October is and will always be my favorite month: it's where my birthday lands (the 25th, which was also the release date of The Outer Worlds, so it was a good day for a lot of other people also), everyone's all giddy about Halloween and a season of wholesome spooks and less wholesome getting sloshed at costume parties, and the weather's hit that right zone between cold but not too cold. The fall season's just a beautiful time in general, if a little melancholy, and it's only now - once the month is over - that the dual specters of the busy holidays and the GOTY deliberations loom uncomfortably ahead.
I feel like I have a handle on what my GOTY list will look like this year - I've played four 2019 games, have four more on the docket, and there's two games in particular I want to grab in the Black Friday sales if possible and add to my homework - but I still might not hit a full 10 by the end of the year. If it happens, it happens, but I've got a lot planned for November regardless. Now that I've finished another year of the Mega Archive, for example, I'll want to update the Mega Drive's Mega Drivers list with all the research into the big and small companies that contributed to Sega's 16-bit success story. I also have a month free for various one-off "Tuesday slot" blogs, there's still the issue of the missing Bucketlog entry for October (let's just say a week of constant Extra Life charity streams hasn't given me a lot of free time to pluck some obscurity from the dustier regions of my backlog), and I and some of the other mods are thinking of launching a special community "Game of the Decade" liststorm in the near future to see where the GB family's heads are at regarding the last ten years and two generations of consoles.
That's all in November, though, and that's not the month that's mentioned in the title of this blog. I forget which one was, and I'm too lazy to scroll up to check. Let's assume October.
Indie Games of the Month
October comprised the 140-144 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:
Unbox: Newbie's Adventure (IGotW 140) falls into my self-inflicted mandate of trying out every Indie game seeking to resurrect the Rare collect-a-thon era of 3D platformers, and while there are a lot of developers around my age that cut their teeth on that genre it's proven to be one that's very difficult to get right. That was as true back then with major companies unsuccessfully chasing genre leaders like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie as it is for the Indies of today, who have the ambition and ability but not the time or resources to get such a persnickety type of game right. I couldn't even begin to imagine the problems a small development team might bump into creating fully 3D environments with the right balance of platforming challenges, concise controls, and a camera that behaves itself. To its credit, while the silly box hopping antics of Unbox has an unusual method of traversal it is nonetheless zippy and has a certain screwy logic to it once you've spent enough time with the game, and while its worlds are huge and unwieldy it makes the collect-a-thoning aspect palatable with plenty of hints for where to go for wayward shiny gizmos and NPCs who have challenges awaiting you. It also nails the sort of wholesome energy that made those Rare games a fun and breezy experience, even when they were kicking your ass.
Oknytt (IGotW 141) is an adventure game from a subgenre (or more like a subtheme, really) I've been dubbing "folklorist games": those Indies that include a mildly educational aspect with regards to the local customs and legends of the developers' home region. Inspired by this local folklore, games like this can build their stories (and base their mechanics, sometimes) on some free public-domain mythology at no cost and still create stories and artistic depictions of beings and worlds that many players across the globe have never seen before. Oknytt's nocturnal story is full of chills and spooks, but its unfailingly polite hero and the way everything eventually works out for him puts the game's tone in more the vein of a classic fairytale for kids. Of note is the way the hero commands the powers of nature, if only to a mild extent, and the player can use symbols that represent earth, water, air, and fire to solve some of the game's puzzles (using water, for example, to make rain fall and cause a plant to grow).
Hue (IGotW 142) is a puzzle-platformer that, like the enormous pantheon of those that came before, more or less can be traced back to Braid. Braid repurposed the blueprint of the traditional 2D platformer with its stalwart hero chasing his unseen princess and layered in a time manipulation mechanic that had players occasionally tripped up by familiar circumstances that instead required some lateral thinking to solve. Hue continues in that vein, creating a selection of platforming sequences and puzzles that requires the player's growing mastery over the controlling color scheme of the level, switching between eight colors in the spectrum to remove obstacles and add platforms to the immediate scene. Didn't care for the verbose story too much, but the game itself is solid with a moderate difficulty curve and some smart puzzle design, and I particularly liked the vaguely "Game & Watch" visuals of the duochrome world.
Mr. Robot (IGotW 143) comes from 2007, which might as well be the Jurassic era for the modern Indie gaming movement, and balances isometric action-platformer sequences (a uniquely British invention) with a more traditional turn-based RPG - the former for when exploring the imperiled colony ship that you and your robotic colleagues have been maintaining for the sake of a cryosleeping human crew, and the latter for hacking sequences set inside the programming of a console or hostile robot. Neither half shines too brightly on its own, but the dichotomy of the two and the pacing changes they bring actually make the game more compelling in the long run.
Reveal the Deep (IGotW 144) was just a little horror game I felt like throwing in the mix for October 31st, though I don't generally play a lot of the more conventional survival horror types out there (I've yet to try a single Outlast game, and am not really itching to do so either). Reveal the Deep is a 2D pixel-based game that doesn't have a lot in its quiver to produce spooks and chills, but does its game best by setting itself underwater in a claustrophobic sunken ship environment filled with dark beings and ominous creaking sounds. That uneasy sound design is the game's chief strength, with its epistolary storytelling and navigation puzzles a close second and third.
Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot
I spent a significant portion of October researching and writing about Sega Mega Drive games, specifically those released in the last three months of 1991. This brings us to the end of 1991, the third full year of the Mega Drive's lifespan and perhaps its most eventful yet, as well as a natural conclusion to the Mega Archive feature for at least the rest of 2019 if not also a good chunk of 2020 also. These wiki features, where I'm concurrently working on the Giant Bomb Wiki pages for older games while writing about how well they've aged and their history for these blogs, also hits two of my favorite aspects of writing about games: getting to learn more about the history of this medium, and dunking on bad games.
The Sega Mega Drive was always "the rival" growing up in a predominantly Nintendo household, which is why I saved it for last out of the main triumvirate of 16-bit platforms (after the SNES and TurboGrafx-16, the latter barely counting as 16-bit), but I've learned a great deal about where it came from and its status during its pre-Sonic years. We're now decidedly in post-Sonic territory with the above three blogs, and we'll soon gradually see more of Sega's biggest home console franchises - as opposed to its pre-existing arcade franchises like Space Harrier and Golden Axe - come into being and flourish. Streets of Rage being one fine, recent (as of 1991) example of how Sega was as equally adept on the home consoles as they were in the game centers. We're also seeing more western developers make the Mega Drive their home in the above three Parts with the EA Sports juggernauts and the iconic likes of ToeJam & Earl, as well as a bunch of Amiga/ST/PC conversions.
Of the fifty games covered in the three blogs above, here's a few of my personal favorites: ToeJam & Earl, Wonder Boy in Monster World, The Immortal, Marble Madness, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, Rolling Thunder 2, Chuck Rock, Quackshot Starring Donald Duck, Dahna: Megami Tanjou, Golden Axe II, and Valis: The Fantasm Soldier.
I have two blogs planned for my time spent with this year's Kingdom Hearts III, and the first was this piece looking into how (and if) the game addresses those lapsed fans like myself who haven't played a new Kingdom Hearts since Kingdom Hearts II fourteen years ago. It feels like the most natural progression in the world to go from the second core game in the series to the third, provided it has a serial story like the Kingdom Hearts franchise, but KH is a special case where so much attention is spent on its many side-games and spin-offs, many of which follow brand new characters not seen in Kingdom Hearts 1 or 2 but are nonetheless critically important to the overarching story the games are spinning. Some, like certain Organization XIII members, had a small amount of character development in Kingdom Hearts II but the lion's share could only be found in spin-offs like Chain of Memories or 358/2 Days. Others, like Aqua, Terra, and Ventus, debuted in the spin-off Birth By Sleep and the audience is expected to know who they are and what their deal is moving into this chapter of the overarching timeline. Needless to say, the story would've been a mess even if I had all the context to understand it.
The Games of October
Kingdom Hearts III
...Fortunately, following from the above, I'm here for the gameplay too and some welcome tweaks and balance fixes means it's the most approachable game in the series, at least out of the core three. The level design (which will be the topic of my second blog) is a little more mixed though, with some taking full advantage of the Disney/Pixar enterprises they're based on while others are set to toss out the same dozen identical looking areas over and over. The Frozen world, Arendelle, is particularly bad: besides an interesting ice labyrinth early on, it's the same patch of snowy mountainside everywhere you go. I also preferred the areas where you caught the characters post-movie, as opposed to reliving the events of the film, because it gave the developers an opportunity to write a more Kingdom Hearts-focused tale with that team. Big Hero 6, and its world of San Fransokyo, was one of my favorites because the titular team had already sorted the plot of the movie out and was fully invested in helping Sora to fight the Heartless, with a few nods to the movie's lingering loose ends.
I was dreading playing Kingdom Hearts III a little, knowing I'd be out of the loop to some degree, but I had a fine time with it. The action-RPG combat is compelling because it relies so much on movement and finding opportunities, even if the AI assistance can be uneven, and all the tweaks and evolution that the combat system's seen in its nearly twenty year existence means it's more polished than ever. The Gummi Ship sections are back and have a bit more depth to them, especially in how they create these enormous areas full of enemy encounters and treasures to find, and the "Classic Kingdom" Game & Watch mini-games are a neat addition if not particularly compelling individually. It's not without its problems, but I didn't feel like my time was wasted with it. (I did think it was a bit rich to rip off NieR Automata's Ending E though.)
428 was one of those stealth pushes during GOTY season that, while it was obvious no-one on GB had played it all the way through or was going to, there was nonetheless an underswell of community support for this offbeat Spike Chunsoft visual novel. Originally exclusive to Japan as a 2008 Wii release, it was remastered and rereleased for PS4 and Steam ten years later in what I imagine was an anniversary affair that they didn't really emphasize for its English localization debut, because why bother when it's new to us? The game uses a mix of walls of text, static images of real actors and scenes, and the occasional FMV clip to tell a story about one crazy day in the Tokyo district of Shibuya.
The game predominantly follows five characters, each of whom has their own separate storyline that occasionally intersects with the others both directly and indirectly: Achi Endo, a tough but community-minded young man who can't leave a needy person hanging; Shinya Kano, a police detective stressed out about meeting his fiancée's disapproving father while also involved in a kidnapping case; Minoru Minorikawa, a dogged investigative reporter whose outspoken personality frequently lands him in hot water; Kenji Osawa, a genius virologist and withdrawn father of two on the cusp of a nervous breakdown; and Tama, a mysterious amnesiac currently trapped in a cat mascot costume.
Like 24, the player can follow these five storylines in any order but must complete the current hour with all five before the game will continue to the next. The player will frequently butt into sudden stops on each route, either caused by the game's insistence that you learn pertinent facts in a specific order via a different character or a bad ending caused by the actions of another protagonist. Though limited due to its status of a visual novel, where interactivity is never usually a high priority, lot of the game's deeper storytelling mechanics are tied into the way you have to weave through these multiple narratives and consider carefully the multiple choice questions that appear. A bad ending might occur from choosing the wrong choice, but even an innocuous choice that has no apparent effect on the plot may greatly affect another protagonist in their storyline. Right up until the final chapter of the game, it'll be free with the hints: if you get a bad ending, you'll have some idea why it happened, even if it's an ambiguous hint that "somebody" should've done something different thirty minutes ago. The fun part is that, after the game is over, you can then work backwards to get the bad endings you missed by trying all the other decision branches.
It's a remarkable story-focused game that balances levity with thrilling drama, and the "choose your own adventure" nexus of branching paths and their Butterfly Effect consequences makes for a compelling knot to untie. The game is absolutely full of secrets too, with multiple silly bonus gaiden stories about all the game's ancillary characters and at least three significant post-game campaigns (one of which, Canaan, ties directly into the game's mostly unrelated anime spin-off).
I have a lot to say about Control though I'm struggling to pare that list of observations down to something that hasn't already been discussed and disseminated at great length. I think everyone was so collectively stoked that Remedy got their groove back after a string of OK to so-so games following Max Payne that we're instinctively rooting for it to win GOTY, if only because it feels so due. Like Marty Scorsese finally winning an Oscar for The Departed, before the Academy was contractually obliged to take it back off him because he said some mean things about people in costumes punching CGI monsters.
Control was a perfect confluence of everything Remedy gets right and everything they usually get wrong but this time somehow did not. The stuff they usually get right is the presentation and tone, and especially how invested they clearly get into establishing their worlds and characters and backstories, having fun throwing together live-action footage in someone's garage and figuring out how to place it in a scene without it being too distracting or immersion-breaking. It's writing a thousand text documents and leaving them over the place, except in this rare case you actually want to bother finding and reading them all. It's starting with a simple enough premise - SCP Foundation is a big hit with the kids, and everyone liked Twin Peaks and The X-Files - and aiming well past the outfield and into the parking lot with the execution, incorporating a kickass transforming gun and psychic powers that let you fly around and toss masonry at twitchy monsters with the force of several thousand newtons.
Combat is so fast and so chaotic and yet feels so good because you're right in the moment reacting instantly to stimuli with a mercifully small pool of useful psychic abilities to draw from, alternating between headshots with your gun in any number of apposite configurations before switching back to telekinesis and detritus shields to weather the retaliation. Even when there's no fighting, though, you might wander through a quiet, meticulously furnished room and see a document or Matthew Porretta's jovial scientist Dr. Darling projected onto a wall ready to deliver another minute-long lecture about the void between worlds and think "hell yeah, inject that lore directly into my veins". And then just completely trash the room by running around in circles because you're the Director, dammit, and someone else is going to have to clean up after you.
I really can't say enough positive things about Control. If it didn't have such an exceptional presentation, I'd argue it was still one of the best third-person shooters to come along in years, perfectly modernizing the likes of Psi-Ops: The Mind Gate Conspiracy or Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun sections with a smart selection of psychic powers, gun modes, crafted upgrades, and skill trees. If the combat sucked, I would still argue that it was worth checking out for all those juicy federal reports about possessed TVs and evil mirror universes and an affable Finnish janitor who straight up does not give a hoot about world-threatening terrors crossing over as long as it doesn't interfere with his vacation to parts unknown. That it has both feels like some blessed conjunction of the stars. It's going to take some doing to knock it off my 2019 GOTY perch, especially this close to the year's end.
BoJack Horseman (Season 6A)
I really don't have much for Other Distractions this month, because I've been watching a lot of ongoing serial TV that haven't ended their seasons yet. BoJack's the one exception, as a streaming service show that dropped the entire first half of its final season late last month. BoJack Horseman has this reputation for being to depression what Rick & Morty is to intellectual nihilism, which is reductive to the smart humor and plotting of both shows, but there's no mistaking the throughline of misery for this particular season as the show makes it clear that most of the cast is suffering some form of the clinical blues. BoJack spends most of this half-season in rehab for his drinking habit, which three seasons ago led to one of the darkest episodes the show's ever done, and pushing past his natural reluctance to be a better person for the sake of those he keeps hurting. Princess Caroline is trying to "do it all" (to use the parlance of '90s female-focused workplace dramas) of having a career and caring for an infant and burning out at a rapid rate. Diane is considering new life directions and grappling with the depressive inertia of denying that which would be beneficial to her happiness. Mr. Peanutbutter's eternally chipper nature is tested by the fact he's done some very reprehensible actions in the past season. Todd... is still Todd.
The remarkable thing about this season is that, despite the show starting as an ensemble comedy, it's stopped trying to contrive of reasons to keep this group of people together and instead episodes largely focus on individual members of the cast off doing their own thing with BoJack's letters and calls from rehab - some part of his therapy, some just to kvetch about his therapy - being this connective tissue between what everyone has going on. The way this half-season ends does a nasty job of raising hopes for everyone's future happiness before setting up the dominoes for an almighty fall from grace that I'm sure the second half of this final season will spend dissecting before ending on a note that, while probably not the cheeriest, will at least be germane to the show. I'm looking forward to seeing how the chips fall when the show resumes in January.
(For the record, the other serial TV I've been following include: The Good Place S4 (also on its final season), Mr. Robot S4 (also on its final season), My Hero Academia S4 (whole lotta fourth seasons happening), and Hi Score Girl S2 (this show is dumb but I'm still invested).)
It's probably for the best that there are very few November games I'm looking forward to, because this year has been busy enough. Not 2017 busy, but it's certainly left behind a considerable wishlist for me to pursue in future years. I feel like the following list of four is going to be fairly divisive in the long run, and certainly within the Giant Bomb offices:
- The 8th will see the wide release of Death Stranding, a game notable for the fact that everyone in the review industry is already sick of talking about it and hearing about it, which makes me very excited to see if the public zeitgeist is nearly as short-lived. While the critique community in general is fairly positive on it, our own Giant Bomb panel seems to widely dislike the game on the whole, with that tone overflowing into actual bile in the case of Dan and Vinny. I only came into the Metal Gear Solid franchise lately and only because I wanted to stay ahead of Drew's playthroughs so I've no firm allegiance to Kojima like others seem to (I liked MGSV though!), and everything I've heard about this game is suggesting I stay away despite my curiosity. Could well be the case that in a few months copies of this will be selling for a song, given how polarizing it is for a major Sony exclusive, so perhaps I'll decide to take that plunge during in a weaker moment in 2020.
- The 14th brings us Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory which, on the one hand, is based on a wickedly funny table-top RPG setting where the world is ruled by a capricious AI that will regularly kill and clone new humans from an endless supply of materials, and it's the player's task to survive for as long as possible by avoiding suspicion while also perhaps concealing traits that would normally arouse same, such as a rogue mutant genetic strain. It's a bit like a cross between X-Men and I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, and there's potential aplenty for some sharp satire about the increasing amount of surveillance and lack of autonomy of modern society, but here's where the "on the other hand" comes in: it's being made by Cyanide, which doesn't have the best track record as an RPG studio. Might well be that I get my subversive RPG kicks from The Outer Worlds and Disco Elysium this year and give Paranoia a wide berth.
- November the 15th be with you, as that also happens to be the date of the new Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Of the four games listed here, I think this has the best odds of being a genuine late-comer entry for the GOTY discussion, though I'm curious how far the GB staff will get into it before their GOTY podcasts enter the recording phase. It's sounding like a Souls game set in the Star Wars universe, which is reason enough to be excited, but the downside is that it's another giant game from EA and they've had a terrible track record so far this year between all their dodgy microtransaction and lootbox fiascos and the ongoing slow footage of a train crash of a game that is Anthem, which is only above Fallout 76 on the scale of big-budget online open-world games with more cursed baggage than a Transylvanian airport. It's possible for a company to run into every hurdle but still jump over the last successfully, and that's what I'm hoping for here if not for the hardworking developers involved with the game then at least for the poor old Star Wars license, which is still reeling from its miserable treatment by 2017's Star Wars Battlefront II.
- My son is also named Fireboylt in the upcoming release of Shenmue III on the 19th, long awaited by an increasingly small subset of Yu Suzuki diehards if not perhaps fans of Japanese open-world games in general who have all since flocked to Yakuza, myself included. Gosh, I really don't know if Dan and Vinny can stomach a second game as achingly languid and obtuse as Death Stranding in as many months, but I sure am excited to listen to their reactions anyway. I mean, who else are they going to convince to review that game? Noted Shenmue lover Jeff? Alex, who sounded like he dying well before the Shenmue Endurance Run was over? Jan, who will have completed his Pokemon Sword run by then but only be halfway through his Pokemon Shield run? Brad? Brad doesn't even play games that aren't Destiny 2 and Dota 2 any more. Nope, I think Vinny and/or Dan are in for another unpleasantly slow gaming experience later this month and their suffering is my joy. Sorry, it's been that kind of year.