Thank the gods for games, eh! Entertaining distractions from strife and woes. Despite all the hardships, I think I've managed to play all of the heavy-hitters my hardware can handle this past year, and some lesser-known gems. And if you want to know what those are, check out my rundown after the jump...
This past year saw a lot more good games than bad, though many of them I couldn't play even if I wanted to. The chip shortage exacerbated by those bastard bitcoin miners means I'll have to live with my aging graphics card for some time yet (Forza 5, I barely knew ye) while it's still near impossible to find a PlayStation 5 of XBox Series X console, even if they are only really worth it for a couple of games. At this rate it looks like I'll get to play Returnal and the new Ratchet game when they themselves are considered retro.
The other big consumer complaint from this industry is the pricing (I won't pile on the depressing crap by metioning company contoversies - you probably know all of it anyway). They seem to be getting away with gouging money left, right and centre and suckers like me keep buying them. In all honesty, I'd rather that than have hidden immersion-breaking micro-transactions all over the place, but my wallet is feeling mightily sore at the moment nevertheless.
On a lighter note, It Takes Two unexpectedly won Game of the Year. I was expecting Deathloop, but hoping for what is my favourite game of the year (read on for that), but its win really piqued my interest. Couldn't play it, though. The only friend willing to try it - HeroOfAvalon - is a loyal Xbox player (yes, one of those) and the lack of cross play made it unplayable for us. And I aint gonna brave the 'rona just for couch co-op on his couch.
If you'll indulge me in one final micro-rant; why is Deathloop such a critical darling? I understand it being a popular game - even a good one - but perfect? I know I'm not much of an FPS guy, but some of those 10/10 marks seem super sus to me. I don't have a PlayStation 5 and my current rig couldn't handle it smoothly but from what little I played, it seems like a competently entertaining shooter that's a little on the generic side - especially when compared to Arkane's own Dishonored series. I reckon Bethesda who published the game have been throwing its weight at certain publications. An 8-out-of-10. 9 at best. It's a conspiracy I tells ya!
All joking aside, I can in all honesty say I have not played a bad game this year. Even that demo of Balan Wonderworld gave me some enjoyment in its cutscenes (I'm not stupid enough to buy it though). I even platinummed a few of them which I never usually care to do. So, before I spoil it, let's get on with my oh-so personal Top 10 games of 2021...
If you want to buy any for yourself, click on the images to head on over the their store page.
Thanks to Skyward Sword HD, those issues are gone, and I have now completed it! Yay! I also introduced it to my young nieces and nephews over the summer and it became a regular thing. There were screams of joy as a seven-year-old managed to escape ghosts to gather the last dewdrop in a section, or the look on his face when he realised he could shoot an arrow through an opening to flip a switch.
Despite their seeming lack of care for old properties, Nintendo and The Legend of Zelda in particular is pure gold.
Speaking of Zelda, Death's Door was the best Zelda-like I played this year. It is full of the best kind of quirky, with humourously designed and presented characters populating a wistful land rife with puzzles and path finding.
You are a crow taking the place of the Grim Reaper as he wanders the afterlife claiming souls. In a way, the atmosphere reminded me a little of The Last Campfire with its cute and cuddly characters on a meaningfully melancholic migration. The action and puzzles are perfectly alligned here, separated into dungeons of a sort that each have their own branching paths and hidden secrets to find.
While certainly animated well, the colourless aesthetic and camera angle that's a little too zoomed out for my liking put me off, making me think it was more of an action game that populates the Steam store pages. I'm thankful I came across some good reviews that put my uninformed first impressions in their place. I've loved every minute I've spent with this gem.
Last year, Ghosts of Tsushima would have certainly crept quite high on my best-of list had I played it back then. This year, the Director's Cut came out, allowing me to correct my mistake.
This absolutely gorgeous game is a love letter to Japanese Samurai cinema, in particular the movies of Akira Kurosawa. The camera lingers on certain shots at certain moment drumming up excitement for the battle to come, or inner peace as you gawp at the landscape while meditating. Couple that with a compelling story and interesting, complex characters and it's quite the achievement.
The action itself is a little repetitive, and story beats do feel similar after a while particularly if you wish to complete all of the side missions, but it's a minor niggle really. As the son of a fearsome samurai warrior, you free a peaceful town from invading Mongols, then do the same again to a different town. The randomly appearing bandits that show up to make horse-riding across the map a little more compelling get samey after a while too, as if the secret-filled landscape itself isn't enough. That's the only gripe I have with it, and the only reason why it's this low on the list is that Ghosts of Tsushima is in all honesty a 2020 game.
If you've not yet played Inscryption, boy am I jealous of you. I'd give anything to play this absolute gem with fresh eyes not knowing what to expect. I won't spoil what happens here, but even so I recommend you stop reading right now and go play it. To completion. It won't take long. Maybe.
For a deck-building game, Inscryption really doesn't take long to complete, but guaranteed you will be playing it for months at a time. The core card game is really addictive to the point that I want a physical version of it. You have animal cards in your hand - some of which will talk to you, giving you the ins and outs of the game - and they are played Magic the Gathering style on a board where they battle the deck of your mysterious opponent. Prey are freely played, but are often next to useless. Think of these as MtG's Land or Pokemon's Energy. These are placed to the more powerful predators can eat them and enter the fray. Then, once all of the cards you can place are in place, it's attack time before the other guy has his turn, his yellow eyes peering through the darkness, his bony hands reaching across the game board - the only body part that enters the light.
The stakes are high for if he wins, you die. You have to start from scratch every time, but there's something about the game that keeps me coming back countless times. I loved it so much, I didn't want to leave the table. I loved it so much, I didn't realise you could! And if you do, the real game begins...
Supermassive Games annual horror games are an event for me. This year even moreso. I waited until Halloween night to play this one, hiding from any possible spoilers on YouTube or social media. At first, I was a little apprehensive going in. What little I did know about House of Ashes was that it was set during the Iraq war. Not being much of fan of war games (that goes for real life too), I was worried it would become too much of a focus, taking away from the horror.
In actuality, it supported the supernatural scares perfectly. In every subsequent Dark Picture, the writers and developers get more ambitious with the characters and storytelling. They are more complex, daring you care for unlikeable people who may ultimately do the most heroic things. High School Musical's Ashley Tisdale gets her most grown up role here proving she is more than capable to do so in the process. She's playing the unlikeable lead, whose attitude towards other characters will literally infuriate you. But she also gets the greatest character arch as well as the most nerve-wrenching scene. More fool you if you manage to kill her early on. I know I was tempted.
Man of Medan made you think about self-centered party-going revellers by putting their actions in your hands. Little Hope told of trauma and mental health, showing how helpless a mental break can feel by literally taking agency away from the lead characters and onto someone else; the player. House of Ashes is ultimately about the responsibility of actions in times of war, putting you in the shoes of both Iraqi and American soldiers. By having you make the choices, it elevates these stories to a level that cannot be told in any other medium. They're also bloody scary too. Great fun!
How can an indie title look this? The graphics, animation, art design... Everything looks beautiful! Any other publisher stumbing on an indie that looks like this would've charges triple-A prices (see Biomutant, which was less successful in every way), but Ember Lab's self-published debut game was quite reasonable. It helps that the company were already established as an up-and-coming animation studio. They were responsible for that awesome Majora's Mask animation from a few years back (Nintendo, get on that!). My only gripe was that it took a while to get the physical release.
In a way, Kena is another Grim Reaper. She is the Spirit Guardian of the forest whose human residents suffered a great tragedy. Their houses are abandoned, slowly being taken over by nature. The ghosts of some of those who once lived there are unable to find peace, some even going so far as to poison the forest with their rage. These characters reside in different areas of the forest and act as the driving force for each level. Over time, you will be able to piece together the cause of their unrest and guide them to the afterlife. Naturally, this requires hitting them with your stick.
If you pay attention, there are many ways in which Ember Lab cut the costs while keeping the quality. For starters, the game takes place entirely in the forest. This means assets can be re-used without much notice. Each level takes place here, with the odd mountain or lake to break things up, but even so they all stand apart from one another. They are very well designed and incredibly entertaining to explore. Your magical staff is also your only weapon. It can be upgraded with a multitude of offensive and defensive abilities, but there's no change in its visual design.
Add some incredible talent, and that is how you get an Indie game to look like a triple-A title, proving that all that bloat found in an Assassin's Creed or Elder Scrolls isn't entirely necessary.
Wadjet Eye continue to publish excellent adventures, and this psychological horror from Primordia developers Wormwood Studios seems to be absolutely made for me and my macabre sensibilities. It's a classic point-and-click adventure with perfectly drawn pixel art. It's artistically accomplished, with landscapes and locations so inspired by H.R.Giger, you'll be forgiven in thinking they might have come directly from the man himself. It's an allegorical tale filled with meaning and many interpretations. It has everything in it that really sparks my imagination.
The story is at once mysterious and somewhat simple. You awake in a strange land with a twisted carnival theme dressed in an opened straight jacket. You witness a girl fall down a well, and you become fixated in saving her. From the pun-loving giant head entrance to cthe circus, you'll be immediately drumming up theories as to what this place is and why you're there. Why is there a well in a circus tent? Why is a blind old man scribbling away on a park bench like a homeless version of Jack Torrent? Who is that man berrating you on the other side of the pay phone? Will it all comes together at the end? That's my only real complaint about Strangeland: it ends. At least there are many of them.
Some may baulk at the over-reliance of allegory over storytelling, but if you like other metaphorical adventures such as Sanitarium or Dark Seed, that criticism becomes more of a feature. It will leave you thinking about it days after completion.
Wadjet Eye puts out the best modern interpretations of the classic adventure game, whether they developed it themselves or just published it. From Unavowed to the Blackwell series, Geminie Rue to the aforementioned Primordia, every one is a must play. Strangeland can now be added to that list.
The king of the Metroidvania is back! The long-rumoured Metroid Dread finally got released this past October and showed all the wannabes how to make an accessable and entertaining explorative platformer. Metroid was the first to do something like this, with the Castlevania series changing its playstyle to mimic it much, much later, so I often bemoan the 'vania' aspect of the sub-genre's name. It diminishes the influence that Metroid had and has, but maybe that's just me being grumpy.
The game itself is a classic. It is easy to pick up, quick to get you invested and a mission to actually complete. Some of the more recent and revered copycats like Hollow Knight feel the need to spike the difficulty early, before you have a real grasp of what your character can do. It's learning the game through trial and error. Metoid teaches the game through subtle nods in the right direction; a tantalisingly placed blockade or a pulsating substance hidden withing walls. It edges yo towards difficult moments without constantly killing you.
Then there's the E.M.M.I.s, indestructable robots that prowl certain areas, giving chase whenever it sees you. Before playing, I thought this mechanic would become annoying. Metroid is supposed to be a trial-and-error sort of game that requires you to search each location thoroughly and I do get annoyed when the Mr X's or Apocalipses contantly interrupt in the Resident Evil series. It's not the same here. These E.M.M.I.s are limited to a certain section and should be seen as more of a puzzle than an antagonist. Play on, and you'll eventually be given the means to destroy them for good, opening up those sections for firther inspection.
Metroid's gameplay is timeless, and little has changed in this new installment. Graphics are better and controls are smoother and more intuitive, but this syle of game is just timeless. I wonder when Castlevania will do the same.
Speaking of unkillable hunters, Resident Evil is full of them. I must admit, Mr X from from the second installment and Apocalypse from the third get really annoying after a while, but the many stalkers in Village don't. The 8th game in the series is more episodic than any previous entry, with the deformed children of a local witch named Mother Miranda residing over different sections. One of them, the giant vampiress Lady Dimitrescu, became a meme but she is only present in a small fraction of the game.
It is more pulpy than previous entries, bordering on silly at times, but it never forgets the scares either. House Beneviento holds some of the most creepy, frightening and frankly weird moments in all of gaming history, elevated by the fact that it plays completely differently to any other section.
Villiage was one of the few game I went back to after completion to get that 100%. Some of those trophies were a little annoying and time consuming, but it meant I could stay in this world goddammit! Bring on the next chapter!
Out of any othe game designer, Tim Schafer has probably shaped me more than any other. From his joke-writing work on Monkey Island - which sits atop all others and one my favourite games of all time - to his lead roles in Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, no one else in the gaming sphere has made such an impact on me. His work at his own studio, Double Fine, has also been spectacular. There is so much invention going on in every one of their final products that it must be an amazing place to work. And looking at the documentaries they put out, I'm sure it must be.
The first Psychonauts is one of the best platformers to ever grace a console, and the 15-year wait to see a follow up was more than worth it. Every level, every art asset, every mechanic drive the central theme of mental health, psychology and parapsychology.
It takes place mere days after the first game and is set at the Psychonauts headquarters called the Mother Lobe. Raz is now an intern, but the other agents are worried about the seeming return of Maligula, an evil woman who once caused a deluge in the kingdom of Grulovia, killing many in the process. This event also lead to the founders of the Psychonauts called the Psychic Six to be thwarted. Our boy Raz has to find them and solve their mental issues by jumping into their brain.
Each brain you visit is a vibrant representation of its owner, and whatever mental block is holding them back. One is a throwback to 60s psychedelia, another is a hospital that Raz accidentally corrupted into a casino, another is the most convoluted of mail rooms. What they each have in common is that they are spectacular to play through, and I have done multiple times to claim that elusive 100% platinum. I recommend everyone aim for this goal, which is high praise indeed. Now, if only there were a physical copy...
Call of the Sea is an first person adventure with enough puzzles and intrigue to make it not just another walking sim. It's set on a previously unexplored island with ruined temples of an ancient culture where the love of your life has gone missing during an expedition. The location is spectacular at times, with a bright art style you wouldn't expect from such a game. Fantastic.
From Hello Games and the creative minds of Lost Winds, The Last Campfire is a morose and marvellous puzzle adventure. You play as a little creatrure called an Ember. One gets separated from his party on the way to a ceremony of some kind so has to travel the lands to make his own way there. This means freeing the souls of wayward Embers who have become forlorn which is done through a series of logic puzzles. It plays out like a series of small Zelda dungeons set within a Nordic fairy tale narrated beautifully by Scandinavian actress Rachel August. It weaves a wonderful, hopeful tale behind all of that depressive melancholy. A little short and on the easy side, but entirely memorable.
Boy, am I glad I took the plunge. The action is a bit too clunky, with your fingers fiddling over the controller in an effort to give orders to Groot and co when there's a battallion of rampaging foes in front of you. Everything else about it is so damn charming. The story is excellent, the graphics stunning (despite the odd glitch on my PS4 before the day-one patch downloaded) but above all, the script keeps me coming back. There are so many little lines of dialogue here and there that not only makes sense with what you're currently doing, but very rarely repeats. If you skipped this game because of all the negativity towards other Marvel licenced games or Square-Enix's spotty output of late, don't. It was so close to coming in my top 10.
The sacred engine has been destroyed and you have to travel around the fish planets to find the pieces and fix it. Some of the puzzles are really fun even if they are on the easy side, but the quirky characters and locations you visit in this storybook land make it incredibly enjoyable.
Until I saw if featured on The Completionists worst games of the year, I didn't think there would be any naysayers after playing this time loop adventure gem with some very adult themes. It deals with some challenging issues that may be unusual to indie games, but are certainly more common among movies (and in some subjects, other bigger budgeted games) without much fuss. Annapura Interactive's ethos has more in common with A24 than Nintendo anyway.
I won't give away the ending or any plot twists, but needless to say if an 18-rated indie drama is likely to trigger you, then this will too. I found the places it goes down shocking and gripping, with multiple endings to keep you on your toes. It deserves gamers with a more artistic mindset to appeciate, but appreciate it I did.
Stay tuned next week for my Top 10 Movies of the past year!