouldn’t be a best-seller, but if someone was interested enough to buy it, they would be likely to finish the game with a positive experience.
Rain World decided not to compromise even 1%. This game wants to make a statement about nature, and saw the tiniest bit of compromise to make it fair or predictable as antithetical to the message. For starters, you play as a lonely Slugcat, a defenseless rodent trying to locate the rest of its kind in a journey across an industrial zone overtaken by nature. While predators can snap you up in one bite and machines can crush you effortlessly, all you’re able to do is pick up stuff, throw items, climb, and eat. Your journey is a progression from water lock to water lock, hiding each night from a torrential flood of rain which also kills you instantly. To not starve in the middle of the night, you need to have at least four stocks of food, and surviving a night increases your progression meter by one. Filling this meter to a certain level is required to open the doors between the major areas, but dying means the loss of two levels. This means that to progress to a new area, you have to scour for food sources on a time limit while avoiding unpredictable instant-kill predators and any mistake means you have to repeat the process at least two more times. Once you get to a new area, there isn’t always an immediate water lock, so you have to quickly explore and avoid the new predators after spending most of your time just entering the area in the first place. While those are just the basics, it gives a taste of just how brutal the survival in this game is. I quit the game three times before pushing myself to finish it, and even then I wasn’t exactly having fun.
The reason I'm belaboring the point of just how little fun I had in this uncompromising murderscape is twofold: firstly, to let you know what you’re getting into if you do decide to buy it, which you just might when you hear that secondly, all the pain was worth it. It all paid off. The slow reveal of the game’s themes was absolutely magical. The ending was a perfect mesh of story and gameplay satisfaction, where I felt like I accomplished something and really learned something. It’s the most satisfied I’ve ever felt when completing a game in my entire life. It’s probably going to end up in my top ten games of all time. If all this sounds intriguing to you, and you think you can handle the pain, I’ll be cheering for you every step of the way. Stay dry, Slugcat.
A lot of games claim to be inspired by Deus Ex, but it’s hard to tell what that actually implies. The most common elements would be an open approach between action and stealth, character upgrades focusing on opening up new routes, and a plot with room for player choice. While Deus Ex has all these things, they only capture the surface level of what is so impressive about the game. What stands out is the level of reactivity to the player that’s much more than just chastising players who kill too much. It’s actually just the opposite, to give one example. Taking out a terrorist cell with lethal force will have some people within your organization respect you more, but others will quietly voice their distaste. Characters will react to the path you took, the weapons you used, or if you did something really bizarre. A lot of choices aren’t presented in a binary way, and choosing to thoroughly assess your options can even affect the outcome in its own rite. It’s extremely impressive how elegantly the game reacts to all the ways players could interact with it, so getting invested in it and being perceptive actually pays off. Antiquated presentation makes the buy-in for that experience relatively high, but it’s worth the personal investment even after so many games have tried to serve as the definitive successor.
Note: Just like with STALKER, learning to appreciate an old game shouldn’t mean you have to appreciate a barely functional game. I highly recommend Kentie’s launcher, which lets it work perfectly on modern systems. No gameplay or art assets are modified.
The common consensus of this game is that it’s two unrelated halves welded together. There’s the block-pushing puzzle half, and the romance anime half. While I agree that it’s weird how separate each element is, I found it to be an interesting sort of pacing. The gameplay is a hectic puzzler where you have to think on your feet, rearranging a wall of blocks to get to the top as each layer below slowly collapses and prods you to keep moving. It hits a sweet spot where you have to be decisive but calm, with simple mechanics that require you think multiple steps ahead. The low-key romance anime interludes were a nice cooldown period, and you can choose to spend however much time you want chatting people up until you’re ready to take on the next level. The problem is that it’s easy for one of these two parts to disappoint, given that neither are good enough to stand on their own. If you become annoyed by one half and interested only in the other, the amount of interruption will be frustrating. The weaker half was definitely the story for me, with a lot of moments I found pretty questionable, only staying afloat with some good dialog and interesting bizarre moments. The gameplay on the other hand more easily held my interest, with loads of room for creativity once I got a grip on the various techniques, even if the creative potential is at the expense of depth. If there’s a running theme here, it’s that Catherine is a game with a lot of components that barely work, but work nonetheless. It’s a good pick-it-up-on-sale candidate if the sound of this odd construction intrigues you.
I downloaded this visual novel because it’s about depression and social isolation, which are two things that I deal with, so I thought it would be interesting to hear someone else's experience. But, it ended up being 15 minutes long and not particularly fulfilling, so I'm just putting it on here for completeness. I’ll take this as an opportunity to thank anybody who's reading this, because that means all this work that I'm putting into this has purpose. It's good to know that people care about what I do, and I appreciate you for it.
Final Fantasy VII
When a reviewer gives a negative opinion of a well-received game, you'll commonly see comments that the author is just biased against the genre. While bias is always a factor, I don't think that's particularly relevant criticism of an inherently subjective style of writing. Reviews reflect a single person's personal experience of the game, and shouldn’t be taken as anything more than that. Each review contributes to the larger understanding of the game, which should be used as the guiding point for consumers more than any singular piece. That's why it's important for people of different backgrounds to contribute to the forum and represent a game’s entire potential audience. In short, a reviewer should simply be honest about their biases and not pull punches about their true feelings. In the spirit of this, I would like to say that I am very biased against JRPG's, but I would also like to say that I absolutely loved Final Fantasy 7. I was dreading playing it for the longest time, because it's not a genre I'm interested in, and because I already knew about The Big Spoiler. I figured that without the impact of the biggest emotional moment, it would just be a slog with standard RPG combat and nothing to keep me motivated. However, not only was the combat way better than I was expecting, the story had more twists and turns that completely caught me off guard. I'm almost thankful for The Big Spoiler because it shielded the other reveals from being talked about, ones that I think are much more satisfying and interesting. While I want to dissect what made it so enjoyable, it’s probably better for me to temper the positive vibes, because it's received enough of that over the years. I don’t have any unique perspective to share, and it’s so widely beloved that you should check it out regardless of the specifics.
It's always worth celebrating innovation, but making something derivative can have its own benefits. Being able to analyze existing ideas and refine them can help push a genre forward and give fans an experience they can easily understand and enjoy. Katana Zero amazes me because it is entirely derivative, yet completely unpolished. It's as if the developers set out to copy games that they haven’t actually played. You have the brisk ultra violent action from Hotline Miami without the quick restarting that prevented it from getting frustrating. You have a system that asks for quick and elegant clears like in Ninja Gaiden, but the level design doesn't support at all. You have a slo-mo gauge that should require intelligent usage like Devil Trigger in Devil May Cry, but it simply regenerates on a timer. This creates a system where you feel like you should be competing levels in a cinematically violent flow, but you keep tripping over hurdles that kill momentum. The game even plainly displays this fact to you with its post-level replays that are in real-time. Almost all of them will include multiple moments you had to sit around for a few seconds waiting for your gauge to recharge, or time you had to spend doing some awkward platforming. Not only is there a total lack of momentum in the moment to moment gameplay, there’s none in the chapter to chapter progress. The amount of talky interludes is absolutely insane, and it doesn't lead to any narrative payoff. The story ends on a sequel bait cliffhanger, which is a pretty bold move for an indie studio. Ending the story before I can get interesting means I don’t care how it's going to end, accomplishing the exact opposite of what was intended. I don't recommend this game at all, you should just play one of the games it borrowed from.
Speaking of derivative games, this game sets out the copy Metroid. You might be thinking, “Of course it does, it's an indie game”, but this one is copying Metroid rather than Super Metroid. Naturally, this means the power ups are bog standard for the genre, with the usual sort of missile upgrade and power upgrades, nothing that will take you by surprise if you've played literally any other game in the genre. It’s like they came up with the concept of a cat in a robot suit being the protagonist and counted on it being funny enough to carry the entire game, because nothing else is interesting enough to be the selling point. It’s cute, but not cute enough to keep you fixated for more than two hours. If you have a couple bucks to spend and want a Metroid-inspired game, you could do worse, but I don't see why you wouldn't just pick up Hollow Knight to do a lot better.
E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy
This is possibly the king of obscure games. That's not because it’s the most obscure game ever made, but because its completely bizarre presentation encapsulates what’s great about niche games. To oversimplify it, it’s essentially a total conversion mod of Half Life 2 that's mixed with Warhammer 40K fan fiction. Being built off of Half Life 2 can make it feel cheap, but leveraging the Source engine’s physics to emphasize the power of your character was a smart decision. The player character slowly becomes more and more hilariously overpowered with each new cyber-ability, eventually being able to jump over buildings and sprint as fast as a car, so having weight and impact was critical to making progress rewarding. If you can stay interested in the game long enough to unlock those abilities, you’ll definitely have a fun time with it. However, the game is so dark and so narratively confusing that I think most people will drop out of it before it gets the chance to shine. Playing it co-op certainly helps, but this has its own issues with the way mission progress is saved only to the host. Your character progress is saved regardless, but repeatedly losing content is demoralizing. The highs of maxing out your abilities are fairly equally matched with the lows of losing progress and parts that drag. If your desire to play as a godlike space marine is strong enough to withstand even the clunkiest level design, you should give this game a try, because there isn't any other game out there that does it quite as well.
This is a modern adventure game that plays exactly how most modern adventure games seem to play out. That is to say, it's a visual novel where you can pick up items and rub them on each other. Your interest will hinge almost entirely on whether you're interested in the story, which is essentially a Dresden files modern supernatural mystery. If you're OK with adventure games and you like that sort of story, this is the game for you. In fact, this is very much the game for you, considering how much written content this game has. Each mission only allows for two people from your scooby gang of supernatural detectives, so there’s a ton of interactions that can only been seen on subsequent playthroughs. Puzzle solutions are also unique to each character’s abilities, so the developers put a lot of consideration into how genre fans would dig into it. It’s an easy recommendation if you’re that type of person, if not, it’s a safe pass.
Slay the Spire
In my Final Fantasy 7 review, I mentioned how I think any review can be valid as long as the author is honest about their biases. To be consistent, I’ll disclose that I am very biased against roguelikes and there are few I like at all. Slay the Spire was able to dodge a lot of that distaste with the absolute clarity in its mechanics. Even with the RNG inherent in a card-based roguelike, most randomness outside the deck itself has been stripped out. Enemies always display their next move and behave the same across runs, so you can plan for every move of a fight before it even begins. All the encounter types are shown on a map where different paths can be chosen, so it’s easy to account for different possibilities and adjust plans based on what you need. It’s a fair system that lets you enjoy the interesting mechanics with minimal repetition. The only point where the game breaks down is if you decide to go for the ultimate final boss. This boss is so difficult that each character only has one consistent win condition, and if you don't get set up with it, you'll lose pretty much every time. The game normally allows for a variety of playstyles, so it’s disappointing that the final content most players will experience is a tactical bottleneck. Considering you need to go out of your way to encounter that issue though, it’s a pretty easy recommendation even to people who aren’t typically roguelike fans.
When revealing Actraiser 2, I mentioned that there wasn't a definitive 2D action game. Viewtiful Joe seems like it should fill that position, as a 2D action game created by the makers of Devil May Cry. That's not exactly the case though. While Actraiser 2 has a lot of nuance in its controls and loads of different techniques for the player to discover, Viewtiful Joe is more about dodging attacks and punching enemies in slow motion. I previously complained that Katana Zero used a slo-mo meter that should have worked like Devil Trigger, and Viewtiful Joe makes the same mistake. To demonstrate how much the game wants you to use this meter, here’s a list of everything it does:
Damage dealt is doubled
Attack range is slightly increased
Enemies with armor that normally can’t be hurt can now be damaged
Most enemy attacks will automatically be dodged
Combos can be performed
For the game to put so much power behind an automatically regenerating meter means the flow of the action is entirely dictated by how quickly it refills. With combos being locked behind its use, most of the game just feels like a stylish beat-em-up. If that’s all you’re looking for, this game has enough charm to be worth the time, but it’s not what I would recommend if you’re looking for action. Out of all the Capcom and Clove Studio action games, this is probably my least favorite, even if it’s still basically alright.
Also, I would like to note that I’m hesitant to speak about this game at all, given that Matthewmatosis has a video on it coming up, and he’s much better at analyzing action mechanics than I am. I’ll probably look like an idiot for saying what I did. Even so, I stand by it, just be sure to check out his review too.
If you have no idea what this game is, you might want to check it out on YouTube and see how it looks. Even by today’s standards it looks absolutely amazing, and this was an arcade game that came out in 1983. Just for some context, in 1982, Joust and Pole Position were released. In 1984, Marble Madness was released, Atari’s first game to be written in C. Suffice to say, this was the most visually impressive game of all time when it came out. The tradeoff was in how simplistic the actual gameplay is. You’re essentially just watching a movie, with the twist that you need to provide directions to the protagonist as he encounters various hazards. If he’s attacked from the right, you hit the left button and he'll dodge the left, and you just watch until the next encounter occurs. What makes it frustrating is that the timing for inputs can be very tight, and you're not actually shown what button you should hit or when exactly the window is. Considering there’s no life bar and any mistake leads to instant death, it is quite possibly the most token takey game ever made. You wouldn't lose much just by watching someone play this game and avoiding all the trial-and-error trickery this game used to earn more quarters. It’s a fun piece of arcade history, but the best way to experience it is with a no-commentary playthrough on Youtube.
Earth Defense Force 5
If you’ve played an Earth Defense Force game before this, one you will be completely unsurprised with this game. It works the exact same as all the previous mainline entries. For anyone unfamiliar, that means it's still a co-op focused 3rd person shooter where you go against thousands of enemies at a time, taking out giant ants, frogs, and aliens that are all modeled like there were on the PS2. These games look extremely cheap, but the priority for scale makes it feel like an incredibly pure gaming experience. The best way to describe it is that this is what someone in 1985 would imagine games of the future would be like. It wouldn't be a game that's cinematic and emotional, it would be a game with an entire city to run across, thousands of enemies to shoot, and giant explosions. It's a cheap thrill by design, but not many games dedicate themselves to being so unapologetically gamey that it's a refreshing change of pace. It may not stick in your mind for very long, but you'll still enjoy it the whole way through.
After Final Fantasy 7 warmed me up to the JRPG genre, I decided to try my luck again and finish Chrono Trigger. It seems I had been too harsh in my initial assessment of the genre, because I ended up liking this game a lot as well. While it would be easy to point to the combat system or the plot as the reason why, it’s the less obvious elements like pacing and structure that made the game work so well. While there aren’t explicit chapters, the plot is broken into vignettes set in one of the game’s six time periods. For each time-period shift, the party members in the spotlight usually changes as well, so the story is always progressing on three levels. Firstly, the plot offers a slow progression that pays off occasionally in big moments. Secondly, hopping among time periods steadily provides details about how the world changed over time. Thirdly, the party members are always commenting on the plot, the world, or their own personal situation, providing a constant source of narrative progression. Even the sidequests use this three-part design on a smaller scale, so there’s never a point where the expectation is to run through some padded content to get your team some more levels. Nothing goes to waste, leading to a perfect pacing most RPG’s struggle to establish. It’s a great example of a holistically designed game that’s greater than the sum of its parts, so if you can give Chrono Trigger time to impress you, it almost certainly will.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
The mansion is a sacred setting for survival horror games. Mixing the familiarity of the home with the possibility of lurking danger is a proven method for creating a setting that’s relatable, yet mysterious. This would seem like a perfect fit for a Lovecraftian horror game, with the mansion representing the game’s universe as a whole. Things may seem normal on the surface, but the search for understanding will lead to some horrible discoveries. That's not what this game does though. After the intro, most of the time spent in the mansion is within a singular room that’s used as a chapter select. From there, each chapter is a flashback to a different time and place, so there’s barely any reason to get invested in the situation of the character you most identify with. These flashbacks provide a little intrigue by presenting the plot through different characters’ perspectives, but it's not an effective way to convey horror. Since there's a reset button after every chapter, you never have to worry about the consequences of any of your actions. As a result, the horror is limited entirely to the subject matter of the narrative rather than its presentation. Nothing demonstrates is better by the fact that you can regenerate your health at the cost of some magic points, which you can only regain by… walking. The game has a sanity system that warps reality around you, but there are also spells to regenerate it for free, so the effects that were so well thought out will almost never occur. The gameplay ends up being about walking around, listening to people talk, and occasionally doing some subpar melee combat. Without a big redeeming quality, this game belongs on the ever-growing stack of Lovecraft-inspired games that failed to live up to the source material.
When discussing presentation in games, it can be difficult to pin down what exactly that means. The best way to summarize it is that presentation is the way a game conveys its goals. Effective presentation is when no two elements collide, and nothing was included simply out of obligation or genre standard. Put simply, good presentation isn’t just about looking pretty, it’s about design harmony. Titanfall 2 on the other hand is very pretty to look at, but its presentation is rather confused. There are a couple levels based around gimmicks, a couple based around parkour, and a bunch that are mostly bog standard first person shooting. The goal was variety, but when the unique selling point of the game is the movement abilities and command of a mech, it's odd to focus so much of the game on the least unique aspects. Instead of using the standard stuff as a way to introduce challenge and enhance the cool stuff, the priority is reversed to where the interesting gameplay is used to ferry you between normal shooting galleries. As a multiplayer-focused game, I can't exactly blame it for representing the mechanics in the way they would be used in multiplayer, but as a result a lot of potential goes unrealized. It's an overall enjoyable campaign, but the high points sting when they hint at how much better the game could have been.
Describing what a movie is about is pretty easy. Most of the time it’s just a direct depiction of a story, so summarizing the plot is good enough. Things are a little different for games, because the gameplay and the story can be emphasized in varying degrees. For example, Tomb Raider seems to be about preventing powerful artifacts from falling into the wrong hands, when it's actually about jumping. As overly simple as that seems, its focus on the mechanics of jumping makes for the most compelling movement I've ever seen in a game. Modern games have jumping and climbing as an ancillary part of combat and exploration, but in Tomb Raider it’s the gameplay in itself. Even jumping straight up requires decision making, because grabbing onto things isn’t handled automatically. Forward jumps require you to actually build momentum with a run, and trying to jump before you’ve taken enough steps will lead to you sprinting off a cliff. While mostly used for combat, side jumps have their own niche uses, and so on. Every motion needs to be carefully considered against your list of options, because choosing poorly will make you lose part of your very scarce health supply. A system of limited save points also means that screwing up and falling into spikes can be extremely punishing, and you get used to taking every step seriously. It’s a nuanced and tense system for platforming that has gone woefully underutilized by the games of today. This is another case where I could describe all the little interactions and things you can do to improve your gameplay, but taking away the discovery would take away part of what makes this game so cool. In the latest Tomb Raider games, there’s nothing like this to discover. You'll automatically grab and stick to walls by moving the control stick and that's pretty much all that’s ever required. The sense of danger isn’t from the mechanics, but from the movie magic and visual spectacle. Even though the original doesn’t have those technological advantages, the sense of presence and personal involvement is so much greater than the modern interpretations of the genre. It accomplishes so much with so little that it's become one of my favorite games of all time.
Half Life is just like Tomb Raider in how it made me disappointed in the evolution of its genre. The maturity of Half Life’s story might be what most games learned from, but it’s the relentless variety that should have been the real source of inspiration. A science facility is such fertile ground for seamlessly joining a variety of gameplay themes, with each chapter in a different part of the facility that has its own suite of challenges. Industrial facilities justify a slow-paced exploration where the facility is your enemy, offices allow for a tense atmosphere when aliens could be hiding around any corner, and wide-open zones are used for fast-paced gun battling. Those general categories will also get a unique twist in each iteration, creating variety in a system that was already keeping you on your toes. Even with so many different styles of play, the smart pacing between sections and distinctive environment design keeps the game feeling cohesive. If I played this game with absolutely no historical context, I would think it's one of the better shooter campaigns I’ve played. That is until the very end levels, at least. I won’t spoil exactly what happens if you’re one of the two people who don't know how the game ends, but suffice to say, they went overboard on creating something unique and ended up with a confusing mess. That's just one stain on an otherwise great game though, so it’s just the tiny parenthetical to avoid disappointment during an otherwise fantastic game.
System Shock: Enhanced Edition
If you're going to compile a list of games that haven't aged well, System Shock would be a good first entry. The interface is the most arcane I have ever used in a game, which on top of early 2.5D FPS technology meant that starting this game was like running into a brick wall. I could see it being too much to get over for 90% of people, but if you can commit to it, you’ll be surprised at how good this game still is. The crux of its quality is its infamous villain, SHODAN, and how it beautifully it frames the entire game. With the gameplay being about exploring a space station, having the antagonist be a personification of the station’s malice keeps the narrative feeling present, and all your victories are direct shots against your enemy. Pulling apart the station for resources isn’t just something you do to increase your strength, it cripples SHODAN’s control over the station and turns the tables in your favor. It’s beautiful ludonarrative synchronicity, a quality I feel was lost as subsequent games copied the format. The Bioshock games also have you repairing and reclaiming your environment, but with a plot that’s been disconnected from the setting itself, it can feel like a tedious distraction before the real conflict begins. Playing System Shock will give you so many little revelations like this, and you begin to understand where so many design tropes in successful first-person shooters came from. I recommend at least trying it out, even if I fully expect a lot of people to bounce straight off of it.
System Shock 2
You can tell how much I liked System Shock when I decided to go straight into System Shock 2. It didn't exactly disappoint, but my appreciation was stunted by knowing what it was able to build off. While the setting and villain formed a brilliant combination in the first game, this one falls victim to the disconnected story and gameplay I was referring to in the previous review. About 80% of your time is fixing random things that get in your way, sticking you in a narrative holding pattern until the big moments of development. The gameplay itself has been strengthened enough to hold up the weakened overall structure, but it’s disappointing that this compromise was made at all when the same pieces that made the original great are still here. However, the key word to that criticism is “compromise”, and the two games form a balance of priorities where one isn’t necessarily lesser than the other. With accessibility being one of System Shock 2’s advantages, this game is a much easier recommendation than the first one, even if it has the sting of missed potential. The story can be easily understood even if you skip the first game, but I would still recommend going in order if you can. It may not be required, but with how each game compliments the other, it would certainly give you the richest System Shock experience.
This game is easy to review due to its complete honesty. Its hook is the 1930’s art style, with the gameplay being very basic platform shooting that everyone can understand. If you’re interested enough in the art style to play a middling shoot-em-up, then this game is for you. If you're expecting satisfying gameplay and fair boss fights, this isn’t the place. The game relies heavily on trial and error, with bosses usually having four sets of attack patterns to vastly overpower your ability to survive two hits. Furi was another game that focused on difficult boss battles, but it struck a balance with its difficulty by rewarding players with two lives after every phase, capping at three. This ensured players have at least two chances to learn the patterns before getting kicked back to the start, unlike in Cuphead where you can get immediately destroyed by a new attack you don’t understand. Also unlike Furi, the attack signifiers can be incredibly vague, so chances are good that players will get hit by each attack at least once without any concrete way to have predicted it. The visual design and soundtrack are just barely enough to make this game worth purchasing, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who gets frustrated and disenchanted with it before the end.
Killer is Dead
Mediocre games are usually hard to recommend, but sometimes an unfocused experience can be the most broadly appealing. Killer is Dead doesn’t have particularly deep mechanics for an action game and it doesn’t have an emotionally engaging story, but creator Suda 51’s excessive design sensibilities make it a joy to play. Everything is so cranked up past the point of sanity that you want to keep playing just to see where he’s going with all this. He wanted a protagonist with a cool name, so he went with something so cool that it wrapped around into uncoolness a few times, and landed on “Mondo Zappa”. Cybernetics are cool, so Mondo has a cybernetic arm that’s about the size of his torso. Tarantino-esque violence can look pretty cool, so naturally the gameplay is about using a giant katana with a hilarious amount of blood spray. It’s a beautifully campy presentation, with the unifying idea being simple enjoyment. It would be a great pickup for people looking for the video game equivalent of a comic book, or are interested in an unintimidating entry point to the action genre. It’s also incredibly cheap during Steam sales, which makes the half-baked elements much more palatable. Four bucks and a sense of humor are low requirements for seven hours of fun.
For anyone unfamiliar with this game, which I imagine would be most people, this is a very early NES beat-em-up that has five levels which can each be beaten in about a minute. So, the game itself isn't very interesting, but I found it fascinating to consider what gaming was like when Kung Fu was released. Video game titles were things like “Tennis” or “Baseball” and had the optics of a toy more than our current expectation for interactive movies. You just picked it up and played with it until you got bored or won and moved on to something else. Considering how much is expected of even cheap games nowadays, having to pay full price for something like this would incite a riot. At the most simple level though, it offers toy-like fun, and that should always be worth something. It’s sad that the concept of simple toy games seems to have lost its last shot in the spotlight when the mobile market got dominated by microtransaction riddled garbage.
Ninja Gaiden is one of the most influential platformers on the NES, but the first thing someone should understand before playing it is that it doesn't actually abide by the sensibilities of a platformer. Games like that are typically about balancing speed and caution, with speed allowing you to clear longer gaps and avoid more enemies, and caution letting you anticipate the danger of hazards past your vision range. When playing Mario games, most people just hold the run button down by default, but this balance is the reason why Mario doesn't always move at maximum speed. It demarcates the two priorities you can have one traversing a level, letting you deliberately switch between the modes of reckless efficiency and safety. Ninja Gaiden’s buttons on the other hand are jump and attack, hinting that the two gameplay states aren't between caution in speed, but of speed and aggression. There is absolutely no room for caution here, taking any steps backwards will have enemies immediately respawn and kill you in seconds. How soon enemies respawn when you start backpedaling can make the game feel extremely unfair, but the level design begins to shine once you discover the flow among the hazards. When you need to make it to the boss and are effortlessly slicing through every enemy without pause, it gives you the unique satisfaction only great action games can deliver. I’ll add the parenthetical that there are some parts where I think the difficulty spikes into unfair territory, but for the most part I would say that satisfaction is worth the effort.
Journey to Silius
There is a hardware bug in the NES that prevented developers from using differential pulse-code modulation for their music. If a sample byte is fetched from memory at the same time the game is reading from the controller, a conflict occurs that corrupts the controller data. This meant software workarounds were required, such as Mario 3 repeatedly repolling the controller until two consecutive inputs matched. Sunsoft also went this extra mile, and it let them make some of the best tracks on the console. That music is why I played this game, and it's pretty much the game's only redeeming quality. It's a very basic side scrolling shooter without anything unique other than the fantastic soundtrack. It's particularly frustrating because it's from that era of games with limited continues, meaning that you have nine lives to beat five stages, some with multiple bosses. It's an exercise in frustration, and you're better off experiencing this game by youtubing the soundtrack rather than playing it yourself.
Ninja Gaiden 2
Technologically speaking, it’s hard to argue that Ninja Gaiden 2 is anything but superior to the first game. It looks better and controls much more smoothly, with new level gimmicks and a more fleshed out story to keep the experience fresh. The tradeoff was that with all the fancy new additions, the tight focus on action with momentum was lost. Falling platforms, wind effects, or levels lit only by flashes of lightning is neat to see on the NES, but gimmicks like these should serve to enhance the core gameplay rather than supplant it. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, caution is a very viable strategy, with new power-ups that are strong enough to let you brute force most challenges as long as you can avoid falling into a pit. Again, these power ups are cool and fun to use, but once the novelty wears off, it doesn't give you the same level as the first game. It may have its strengths, but there’s a reason why this isn't known as the Mario 3 of its franchise.
The Legend of Zelda
Breath of the Wild’s attempt to bring Zelda back to its roots revitalized the discourse surrounding the original entry. Since this game was advertised as being a return to the classic ideals, the positive reception has been shared with the old one, and their shared tutorial-free open design has received a ton of praise. The only downside for modern audiences who want to check out the original is that it’s known for being extremely confusing and a game that you can't complete without a guide. Since I was already on an NES kick, I decided to put both of these ideas to the test, and I was surprised at how wrong both of them were. The game is certainly as open as people have been saying, but the caveat is that going outside recommended areas will lead to getting your ass kicked incredibly quickly. The idea that you’re left with no direction in a gigantic open world really isn’t true, it’s just that the direction is given implicitly rather than explicitly. Design like that may be harder to pick up on as a kid, but since I’m a big kid now, I was able to complete this game fairly quickly without using a guide. With this perspective, the genius of Zelda’s world design became a lot easier to appreciate. The way you’re always close to the next bit of progression while still being allowed to figure things out on your own gives the advantage of a linear difficulty pacing while still feeling completely open. In short, the truth about this game lies in between the two conceptions about it, in how it forms the perfect illusion of openness and mystery even when your journey has actually been planned from the start.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
It’s common for turn-based RPG's to be recommended with the qualification that it only gets good tens of hours in. One would think this wouldn’t apply to something as straightforward as a Mario RPG, but I bounced off The Thousand Year Door on my first playthrough for this reason exactly. The first two chapters of it are about as standard as an RPG can be, fighting a dragon in a castle and following it up with exploring a dungeon inside a big tree. You won't be blamed for thinking it's the world’s most generic RPG with Mario on top, but then the third chapter cranks the personality up to eleven. From that point forward, the charm is so strong that it actually got me interested in Mario games in general. It does so many fun things with the Mario universe that it reminded me why the series is so big in the first place. There’s a lot of fun to be had in a lighthearted game with a small but polished set of mechanics, and it’s a smart way to have mass appeal that’s also free from compromise. Some games drop the ball when trying to court audiences with additional features, but Mario is appealing specifically because it lacks those elements. The Thousand Year Door doesn’t even have a basic character attribute system, each party member just has a defense number, a health value, and a special move. That’s all it needed to make everyone feel unique, and no confusing elements were required. Anyone can understand this game and have a good time with it, at least as long as you don’t need a meaty challenge to hold your interest.
The goal for Dino Crisis in development was to make a more fast-paced style of survival horror, which the developers referred to as panic horror. Instead of scrounging bullets to take down shambling zombies, you have a good amount of options to take down dinosaurs who are much faster and stronger than you. Preparation is the key to panic horror; you need to learn how to assemble your inventory and develop backup plans for the inevitable surprise attacks. It’s a fun and fresh take on the genre, but it does feel limited by the Playstation’s limited hardware and Resident Evil development heritage. The mental picture of dinosaurs chasing you as you frantically activate laser grids is one thing, but the reality of stiffly navigating hallways as the dinosaurs get stuck on corners is another. If Dino Crisis lived up to the strength of its premise, I think I would like it even more than Resident Evil, but it never got the refinement its sister series enjoyed in sequels and remakes. I can still give this game a recommendation, but it pains me how much more I feel this series could have been.
Crash Team Racing
Cart racers live and die by how well they stand up to Mario Kart, and this game definitely passes the test. Mario’s carts are floaty and simple to drive so you can focus on track gimmicks and items, but Crash focuses on weightier carts that require skillful driving on a more standard set of courses. For this reason, I don’t think I could declare a winner between Mario Kart 64 and Crash Team Racing, because they both succeed at their own unique style. They’re both just fun games. Go play both if you’ve somehow gone this long without doing so.
With Crash Bandicoot’s style of 3D platforming being set in long hallways, it can be pretty easily compared to 2D platformers, with the best example being Donkey Kong Country. Both were visually groundbreaking games with immersive environments and brutal difficulty, taking players across a variety of zones filled with their own unique challenges. So, just like in my Donkey Kong Country review, I have to point out that the challenge and immersion didn’t mix well. Some levels are absolutely enchanting with their details and visual polish, but as visual styles get reused for increasingly difficult stages, the magic wears off and you're left repeatedly running down a corridor and getting smashed. Being the initial attempt at the concept means it deserves some level of forgiveness, but after the good first impression wears off, you'll definitely wish you were playing one of the later games in the series. It certainly belongs on the list of historically important games to play, but I wouldn't predict that people would fall in love with it today as they did back then.
Spyro the Dragon
The Playstation needed an answer to Mario, and it got one with Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, but as a unit rather than individually. Crash covered the platforming challenges, while Spyro handled the fun open spaces and colorful atmosphere. While completely devoid of challenge, it’s a beautiful game with a lot of quirkiness that gives it a Mario-like charm. However, if you're playing this game for the first time, it's going to be hard to get over just how much this game was geared towards kids. Challenge isn’t even something I highly value in games, but with just how little brain activity this game requires until the last couple stages, it can be painfully dull. If you can succeed in turning your brain off there will be plenty to appreciate, but you're not going to have very much fun in the gameplay itself. Just like Crash, this game belongs on the list of historical games you should check out, but more because of its status as a founder rather than an exemplar of its genre.
Journey is one of the first games labeled as a walking simulator since it came out about a year before Gone Home, where the term exploded in popularity. It was one of the pioneers of games entirely about a visual experience rather than any form of traditional gameplay challenges. This makes it difficult to critique, because the only criteria the game seeks to be judged by is how visually beautiful you find it to be. Surely enough, I found it to be visually spectacular, but those scenes went in one ear and out the other. Not having to think much while playing can be immersive, but that can come at the cost of not imprinting itself deeply in memory. It’s well executed, but shallow. That’s a perfectly acceptable design priority, but it’s hard to generate enthusiasm about.
Having bought this game on the premise alone, I think I should share exactly what I heard: this is a narrative focused game that’s like essentially 2001 A Space Odyssey if you were playing as HAL. It’s a fairly accurate description, when you control the AI that runs a space station as you communicate with the sole survivor of an undefined disaster. Uncovering the mystery through its limited camera system is a novel experience, albeit a slow one with how sluggish the cameras move around. It suits the mood for a game that’s trying to tell a story through its environment and a slow burning sense of suspense, and over time you begin to form a picture of what the station was like before you came online. I was afraid that meant I was in for an understated ending that wouldn't feel satisfying, but the story actually has a conclusion that left me with a positive impression. It's not one of the best video game stories I've ever seen, but if you want some well presented pulp sci-fi, here it is.
Jet Set Radio
If there's one truth about pop culture trends, it's that they don't age well. It takes something incredibly special to actually last, and I was surprised to see that Jet Set Radio somehow pulled it off. Even though it's steeped in the extreme sports and bright colors of the early 2000’s, it remains timeless by including their strengths in a holistic game design. From the basic starting point of knowing players will want to move around quickly on skates, the developers knew that the sense of speed and flow was critical. So, the maps are laid out as a network of corridors which feed into each other. If players can recognize how different paths link, momentum can be transferred gracefully as you navigate to each objective. With the goal being to recognize optimal paths, having small maps that the Dreamcast could handle didn’t feel like a limitation at all, and instead a smart choice to facilitate a smooth skating experience. The bright cel-shaded art style also let the developers squeeze a lot of power out of the hardware, so going fast and spinning the camera around wouldn’t be a problem at all. This neatly works together with how the levels are a series of corridors, meaning that render distance is kept minimal without feeling artificially constrained. With it being so well-engineered, the only gripe I can think of is how the game can feel pretty bad before you get to the starting point of that design, moving at high speed. Getting moving from a dead stop takes a long time, and the imprecise nature of moving on wheels means the smallest mistakes causing you to fall down feels like a repeated slap in the face. For the first hour of gameplay, you may be wondering if I made up everything I’ve said about speed and momentum, but after some practice, the game’s qualities will click into place.
Also, this game was a bitch to get working on PC with a controller. I’ll save you the trouble and just tell you to download x360ce and map your controller with it, then you’re good to go.
Researching games before you buy them is critical if you want to be a smart consumer. On the other hand, it’s also important to know when to stop. It's good to get an honest assessment of a game’s strengths, but picking apart the gameplay mechanics and planning strategy is usually going too far. The only reason I’m saying “usually” instead of “always” is because of a game like Underrail. This is an RPG that’s so demanding that if you don’t do build research and planning before you begin, you’ll almost definitely hit a brick wall and be unable to finish the game. Even with a Google doc that laid out exactly what I needed to do, this game was still pretty difficult, so I can’t imagine what it would be like going in blind. Actually, it’s fairly easy to imagine, given the hundreds and hundreds of complaints I saw during my research from people who made builds that weren’t good enough and had to quit before the end. The isometric, post apocalyptic RPG stylings may have made people think it would be simple like Fallout 2, but this game’s structure is very different. Most of the time your progress entirely relies on combat effectiveness rather than your capacity for clever approaches, and you’re not going to be able to talk your way through things with any reliability. If the idea of forty hours of isometric turn-based combat after a couple hours of build research doesn't immediately scare you off, then you need to seriously consider playing this game. The upside to having a game this complex is that it has a crazy amount of options to play around with once you know what you're doing. The reason why the research is required is so you can have the right skills to surmount a few difficulty walls, not because the whole thing is so punishing that it's impossible to play if you're not optimized. After getting through the first playthrough, you know enough to just make up fun gimmick builds and take the systems to their limit. For anyone that fits within the overlap between RPG fans, difficult game fans, and optimization fans, this is the game for you, but if you don’t fit into at least two of those categories then it’s best to give it a pass.
Baba is You
Describing this game as a simple block pushing puzzle game would be doing it a disservice, even if it’s an accurate thing to say. While you are pushing blocks, and it is a puzzle game, the focus is less on the geometry of blocks and more about what they can represent. To explain what I mean, the title of the game is actually pretty descriptive of what you see in game. The blocks are tiles with words on them, corresponding to the ones in the title. You have subject tiles like “Baba”, verb tiles like “is”, and objects tiles like “you”. An example puzzle would be a wall being in the way between you and the win flag. If nearby tiles said “Wall is stop”, you could move the “stop” tile away from the other two, and walk through the wall which can no longer stop you. While that description makes it sound fairly simple, the amount of possibilities this system allows for a huge problem space. Luckily, the difficulty is presented in a very friendly way, with each completed level opening up multiple options, and getting to the credits only requires about 25% completion. Not only does this help people having trouble with the game, it can also give you an easy out if it still feels too much like a standard block pushing puzzle. While I was one of those people, I have to admit that the cute concept and low price makes it at least worth a look.
Super Mario Bros.
If you’ve never committed to sitting down and beating Super Mario Bros. all the way through, you probably should. It’s not just a cultural touchstone for video games, but for pop culture in general. Consider it a homework assignment from me to you.
Alone in the Dark
When reviewing Eternal Darkness I mentioned how the mansion is a sacred setting for survival horror games, and when discussing Clock Tower I mentioned that horror games started way before Resident Evil. Both of those statements were allusions to Alone in the Dark, arguably the first modern-styled survival horror game. It has all the same key hunting, puzzle solving, and limited supplies, along with a few other inclusions that were way ahead of its time. In particular, it told the story through notes and books around the mansion rather than directly stating, which seems like a trend that only started catching on after Bioshock did it fifteen years later. If you're interested in playing historical games then you'll be delighted by this one, but on the other hand, the technology is so painfully dated that I don't think it'll impress you on any level other than how influential it was. It's a neat game to visit, but not one that can be recommended strictly on its own merits anymore.
There’s more than one way to tell a story. We're used to a style where events are plainly recounted, but visual media allows for a less direct conveyance of information. Aesthetic details can flesh out the world without getting in the way the plot, leveraging the strengths of the medium to quickly draw people in. This is Grim Fandango’s biggest success: its world is entirely unique, and it enriches the narrative without needing wordy exposition. That’s a good quality for the game to have, given how difficult it is to verbally summarize what it’s about. It's an adventure game set in the Aztec land of the dead, with the basic plot hook being that you're a travel agent helping people with their four year journey to eternal rest. Clients are offered travel packages based on their deeds in life, but after one client gets cheated out of a premium package, your adventure begins. It’s a mishmash of mystery, romance, and comedy presented in an exaggerated film-noir style that somehow ties the disparate elements together. It's easy to see how all that would make the world of Grim Fandango incredibly compelling, but there's still another type of storytelling the needs to be addressed. An interesting world can be a great setup for a story, but there still needs to be at least some plot to keep things moving. This is where the game is much weaker, and it fails to have a solid narrative focus throughout. It's split into four chapters, and the first two live up to the setting’s potential, but the beginning of chapter three marks a downturn in quality. To put it in a spoiler-free way, all narrative momentum comes to a screeching halt and a cliche villain takes the spotlight for the rest of the game. It feels like an obligation to see it through rather than a continuation of the quality you were enjoying the first half. Lucasarts puzzles are already notorious for making people bounce off a game, so when they just keep coming and the quality keeps dropping, Grim Fandango leaves a bad last impression. It's still good as a whole, but those frustrations add up to where it can't be recommended to anybody but genre fans, unless they are very patient or ok with using a guide.
Polish is a quality that's hard to quantify, but Outlast is a good example of how a lack of it in key areas can bring down an entire experience. This is a survival horror game where the main resource you manage is the batteries in your night vision camera, so players should be anxious that they’ll run out and be left alone in the dark. However, with the dark sections being so dark that you can’t see at all, you receive an extremely generous supply on top of getting a free refill when you load a checkpoint. Not only does this keep you safe regardless of how poorly you play, even the people who play well can abuse the system by loading immediately after the game says it’s saving. Feelings of vulnerability won't last long when you're constantly reminded that any mistake can be corrected by a loading a checkpoint from a minute ago. You’re also constantly reminded of the controls, with text boxes popping up whenever you encounter something with contextual actions available. Little things like this kill immersion, like how there’s a crosshair in the middle of the screen even though aiming is never required. Some of this stuff can be turned off in the menu, but leaving them enabled by default means that it’ll sublty subtract from the enjoyment until players get fed up and go look for how to turn it off. With so many of these little problems and a few too many cheap jump scares, Outlast feels little more than satisfactory. It wouldn't need much change to be great, it’s plain to see how much better it could have been with a little more thought put into it.
Everyone knows the remake of this game is one of my favorite games of all time, but I had never actually played the original until now. All the enjoyment I got out of this game ended up coming from comparing it to the remake, because this game in itself is not very good. The key hunting gameplay that this game established felt great in the remake since it got you engaging with the atmosphere of the mansion, but the level of detail is so low in this version that the mansion just feels like a normal house. Everything is brightly lit and furniture is sparse, so it’s a trek across endless boxy rooms and encountering a minimal variety of enemies with not much else going on. In essence, it’s the ultimate barebones survival horror experience, with everything except the basic framework removed. I’ve played the other Playstation Resident Evil games and I like them a lot, so this one is falling victim to its own status as an innovator. It doesn’t hold up, but it gave us a lot of good games and spectacular remake, so I should probably let it off the hook.
This is considered the swan song of classic survival horror by virtue of being the last one Capcom developed without over-the-shoulder action. It came out just a few months after Resident Evil 4 redefined the genre for a new decade, so it was an attempt to correct the flaws of the old style so the formulas could coexist. However, as you can probably guess given the lack of sequels or similar games, that plan didn’t work out. It ended up being what is essentially a clone of Clock Tower, where you play as a disempowered teenage girl navigating a mansion and avoiding pursuers as you do standard key item hunting. There are gimmicks on the side like alchemy and bonding with a dog companion, but there’s no avoiding that the game is 90% running from room to room looking for keys. Since the only enemies you regularly encounter are the pursuers, who are dealt with one-at-a-time in their dedicated chapters, it's weird how little horror there is in comparison to the amount of tedium. If being chased was going to be the only meaningful gameplay, it should have been more nuanced than entering contextual hiding places once you’re out of sight. It’s so simple and predictable that the parts meant to be a climax of tension end up being little more than interruptions as you try to reach the next story moment. All this game ended up accomplishing was compiling all the things people were tired of into a single package, and it was eye-opening to see why people had become so disinterested in a genre I love. I have to give the game points for giving me a new sense of understanding for survival horror history, but I would have preferred a good game instead.
When reviewing Outlast, I mentioned how constant checkpoints and unlimited supplies can prevent a feeling of vulnerability that I think is important to horror games. Oddly enough, this is another survival horror game focused around using a camera, and it has the exact same design flaw. In this case, it’s how the save points scattered around the haunted mansion can be used as many times as you like and provide you with an unlimited supply of film for your ghost-exorcizing camera. While moving from room to room should be a tense experience where you’re unsure when ghosts will strike, having a HUD element to tell you when one is nearby so you can ready your infinite ammo weapon eliminates that possibility. The design of the ghosts themselves is spectacular, but this visual aspect is the only place where horror actually manifests itself. Fighting them is also a shallow and repetitive process, pointing at them until your indicator changes color and snapping the picture. The story isn't enough to rescue it either, sitting comfortably among the bog standard plots of the horror genre. There are enough good ideas here to where the potential of the sequels intrigues me, but I can say that this entry doesn’t live up to the series’ reputation.
Just as there are innumerable ways to tell a story, there are innumerable ways to internalize one. As a story is presented to an audience, it gets filtered through each person’s unique perception of the world, and it’s this adjusted view that is then consciously considered. Shakespeare’s plays are the closest thing we have to objectively good stories, but even these can have wildly different meanings to each person. This is where Disco Elysium puts a lot of faith in its audience, expecting people to confront their biases and consider alternatives in a mature way. It’s an isometric RPG where the main murder-mystery plot is almost an afterthought, with the actual purpose of the narrative being discussion of a wide range of philosophical topics, and the roleplaying is how your character sees the world. It's the only RPG I've seen that takes advantage of how a player's choices reflect back on them, and it allows the game to engage the audience on a more personal level. The game assumes that you’re interested in this sort of dialog and can entertain alternatives, playing devil’s advocate to question you for every decision. It accomplishes great things with the RPG format, but the payoff relies almost entirely on that trust in the audience’s willingness for discussion. If you want the game they give you direct plot payoff or conclusive ending, you probably won’t leave fully satisfied. If you want to engage with it as a normal RPG and learn which stats will give you the best outcome, the game won’t give you that either. The only kind of person this game will pay off for is for someone who finds joy in ruminating on different ideas and reflecting on how they shape the world. If you're not that kind of person, the game won't exactly be miserable, but only a small subset of people will grasp the full breadth of its quality. At least for them, this could be one of the best games they've ever played.
I don't consider myself to be a game designer, but let's pretend we're game designers for a minute.
We want to make a survival horror game, with a more literal sense of survival than something like a zombie game. Players will have to survive in the wilderness, hiding from creatures and maintaining their hideout at night with supplies they gathered during the day. Given these constraints, what player behaviors should be incentivized and disincentivized? Personally, I think the virtue of diligence is the critical component. Players should be rewarded for thoroughly scrounging for supplies and making sure enemies don't sneak up on them, and maintaining every potential weak point of their hideout during the night. Players should be punished for any form of carelessness, whether that be in supply expenditure or by being killed.
With this hypothetical discussion in mind, it's fascinating how Darkwood, a game with that exact setup, doesn’t follow those ideas in the slightest. The game’s emotional climax should happen every night as you have to defend your home from monsters, but if the monsters kill you, the only penalty is not getting a small amount of money. You keep all your supplies, and get fast forwarded to the next morning. It can actually be optimal to die every single night if you would use more value setting up your defenses than you would earn by surviving the night. If you die while exploring, there is a penalty of leaving your backpack behind where you died, but only half the items from the pack get left behind, and you can circumvent the penalty altogether by putting items in your quick bar instead. The developers seem to understand this problem, given that higher difficulty modes have a limited amount of lives. Losing them all means losing your save, no continues allowed. The gap between these difficulty settings is ludicrously high, meaning that you'll either have almost no tension or you’ll be manic with tension as you risk losing 10 hours of progress. I applaud anyone with that level of determination, and I bet it makes the game a much better experience if you have the patience for it, but there has to be a better way to raise tension than with a simple lives counter. It disappoints me how such an elegantly simple and darkly imaginative game couldn’t figure out this design problem and ended up with a mediocre game as a result.
The original, not 2016. This is another case like Super Mario Bros. where I think everyone that loves games should beat it. It's so fundamental to games as a medium and still holds up so well that it's just a requirement. One tiny tip though: the final episode in most releases, “Thy Flesh Consumed” was added as a set of challenge levels in Ultimate Doom. Those levels get pretty crazy, so it’s extra credit and not part of the homework.
While Doom let me have fun from the beginning, Quake took some warming up to. Doom starts you off gently with low numbers of shotgunners and imps, who can each be taken down with one shot. By comparison, the basic enemies in Quake can tear you to shreds immediately and require a few seconds of concentrated fire. Trying to play in a slow methodical way will have you getting demolished repeatedly, even when you feel like you're not making any mistakes. Enemies just seem to come from random corners, grenades are bouncing everywhere, and the levels are so complex that it can feel random and overwhelming. The key thing to realize is that while sprinting around enemies in Doom was a careless way to play, it's what you have to do just to survive in Quake. The basic enemies using powerful but slow grenades was meant to inform you that the best way to handle an enemy is to be in constant motion and maintain fire as you pass. Once you get the hang of the combat’s momentum, this game really get amazing. The high speed mixed with enemies that demand careful reaction placed within intricate level design makes for an experience that simultaneously rewards instinctive skill and observational intelligence. As much as it’s become a video game boomer meme to say, I have to admit that Quake really does hold up beautifully.
F. E. A. R.
Dismissing games as just being good for their time can be a contentious idea. If Doom can hold up even as the father of its genre, doesn't that invalidate the idea that subsequent games should be given a pass for being dated? Of course, there is a lot more complexity to the question than that, but it does raise the point that it's difficult to judge games outside of the historical context into which they were released. F.E.A.R. received a lot of praise for its atmosphere and enemy design back in the day, but through today's lens its accomplishments seem much less impressive. The horror elements are certainly an interesting inclusion, but the way they're so disconnected from the rest of the game makes them feel like a random gimmick more than a key element. The enemy AI does make smart moves, but it's plain to see how much of it is scripted. Enemies flipping over a table to take cover seems cool until you notice how they stand behind it for no particular reason until you enter the room. However, just because something's a gimmick doesn't mean it can't be appreciated. Even though movies are obviously fake, it's not something you hear complaints about, because the only important element is that the fictional setting stays internally consistent. In essence, playing F.E.A.R. feels like watching an old horror movie where you can tell how all the effects were done. It can be immersion breaking, but getting hung up on those details just isn't worth the time. The real question is if the shooting mechanics are still just as satisfying as intended and if the horror elements are still interesting enough to draw your interest, and both goals are met. It's not going to be impressing anybody the way it used to, but you can still have a lot of fun with it, and that's more than a lot of games in general can say.
Doom II: Hell on Earth
This game plays like a joke. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just that Doom 2 seems like it was a release of tension after the relatively straight-faced original. There are tons of ambushes, traps, gimmick levels, and funny situations that are scattered about the campaign, instead of the carefully considered structure and pacing that you may have gotten used to. In Doom, each episode required you to start with just a pistol, so the levels could slowly introduce ideas and escalate situations, resetting the stakes when the next episode started up. With one long campaign in Doom 2, it’s just a grab bag of random gimmicks until you reach the final boss. All the new monsters and funny level designs make it more fun than Doom, but not necessarily better overall. The highs are high, but the lows of getting repeatedly killed in unpredictable ambushes are incredibly low. It’s still an easy recommendation, just expect to roll your eyes a few times before the end.
Death Stranding’s gameplay of carrying packages from point A to point B is alright. It gets the job done. Obviously, it’s supposed to be a vehicle for the main theme of the game, expressed on the back of the box as reuniting a shattered world. You’re carrying packages across a series of isolated cities, uniting them under one banner and connected to a single network. I won’t give any plot spoilers here, but given that the game is narrative-focused, I need to comment on whether I think it was able to convey the theme of unity well enough to justify a purchase. As such, I’ll say that this game has absolutely no teeth when it comes to conveying a message. This game wants to be a political commentary on the increasing level of division in America, directly stating that before the game’s titular disaster, Americans wanted to put up walls between groups of people and hated those outside their nation. This mentality became dominant after the Death Stranding event, and this is what you’re working to rectify. However, this ideological conflict isn’t actually presented in-game. When arriving at most cities, the people talk about how much they would love to be connected to the network and how they’re so excited to be part of a greater community. Once you hook them up, they say that you’re a fantastic guy and give you gifts for doing them the favor. The few times you have to prove yourself aren’t even about proving the strength of a unified society, but in picking up an extra shipment for them to show how reliable your delivery service is. There’s no push back, there’s no discussion, it’s not going to convince anyone or open someone’s heart because the height of the game’s thematic conveyance is self congratulation for having the correct opinions. I thought the plot itself could pick up the slack, but its message is almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the game's themes. It’s a decent enough central plot, but it has the same issue as the rest of the narrative in that it has no punch, and the motivations for the antagonists go essentially undefined. Whether it's in gameplay, plot, or dialog, you’re always going to have a sense that there should be something more to tie it all together. Everything is in a state where it’s enjoyable, it’s fine, but there isn’t a moment that will stick in your memory or any ideas that will give you a lot to chew on. If that level of thoughtfulness was the goal of the game, it didn’t succeed, but if the goal was to make a new style of game to get people talking, I have to begrudgingly admit its success. This is normally where people would say the game’s so unique that it deserves some leeway, but if you want a game that’s all about meditatively going from place to place as you consider the themes of the game, play Rain World instead. I feel like that game accomplished everything this game wanted to in a much, much more elegant fashion.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
No one expected Wolfenstein: The New Order to be good, and this game proves that the developers felt the same way. The New Colossus copies TNO almost beat-for-beat, as if they were unsure what exactly they got right or what was safe to change. However, the safe sequel has dangers of its own, and this game managed to run into all the usual pitfalls. Not only is the plot almost the same, the emotional beats meant to grab your interest are nearly identical, so the story is a write-off. The gameplay is just as good as the original, but since it doesn’t exceed it in any capacity, it’s easy to see how The New Colossus is generally accepted as a downgrade. That doesn’t mean the gameplay isn’t fun, and I enjoyed it a lot, but if you’re looking for anything other than satisfying gunplay then you’re in the wrong place. It puts me in a tough spot when it comes to a recommendation, because I got my money’s worth from it and had a blast, but spending any time thinking about its other parts leaves me confused and frustrated. I suppose that boils down to telling shooter fans to pick it up when it’s cheap.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I played the original Tomb Raider this year and was blown away by its focus on smart movement, and even though that hasn’t been a focus in the reboot games, I still enjoyed Tomb Raider 2013 for its cinematic style. It did a good job of reestablishing Lara’s character, providing a nice self-contained story for how she became the capable badass she was in the original games. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider were ever included in the planning process. They’re both stuck in a holding pattern with no set arc or end goal, just being stories about Lara going after one more treasure and becoming slightly more capable than she was at the start. Shadow of the Tomb Raider in particular puts a fine point on this lack of direction, given that the original version of the game had an ending cutscene that directly set up the events of the original Tomb Raider. This was edited with the game’s first patch, opening up the potential for more reboot series games. I wish these games were a full reboot rather than the quasi-rebooted-prequel status they’re stuck in now, so the developers could have enough room to tell some daring stories or do something new with the character. They got trapped by leaning so heavily on its status as an origin story in the advertising, so chances are good that we’re going to be indefinitely stuck in low-stakes prequel games until one flops. This may have already happened thanks to Shadow’s low sales, so I’m starting to despair for how this franchise was born and mismanaged to death twice over.
With games like the original Super Mario Bros. and Doom I’ve kept reviews short; you already know about them and should just play them already. For Chulip, I’m going to do it for the opposite reason. Chances are, you have no idea what this game is about. You probably don’t even know what system it’s for. And that’s why you should find a rom of it (it’s for the PS2, by the way) and play it. Go in completely blind and enjoy. I’ll add the parenthetical that figuring out how to beat the game is quite difficult, so it’s ok to quit the game once you get stuck and it’s not interesting anymore, but until that point I think you’ll have a pretty memorable experience.
Ratchet & Clank
I completely missed the boat when it came to mascot platformers in the early 2000’s. I only owned a Gamecube and I never bought Mario Sunshine, instead spending all my time in 007 Nightfire and Custom Robo. So, I had no Crash, no Banjo, no Spyro, no Mario, no Jak, no Ratchet. My assumption going into Ratchet & Clank was that it gets recommended due to its nostalgia factor, given that it seemed like a fairly standard 3D platformer with an outdated sense of violent edginess. This just proves how idiotic assumptions and first impressions can be, because this game rips. Even with zero nostalgia for the series and genre as a whole, Ratchet & Clank is incredibly charming. The writing is witty and concise, the worn-out mechanical aesthetic feels original even 17 years later, the soundtrack is now one of my favorites, and the weapon selection is surprisingly interesting. It starts out pretty simply, but the difficulty hits a sweet spot halfway through where you start needing to have all your tools at the ready if you don’t want to get beat up ten times in a row. The last boss in particular was a perfect crescendo of difficulty and narrative stakes that I wasn’t expecting a mascot platformer could pull off. Don’t miss out on it, I’m definitely going to slowly work my way through the sequels until I get tired of it.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy
I followed up one mascot platformer with another, and this one was also a big surprise to me. I knew this game was developed by Naughty Dog, a team who has become famous for their story-focused games, so I was expecting this to be the narrative practice that turned the Crash Bandicoot team into the people who would make The Last of Us. As it turns out, the grim atmosphere and violence I was picturing when I thought of Jak and Daxter started with the second game, and this one is exclusively a lighthearted fantasy platformer. It shocked me just how simple this game is, following the most basic template of 3D platforming. Your goal is to collect power cells, which are scattered around the world or earned by completing simple objectives. You need to get a certain amount before progressing to the next set of levels, where you’re presented with a new number to get, and your search starts over again. If this sounds like Mario 64, it’s because that’s what it is in all ways except the name. You don’t collect power stars, you collect power cells. You don’t collect 100 coins for a star, you collect 90 orbs for a cell. You don’t collect 8 red coins, you collect 7 scout flies. You don’t need 70 power macguffins to beat the game, you need 72. The quest hubs are also the default set (grassland/desert/ocean/jungle/ice/fire/boss) with only a couple exceptions. This all sounds pretty dismissive, so I want to emphasize that Jak and Daxter isn’t a bad 3D platformer, it’s simply an unambitious one. If you played this game without the context of Naughty Dog’s legacy and how the series went on to greater ambitions, you would probably dismiss it as a run of the mill attempt to capitalize on the genre’s popularity. Having no load times between zones may have been enough to differentiate it back in 2001, but there isn’t enough to make it stand out today.
Mega Man 11
Making a game that’s simultaneously difficult and accessible is a difficult task. There should be a safety net for struggling players, but it should be unappealing enough to where it doesn’t become the dominant strategy. A good example of this is in Ratchet & Clank with its RYNO superweapon. It costs a whopping 150,000 bolts, compared to your standard weapons which require about 10,000. It takes so long to farm up the cash that players will fill out their standard arsenal and give it their best try before resorting to such tactics. Mega Man 11 on the other hand makes circumventing the difficulty incredibly easy. You can buy an E-Tank which completely refills your health for 80 bolts, dropped by enemies in increments of 100. You can also buy lives, weapon recharge tanks, rescues for when you fall into a death pit, a helper character who brings you whatever item you need, or a powerup that reduces the damage you take by half, along with various upgrades like reducing how much you slip on icy floors. The hardest part of the game will be your first stage, before you get enough bolts to stock your supplies. After that, it’s entirely possible to brute force your way through the game and miss out on its finer qualities. The stage design in this game is fantastic, and the amount of unique challenges and screen gimmicks really blew me away, but there isn’t much point in patiently mastering them when you can essentially give yourself infinite health. What’s a shame is that this problem was already solved in the games before Mega Man 7, where getting lives and E-Tanks required repeating a stage. Just like getting a RYNO, it was viable, but a pain in the ass. If you wanted to regulate difficulty by playing in this classic way, you’re not even allowed to, given that these special pickups are now limited to one per save file. You’re stuck in a position where you want to use some E-Tanks because they were always a part of Mega Man games, but you don’t want to use a lot of them because it cheats the difficulty. I couldn’t even presume to suggest how exactly you should limit yourself, given how everyone’s experience with platformers is different. I guess the only thing I can say is that along with my recommendation to play this game, I give a recommendation to challenge yourself a little bit.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
This series is described as "stealth platforming", and I definitely should have considered that term more carefully before starting the game. I imagined Sly Cooper as a lighthearted take on the stealth genre, when it's more of a stealth-themed take on the platforming genre. The first level only reinforced my misunderstanding, introducing the basics of movement while breaking into a police hq to steal some documents. When the game subsequently began the standard 3D platformer cycle of hub worlds, missions, and bosses, it became disappointing how the majority of the stealth flavor was used up in the first thirty minutes. The platforming is solid and there's a good variety of challenges, but it's hard to avoid reflecting on your disappointment as you do the usual coin and trinket collection. While this all sounds pretty bleak, Sly Cooper is actually a good platformer, it's just a shame how its very first level gave me a mental picture of a game I would have adored rather than liked.