2018 was tumultuous, a real year of ups and downs; of brilliant new ideas and horrible bad takes, technical feats and environmental disasters. We moved mountains and still went back a few paces. We can make a robot dog open doors but we can’t stop a record breaking disastrous wildfire because we didn’t sweep enough. If 2018 had a slogan, I think it would be, “I’m very tired.” And as the world continues to confuse us, video games again stay consistent. They are the home we can always go back to, they rock that keeps us steady, and we know it’ll all be OK, until climate change or something finally takes us out, which we probably deserve.
Modern takes on platforming continue to impress me. Not that I need a compelling story to enjoy a quality platformer, but it doesn’t hurt. What a surprise The Messenger was to me this year.
You get to be a kick ass ninja, but why you are there, you don’t know. Oh wait, you do. You’re meant to deliver a message. But what’s in the message? You don’t know. Tackling wild monsters and dancing across platforms you push to deliver the sacred words. And while you do that, you get to upgrade your little dude to have a longer lasting life and deal additional damage. At this stage, it’s a standard quality platformer that’s totally enjoyable and Cloudstepping is an absolute delight. Oh, but you sweet, stupid ninja. There’s so much more to this game.
The twist halfway through absolutely delighted me to say the least. Witty, original writing really sold me on this unique journey through space and time, and I enjoyed the new mechanic as I replayed old favorite levels. The 8-bit graphics and music evolving to 16-bit graphics and music with more bass really is as cool as it sounds. I found myself moving through time just to hear the beat.
There are times I must admit that I got a bit tired of the same old places, and yearned for a faster travel system to get me to a very specific place I needed to be. Still, new characters throughout my journey kept me pushing through to the very end, where I was delighted with a satisfying conclusion for all my hard work. You’re goddamn right I got every last green medallion, no more secrets, Messenger!
When the world is intense and I need a break, I can always turn to Okami to calm myself. Like immersing yourself in a watercolor painting, Okami’s visuals and audio transport you to Japanese folklore with comfort and ease. The towns you go to feel active and alive, even for a game originally released well over a decade ago. Characters go about their tasks of fishing, making sake and selling their various wares. Some need assistance, some want to be left alone, but going through every town feels vibrant with the townspeople in it.
There’s no denying the close comparison of Okami with The Legend of Zelda, which is something I welcome. Having a similar style of acquiring a new skill, going through an area to learn how to use it, then facing a large boss that requires knowledge of the new skill is something I’m familiar with. But doing these tasks in a totally new world as Amaterasu feels fresh and new, and drawing with the Celestial Brush is an enjoyable take on learning God-like skills.
Amaterasu is a character I can get behind. She’s quiet, powerful, and a guy speaks over her the whole time. We’ve all been there. Her power is within herself, and comes out when it’s needed the most. She stays calm under stressful circumstances, looks to help those in need, and brushes off interactions with total jerk face buffoons. Also, she kicks major ass, especially with the right main and sub weapons attached. She’s expected to kill things so easily she’s rated on how fast she can do it without taking any damage. She’s who I wish I could be on my best day.
Okami is like playing a dream, running around is cathartic and peaceful. The music is calming and the visuals soothing. Wanna be more at peace? There’s animals that need to be fed, no joke. You just run around, and feed cats and deer. Now that's therapy. This game reminds me to chillllll. Sure, yeah, there’s like an eight-headed snake or something and the town is covered in death fog, but girl, you gotta make time for you.
I’m the defender of this city and it’s my duty to protect it, unless I have to make a decision between 2 areas and I can’t be in both places at once… look, I’m doing my best.
Into the Breach is a poster child for brilliant game design. They took a clean concept of grid based strategy and balanced the absolute crap out of it. You have the ability to never take a hit on your buildings, you really do. If you look close enough and play well, you can never take a hit. That’s a fact someone told me while I was deciding between 2 buildings that were going to be destroyed. I could have done more, supposedly. But from my first playthrough to my latest I have without a doubt learned how to be more cunning in my attempts to save this poor city. I know to take damage on my robots instead, to push the wretched aliens into environmental damage, to account for the order in which we take our turns. I’m getting there.
I keep coming back to Into The Breach because I know what I’m getting. I know each new game I have the ability to save everyone if I look hard enough, if I think about all my options and their consequences. It’s intimidating, but I have lots of time to think about it all. It’s a perfect game for a quiet Sunday night at home. I have 10 projects going on at work and I need to wrap that birthday present and call my parents, but right now, I just need to figure out how to stop that building from getting hit with a missile, when I’m covered in alien webbing. It’s a pickle, but I just need to think it all through.
I have a Vive… but everyone was talking about these PSVR packs that come with two games, so I went over to a friend's house to see what all the fuss was about. Over my time with GameSpot, there have been many times people have said this is the game that will change VR, and they were so very wrong! I played several titles on the PSVR that changed my perception of the way VR will be received in the new year. The visuals of Tetris Effect are incredible calm me better than any meditation session ever could. Beat Saber pulls me into a trance and gets me moving. But nothing reached me to the degree that Astro Bot did.
This is a quality, polished adventure filled with cute robots that do the Carlton and wave when they run past you. You find them hidden throughout the world, under rocks, and hanging from trees. Finding them is an absolute delight, as is the chameleon that comes with bonus levels if you find him. The developers went all out in their level creation as well. They could have made the whole first world "underground", but no, the first world had five distinct biomes that are all filled with incredible detail, and with enchanting music to match. These elements are the building blocks of the game, and they work so well. However, the reason it’s on this list is for its ingenuity.
Think Mario Sunshine, but in VR. Astro Bot changed my perception of VR forever. I’ve had audible "ohhhhhhhs" learning the new techniques for water and hooks within my digital controller. And a particular level with a wave mechanic left me in absolute awe. I’ve just never seen anything like it. The absolute delight of seeing something brand new, a massive creature in the depths of a wide blue ocean is something you have to experience to believe, and something I’ll never forget.
Celeste is practically a seven-step anxiety awareness interactive experience. Here is my current system for experiencing environmental based stress:
1. Neutral - You’re doing OK.
2. Foreboding - You know stress is coming, peace never lasts for long.
3. Impact - You have too many things going on and you cannot maintain current status.
4. Self Dread - You are not capable of the things put in front of you, failure seems imminent.
5. Nihilism - Why. Why do you try.
6. Light - Perhaps you can survive, although maybe not.
7. Meek survival - You have escaped utter failure, it was the least you could do.
And the cycle continues.
Celeste tricks you when you first play. Starting you off with simple mechanics like wall grab and air dash, you quickly get a feel for the controls and settle in to a simple, clean, platformer. The main character is set on a journey and faces an internal struggle: self doubt. Her internal monologue manifests into a dark version of herself that picks at her innermost insecurities. It's a struggle people can easily empathize with, and here’s where the game reaches you.
The real trick Celeste pulls off is getting the player to feel the main character's struggle through game mechanics and world building. Celeste is struggling with internal demons and a deep anxiety toward the world and her current self. This is conveyed through the player delicately maneuvering Celeste through a dangerous world that only gets more difficult when Celeste doubts herself. This dark, seemingly never ending tension puts the player in a position where they feel their struggle is in vain, that at the end of one hurdle will be a never ending line of yet more hurdles. In this case, Celeste feels that her mountain is her quest, but as far as she climbs, she can never achieve the peak of the summit. Moments of rest are quickly shattered into more intense platforming that allude toward the struggle always remaining until our inevitable death. Tough stuff.
The music sets a perfect tone from the moment you begin; slightly positive with an air of tension (kinda like step 1). This game has just begun, it can’t be that easy. Switching to Celeste’s dark side results in more dramatic music that that matches the stress of the situation. Not only do you have to platform, but now you have to escape evil. Life isn’t fair. Finishing any level eases the stress for a few moments. They’re lovely and you want to stay there forever, like a safety room in Resident Evil. But you must press on.
Celeste isn’t just a tremendous platformer with incredible music and well-written dialogue, it’s an embodiment of internal tension wrestling with external elements we can’t control. Everything from the mechanics, art direction, audio, and story are an expression of anxiety and overcoming self doubt. When you progress in Celeste, you can tell yourself you’re doing the best you can do. And that’s really comforting in times of turmoil. Just... do your best. And the world goes on.