Hi my last blog took me too long so let’s get this done with. I’ve got like two dubious FPS blogs I need to write after this. Order is pretty loose for most of these.
Honorable Mentions: Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, Quake, Brigador, Battletech, Total War Three Kingdoms
These are some games I played this 2021 that I couldn’t fit on this list. I recommend them.
10. Grandia II
So hey, I’m going to be obnoxious about this, but I’m on a podcast now. Off the Deep End is a podcast featuring me, ZombiePie, and JeffRud in which we cover RPGs in-depth. What this has meant in practice over the last year is a trinity of quality JRPG playthroughs and some very, very bad (one might even say… dubious) nonsense. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is very dull! Tecmo Secret of the Stars is a pillar of incompetence! Drakkhen is… a work of art? Yes. You should listen to us! I have three episodes worth of stuff to say about this video game! That’s all I’ll self-promote on this write-up. Please subscribe to my Twitch.
Anyway, Grandia II is a JRPG we played for said podcast with less-than-immaculate pacing and difficulty, but a really, really solid combat system and some fun enough characters and story. I’d say it’s a pillar of the “Big Dreamcast Energy” aesthetic, always trying to punch far, far above its weight. Did I mention that like, half the cast of Metal Gear Solid does the english dub for this thing? The combat system, which is all about timing attacks to stuff enemy actions, is genuinely fantastic… and also profoundly easy. If you’re interested in playing the recent HD remaster, I very much recommend you play this thing on hard, otherwise you’re going to spend almost every random encounter spamming the same handful of AOE spells.
9. Tales of Berseria
In my continued exploration of Namco-Bandai’s eternal comfort food JRPG franchise, I’ve discovered there are approximately three criteria for any given Tales of game: A. How good is the LIMB system? B. Are the characters good anime or bad anime? C. How are the RPG maintenance management mechanics? For better or worse, the games know what they are and the biggest difference between them usually comes down to increments, rather than radical gameplay shifts. Tales of Zestiria (at least based on my brief foray for The Wheel of Dubious RPGs) is a perfect example of how sedate pacing, dull characters, and ass-backwards itemization can sabotage a game that, on paper, isn’t much different from the games that came before and after it.
Tales of Berseria is about as aggressive a response to Zestiria as possible in an 18 month turnaround time. The core is mostly the same, but the end result is far different. I think what really sold it for me (aside from the combat, which is a good time) is the very intentional inversion of the usual Tales cast, replacing the happy-go-lucky idiots who populate the series’ ensembles with a band of far more morally questionable, emotionally volatile scallywags. Velvet is maybe a tad too Shadow the Hedgehog at times, but she’s at least justified in being fucking pissed at the Lawful Neutral assholes who act as the game’s antagonists. Having your kid brother murdered as part of a blood sacrifice ritual will do that to you.
Where it starts to lose me is just an issue of length and repetition. Cannot speak for Arise yet, but the way modern Tales games handle overworld map areas isn’t great. Berseria’s are certainly better than the visually abysmal slogs of Xillia, but you can tell where the budget on these games went and it wasn’t on environments. We’ll see if I pick up my save and try to finish this in 2022, but even 30+ hours in I’m willing to say “this is a good one of those.” Please look forward to my Graces F(s in the Chat) playthrough. If I say it out loud enough times it’ll happen. (maybe it’ll happen)
8. Silent Hill 2
Now that Giant Bomb has an official Silent Hill ambassador we can finally cast off the shackles that have been imposed upon survival horror fandoms for too long. Tank Controls are in, camera angles are mostly fixed, and ammo is to be conserved for when you need it. So sayeth I, the person who at one point got pretty okay at amatuer speedruns of old Resident Evil games. Begone, discordites and naysayers, you have no power here, for Jess “Voidburger” and Jan Ochoa are with us! RUN FOR THE HILLS (is a pretty fun video series.)
Etc etc. Anyway, after owning it for about a decade I finally got around to playing Silent Hill 2, and for once it was nice to see a beloved classic actually live up to its reputation. Silent Hill 2 is as much about James Sunderland, general garbage man and husband of the year material, as it is about a constant oppressive mood and overwhelming sense of discomfort. And it still works! The combat is anemic and the puzzles are mostly obnoxious, but all of that is secondary to vibez and psychosexual creepy monsters. That’s what people come to Silent Hill for, I’m pretty sure, and Silent Hill 2 delivers on what I was promised. Would recommend.
7. Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
Of the various Raven games I played in 2021, I think the one to go for is absolutely Jedi Outcast. Coming out during the previous nadir of Star Wars media probably counted for a lot in 2002, but even 19 years removed I still had a good time. It starts slow and the default stormtrooper rifle is absurdly inaccurate trash, but by the time Kyle gets his jedi powers and lightsaber back it’s a fun time slicing stormtroopers apart in vicious fashion. While the actual story is an extremely blase video game there’s a lot of fun to be had with the way the power curve very quickly escalates into a one man army burning down the entire Imperial Remnant whilst jumping very, very, very high.
Where Jedi Outcast falters is whenever the level design gets confusing or I’m forced to deal with my nemesis and the true villain of the game: Darth Platformer. I’m saying there’s absolutely some Hexen DNA in the way JK2 requires you to run (and jump) around, finding switches and keys like it was going out of style. It fumbles with the pacing in a lot of ways, and I’d just like to thank Matt Rorie for the guide he wrote on GameFAQs 19 years ago for helping me get through it.
I also played Jedi Academy this year and… eh. It’s basically a stand-alone expansion with smaller, more concise levels and even less reason to use any of the guns. It’s a lesser game as a result.
6. Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
Blood Omen is Kain, and specifically Simon Templeman’s performance as Kain; a combination of haughty soliloquy and smug narration. In a decaying world filled with insane wizards, plagues, and cowering townsfolk his commentary is the lens from which everything is viewed. It’s the right level of serious and hammy, made even more impressive given that something with this quality of VA and writing came out the same year as the original Resident Evil.
As a video game, it’s an earnest, if awkward attempt at trying to make a zelda-ish top-down action-adventure thing. It feels pieced together and clunky in spots, and by the end of my time with it I was very much done with the actual “playing” part. Thankfully the PC version with the fan patch solves the infamous loading times of the PSX original, but there’s still a lot of menu-ing and fumbling about. Hitboxes are wonky, certain abilities are overpowered, and progression is fairly linear. But that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here for Shakespearian vampires overwhelmed with hubris. Please look forward to me finally getting around to finishing Soul Reaver.
5. Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade
The thing that ruined my love of Real-Time Strategy (other than, of course, the death of the RTS genre in the 2010s) was the realization that I was *bad* at Real-Time Strategy. I wish I had played Dark Crusade when I was a lad, because this shit is a reminder of why I enjoyed the likes of Warcraft III and Red Alert 2 in the first place. Certainly, I’ve already expressed my appreciation for the second Dawn of War before, but the first game is a more traditional take on the RTS. Dark Crusade, the second expansion, is generally considered the best of them, and it’s the one I stuck with as a result. I also goofed around with the Ultimate Apocalypse mod for Soulstorm and that seems… impressive. Excessive? Impressive. You can build a lot of Imperial Guardsmen.
Where it works for me, as old man who doesn’t have time for this shit anymore, is the way it boils its factions down to a core handful of units and philosophies (which conveniently represent their tabletop counterparts.) Economy is gained by capturing points and building stuff on said points, or building power buildings. The AI is competent enough to require some amount of like, strategy and “build orders” but I don’t feel like I need to memorize a significant amount of counterplay for any given faction against any given faction. Chaos Space Marines tend to do pretty well against most things, actually, especially once you throw a couple plasma guns on them or give them stealth. Would I ever be interested in playing this against another human being? Probably not, unless they’re as incompetent as I am! But hey, kudos to Relic circa 2006 for making a single-player RTS that was actually satisfying to play.
4. God of War II
The second game in the hallowed “Angry Man Murders Greek Mythology and Sometimes Pushes Blocks” series is much like the first, but moreso. There’s something almost refreshing to go back to a game like this, given how unashamedly it is about being a fucking stupid, hyper-violent masculine power fantasy. Maybe that’s me and my broken sensibilities, but in a world where God of War has become the poster child for AAA Sad Dad games everywhere, going back to a time when Kratos just angrily smashes a man against a book until he reads it is very, very funny.
It’s still a combination of over-the-top, impressive spectacle (esp for a PS2 game) and hyperviolent murder times that made the first one a fun time. However, it’s probably a better game overall. The spectacle is more spectacular, the secondary weapons are more worthwhile, and the pacing is generally sharper. I still would hesitate to call it an exemplar of character action games compared to some of its Japanese counterparts, but what it lacks in overarching depth it makes up for in raw, bloody stupidity.
3. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
I have never played the original Commandos, nor any of the various Commandolikes that sprung up in the ensuing years (which is to mostly say… the sequels to Commandos, Desperados, and that one Robin Hood game.) It’s a weird subset of “stealth-focused tactics” that flared up for a handful of years, mostly from European devs, then vanished into the ether like so many other PC-focused vidyagaems. Until this?
Perhaps calling Shadow Tactics a “tactics” game is a misnomer. Your group of ragtag samurai, shinobi, and old men are a team of stealthy murder commandos, whose death is never far behind if discovered. Instead, stealth rules the day, the kind of hyper-mechanical, rules-focused stealth set in clockwork levels where a combination of aggressively encouraged quicksaves and “just sorta fucking around” rules the day. It’s the kind of game that rewards planning stuff out, but never *just* has one solution to the puzzle in front of you. Conversely, you can also very much muddle through and get away with far, far more than you think you’d be able to, assuming you’re fast enough or take advantage of the handful of “easy out” buttons the game gives you. Sometimes the solution to a samurai with a big, stupid vision cone is to shoot him and everyone else around him. It’s brilliantly designed, and what I’ve played of its followup, Desperados 3, inspires me with confidence that Mimimi is going to bring justice to the isometric stealth-em-up.
2. Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille zur Macht
Xenosaga is perhaps the single most audacious, self-indulgent, up-its-own-ass example of a genre that already trucks in excess. Should it be this high? Probably not. But as a piece of spectacle, something that represents the Japanese RPG at its absolute height of relevance and power, it’s trying to out-Final Fantasy Final Fantasy X. There are seven hours of cutscenes in this game, and most of them are absolute anime batshit insanity. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Monolith Soft have been making the same weird JRPGs about robots, god, and existentialism for the last 20-odd years, but even knowing this it’s still a step above even the insanity present in the Xenoblade games. Does it make sense? Will it pay off in any satisfying way in the next two Xenosaga games? PROBABLY NOT.
Admittedly the actual JRPG part is entirely passable but uninspiring. You’ve got a party of three, two different kinds of attack, and some of the characters can pilot robots. It’s not great, especially in contrast to some of the more inspired JRPG combat systems of the time (heck even FF X), but it’s firmly in the “inoffensive” category. The actual dealbreaker might be the part where the last third of this game is two very long, slog-y dungeon crawls which really soured me on it, but the last cutscene made up for it. You can fully expect me to pick Xenosaga Episode 2 up for the podcast in 2022, just as you can expect my co-hosts’ pain when I do so. Every time ZP complained about this game in discord it went up one spot.
I’ve been on record as saying that, quite honestly, the best modern throwbacks to classic shooters outstrip the games they’re trying to imitate. Even Doom and Doom II for all their influence, still have some bum levels where you spend an inordinate amount of time just looking for keys to open doors (Hi Sandy, hope you’re doing well.) Quake, for all its technical achievements, is both very brown and very straightforward; more remembered for heralding online FPS deathmatch than anything. If someone is gonna ask for recommendations on “shooters what go very fast” outside of Doom, I’m going to point in the general vague direction of DUSK, Amid Evil, and maybe Prodeus’ and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’s early access campaigns before suggesting one spend their time playing… I dunno, Hexen. Don’t play Hexen. Treat yourself better than that.
Blood is the exception. As long as one goes in with the understanding that the default cultist enemies are hitscan assholes and therefore the most dangerous foe in the game, it’s a fun time! You know how the Build Engine’s greatest strength was the ability to create environments that actually looked like things? Blood uses that to great effect, with a lot of fun, thematic, and goofy levels which evoke the pulp horror tone the game is going for. It’s significantly less embarrassing with its dated pop culture artifacts than Duke Nukem 3D, significantly less racist than Shadow Warrior and significantly better than any other Build Engine shooter not mentioned. Somehow the game where there are just a bunch of corpses on meat hooks is the *least* problematic game built on that tech.
Now, outside of the environmental variety and atmosphere, it helps that Blood has a very good, very audacious selection of weapons. While the shotgun and tommy gun both feel powerful and effective, it’s everything else which really defines it. Getting good at chucking dynamite while running backwards is an acquired skill, as is shooting flares, running away, and waiting for the enemy to get set on fire. It’s the kind of loadout where everything is useful some of the time, and a lot of weapons are useful a lot of the time. Maybe half of this is the way Caleb, your weird cultist-cowboy protagonist cackles when things blow up, but I think this game is very good about things blowing up.
To put in perspective how hard I went in on Blood in 2021, I did the thing I only briefly toyed with when I was goofing around with Doom WADs and played through an entire fan-created campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many well-made, professional quality fan levels for Blood. Death Wish is the big one, but even just glancing around there’s plenty more I could delve into if I felt the desire. This… this is a good shooty shoot game. I like it a lot. Quicksave liberally.
Visual Novel of the Year: Muv Luv Alternative
At this point seemingly every visual novel recommendation of mine comes with the caveat that “you have to be down with anime bullshit” and “you have to be down for too much reading” but this is even more so when it comes to Muv Luv. One of the higher-profile, more influential VNs of the 2000s (right behind Fate Stay/Night), Muv Luv is directly or indirectly responsible for inspiring a lot of high profile stuff, limited to but not including Attack on Titan. That might be rough to see from the outset, given that the first part, Muv Luv Extra, is very much… not that. It starts out as a pretty standard dating sim, filled with a bunch of trope-y stuff that I find… tolerable and not much more. It’s only after slogging through 15ish hours of middling anime high school hijinks that the real picture reveals itself with Muv Luv Unlimited.
Without getting into it too much, by Muv Luv Alternative, the third part of the story, shit goes full bananas crazypants fucked up anime horseshit. Somehow it earns the wide-ass swings it makes with its character and story arcs, which is impressive when you consider how it starts out. Like last year’s winner, Umineko, it’s probably too long of an investment for its own good (and I haven’t even gotten into side stories and additional media because of course there’s that) but once it gets rolling… boy howdy. All you really need to know is that Meiya is Bae-ya and that Takeru gets better. Eventually.
Dubious Championship Game of the Year: King’s Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity
(Runners up: Daikatana, Omega Labyrinth Live)
I already wrote a whole write-up about King’s Quest VIII and how it represents the height of dubiosity for 2021. The dying gasp of the King’s Quest franchise (and the adventure game genre as a whole) is a fascinating one, and the journey to get that stupid piece of shit to fucking run is probably part of the reason why it sticks out to me as much as it does. It’s neither a fantastic adventure game nor RPG, but something stuck in the void between both, a technically impressive jank creature whose existence is easily on par with last year’s Ultima IX.
Daikatana is a similar deal to King’s Quest, in that its infamy belies a game more interesting (and therefore worthy of Dubious Championship Status) than one might initially think. Admittedly, playing through the entire thing in co-op with the fan patch let me see the ideas at play in John Romero’s magnum flopus without having to deal with its most heinous issues. It’s a temple to both Romero’s skill as a designer and his ineptitude as a manager, and it tries so, so, so much.
Omega Labyrinth Life is, uh, a game I bought on steam as a joke and now my friends make fun of me for playing it.
Replay of the Year: Vanquish
(runners up: Dead Space 2, SWAT 4)
When I first played Vanquish in like, 2017ish, I had an *okay* time, but never quite felt like I “got” it. After playing Vanquish again and realizing that you just need to play that shit like Bayonetta but shooter (i.e. dodge cancel, slide everywhere, engage in maximal violence) I had a much, much, much better time. Holy shit y’all, Vanquish is so good. I mean, I knew that Dead Space 2 was good (still good, turns out) and SWAT 4 was good (I might go as far as to recommend the Elite Force mode even for a first playthrough) but this is one of the harder turns I’ve done on a game in a hot sec.
Worst Game I Played in 2021: Mars War Logs
(Runners Up: Devil May Cry 2, F3AR)
I will write a whole dubious RPG blog about this in the future, but let me just say this is a miserable game. Thanks Spiders. Fear 3 is also very bad, and unlike Devil May Cry 2 I did not raise money for charity whilst playing it.