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ALLTheDinos

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ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2022

What can I say, I have a brand to maintain.
What can I say, I have a brand to maintain.

2022 was a big year of change, both in the industry and in my personal life. On the former, the slow trickle of pandemic games began to open up at long last. I ended up playing 35 different games that were released this year, a personal record. The change was not all good, though, as massive layoffs seemed to hit both developers and games media alike. It’s tough to even summarize without trivializing it, but it feels like an era of games coverage is coming to an end. Mix in the takeover of Twitter by the world’s shittiest poster, and it really seems like we’re living in the aftermath of the Internet we’ve known for decades. This site lost its last remaining founder, fired a couple weeks before he intended to leave by some ding-dongs who immediately sold the company to its third owner in two years. Obviously, this is not on the scale of the Fanbyte layoffs, but it heightened the belief that nothing in video games is safe.

In my personal life, we doubled our number of kids. As I wrote in a semi-review of, um, Scorn, this was also a very challenging and surreal period. My son has been at home with us for two months, and every day is a complete wild card. Trying to stay sane and at least somewhat rested while also continuing to care for a preschooler used to getting all of your attention is a full-time job, so naturally I made the silly commitment to work part-time during the last few months. Gaming took a backseat eventually, but there were still a ton of things I was able to get to in my downtime over the prior 10 months. I enjoyed this year in gaming more than any other since 2016, which I consider high praise. I’m hoping 2023 at least approaches those highs.

(With apologies to: Tunic, Betrayal at Club Low, Patrick's Parabox, Ember Knights, Marvel's Midnight Suns, and the mods for my lack of ability to properly format an image in any of my blogs.)

Not Rated: Comedy Games

First, I’d like to give a special shout-out to a trio of games that I didn’t rank with the others. Rifftrax: The Game, Trombone Champ, and Aperture Desk Job are all fantastic experiences, especially when shared with others. It’s hard to pull off humor in games a lot of the time, and these all made me laugh a lot while playing them. I tend to let this sort of game slip through the cracks every year, so it was important for me to give them their due.

10. PowerWash Simulator (Xbox Series X)

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Honestly, I first downloaded this game expecting to play no more than an hour of it. When it stuck around past a single play session, I figured it would be my perfect podcast game. By the end of the game, I estimate that I spent less than 10% of the time I played it listening to anything. It doesn’t really have music, unless you count the white noise of the power washer as music (though I do love noise rock). I think the game just occupied a space of my brain that was desperate to shut off, focusing on making stuff clean and some percentages to reach 100. It proved to be a zen experience, one that I looked forward to after any rough day of work, or to wind down after a particularly rough bedtime for my daughter. There’s a ton of value to these kinds of activities; my collection of jigsaw puzzles and half-finished Kakuro books can attest to that. Definitely give this game a shot if you haven’t already, and treat yourself to some boredom.

I played PowerWash Simulator on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass, and it's available on Steam. It's getting a Switch and PS4/5 port soon!

9. NORCO (PC / Xbox Series X)

Probably for the best if you don't ask too many questions about what's going on in a given screenshot of this game.
Probably for the best if you don't ask too many questions about what's going on in a given screenshot of this game.

This was definitely the year of the point-and-click narrative game, so much so that I didn’t have time for all of them (sorry, Return to Monkey Island). I began NORCO before all of the others, but I finished it last. Part of this is because the writing packs such a punch that I needed to be in the correct mindset to experience any of it. The majority of my family lives in the New Orleans area, and everything in this game evoked powerful memories I have of visiting them. Scenes underneath I-10 or outside of a bar are far more weighty than those of the French Quarter. The characters of LeBlanc, Dallas, and Ditch Man will stick with me for a long, long time. And in all likelihood, I’ll never look at a half-open garage door the same way again. Ultimately, I enjoyed the other narrative games more than NORCO, but this was an unforgettable and bizarre experience.

I played NORCO via Game Pass Ultimate, and it's also available on MacOS, Steam, and PS4/5.

8. Hardspace: Shipbreaker (PC)

Hm.
Hm.

This game made my 2020 GOTY list, ranking at #7 while still in Early Access. That’s no knock on its 1.0 release; if anything, that means it still offered enough features to get me to sacrifice valuable top 10 real estate once again, and this time in a far more competitive year. I finished the campaign, and I highly recommend seeing it all the way through. The story gets a little ham-handed at times, but the payoff at the end is worth it (especially the final mission). For those who probably won’t get there: you’re tasked with committing industrial espionage, destroying as much as you can. It’s really tough to overcome all of your cutting and sorting instincts, yet it allows you to use your failures in previous jobs to beat the story mode. It’s a clever reversal, one that I’m surprised I didn’t see coming in advance. There’s still a lot for me to do with this game; I never even checked out RACE Mode or any of the ghost ships! So once again, I write this with the promise that I’ll be playing more Hardspace: Shipbreaker next year, and I would bet I follow through with that.

I played Hardspace: Shipbreaker on Steam, but it's also on Game Pass Ultimate. Also on Playstation 5.

7. Neon White (PC)

If you know, you know.
If you know, you know.

On paper, this game doesn’t seem like something that would ever appeal to me. I don’t love first person shooters, or competitive games, or speedrunning games, or even anime. But anytime I watched someone else play it, I was transfixed. The extremely quick recovery into trying another run proved decisive. I can’t even describe how big a deal it is to immediately scrap a bad run and get back into the mix before you can get frustrated. I found myself getting platinum medals and collectibles in each stage and not even minding the extra time. When you’re running through enemies and alternating between shooting and dropping abilities, you feel like the best goddamn fps player on the planet. I’m a total sucker for any game that makes me feel godlike (see #5 on this list), so Neon White will always occupy a special place in my heart. Now, if I could just get more of my friends to play it, I could become a competition sicko like Grubb and Dan…

I played Neon White on Steam, and it's also available on the Switch (though I wouldn't recommend it without instant restart).

6. Songs of Conquest (PC) [Early Access]

If this screenshot awakens anything within you, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.
If this screenshot awakens anything within you, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.

If you really pressed me to name a single favorite game of all time, I would probably say it’s Heroes of Might and Magic III. If Songs of Conquest was just a blatant copy of that game, it would still rank fairly highly on my list. However, it’s more than that, offering modern improvements (army size caps! Skipping move animations!) alongside classic world map and combat gameplay. The spell system is interesting (and due for an overhaul, according to the developers), and the limited slots for buildings in each town encourage strategic management in a new way. The campaign is still half-finished, but it dug its hooks in me for the time I spent with it. Afterwards, I played far too much Heroes of Might and Magic IV because this game awakened some long-dormant impulse inside of me. I can’t wait until this game hits 1.0, because the promise is off the charts.

I played Songs of Conquest on Steam, where it might hit 1.0 in 2023.

5. Vampire Survivors (PC / Xbox Series X / iOS)

If your eyes don't bleed while observing it, is it really a Vampire Survivors screenshot?
If your eyes don't bleed while observing it, is it really a Vampire Survivors screenshot?

Every so often, a game hits my friend’s group text thread that gets everyone swapping strategies and information. Over the last couple years, it’s mostly been Hades. This year, the game to do that was Vampire Survivors. The early game exploration of each weapon and discovering the depth of the game’s weirdness were in the absolute top tier of 2022 gaming experiences for me. As someone with a newborn, I appreciate the bite-sized nature of individual play sessions. Bottom line: any game that makes me feel godlike after putting enough work into it is always going to rate pretty highly.

Footnote: I checked out the DLC briefly, and I found it an impressive spin on the core gameplay with its map features. I look forward to exploring the new items, and maybe I won’t just Mad Groove everything to my side every time.

I played Vampire Survivors on PC and Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, and I even tried it out on my iPhone 13. It's also available on MacOS.

4. Signalis (Xbox Series X)

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At last, we reach the S tier of games I played this year. It was extremely tough to pick an order here (aside from #1), so it feels almost disrespectful to have Signalis as low as #4. It’s a game dripping with styyyyle, simultaneously a callback to the PS1 era of survival horror while rising above mere imitation. It’s a game that feels like a Resident Evil / Dino Crisis for the first portion of its runtime, but it becomes pretty explicitly a Silent Hill before too long. The unreliable narrative from the protagonist takes you to some bizarre locations, and by the end of the game you’re wondering how much, if anything, happened. Like the better survival horror games, it doesn’t trivialize your actions so much as recontextualize them. When you went to literal hell Rotfront, what might the place have looked like to a human? Its story was compelling enough for me to immediately seek out the other endings after beating the game, something I rarely do. Overall, Signalis is a new classic with an underappreciated soundtrack, a game that should occupy a special place for any survival horror fan for years to come.

I played Signalis on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass, and it's available on PC, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch as well.

3. Pentiment (Xbox Series X, PC)

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“Love is the only reason to do anything in this world” - Claus Drucker

The above quote summarizes Pentiment to me, at least on the development side. I’ve never seen a game, or really any other form of media outside of maybe Defunctland, take its love of such a specific thing and elevate it to sublime heights. It’s a game set in 16th century alpine Germany that is ostensibly a murder mystery across three timelines but is mostly a love letter to civilization itself, with writing that is simultaneously ornate and unpretentious. It’s a beautiful tableau of a town that isn’t the first iteration of itself and certainly won’t be the last. The Christmas dinner scene in the third act put me in my feelings something fierce. Pentiment captivated both my and my wife’s attention separately, and it’s one of the rare games I actually want to watch others play after I’ve beaten it (on that note: Abby Russell recently finished a playthrough on her Twitch channel). This is a gaming unicorn, one whose lead writer says wouldn’t exist without Game Pass, and I hope we see more people able to make art like this with such wide distribution in the future.

I played Pentiment on the Xbox Series X and PC via Game Pass Ultimate, and it's also available on Steam.

2. Citizen Sleeper (Xbox Series X)

I guarantee that this is a very accurate portrayal of a preschooler.
I guarantee that this is a very accurate portrayal of a preschooler.

Simply put, this is the best-written game of 2022. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion of one of the many possible resolutions to the midgame’s biggest obstacle, there’s a character who is not only actively antagonistic towards your decaying protagonist, but who is enjoying the power they lord over you in a profoundly cruel way. After completing some time-sensitive challenges, the roles become somewhat reversed. This character warns you of an impending threat far greater than them and encourages you to set aside your differences to fend off this new menace. In two of my three playthroughs, I ignored their offer and found different paths. But when I did work together with them, it showed hints of a true antagonist becoming more of an antihero. Fortunately, the game never falls into that cliche, and this character reveals their true, cruel nature after you finish helping them get back on their feet.

It takes a ton of confidence to show hints of a good person in their character and be willing to shove your sympathy for them right back in your face. In real life, there are people who neither deserve nor seek redemption from the empathetic. Any attempt at friendship is an opportunity to use people; whatever needs to be said to get that person on top, they will say. This one storyline stands in immense contrast to the rest of The Eye, where Citizen Sleeper takes place. You meet people like a disgruntled, idealistic systems programmer looking to settle a score for his parents; a street cook who just loves stories and takes care in their cooking; a mysterious gamemaster in search of information and spirited competition; the leader of a commune with an intense interest in the station’s mysteries; and an adoptive father-daughter pair, just looking to escape the station the only way they can. Each one of these characters is fully realized, to the point where you just want to spend as much time with them as possible. The game’s mechanics emphasize this through progress meters (which I've been calling clocks, thanks to Austin Walker’s Friends at the Table podcast). You return to different people every day based on your need and the dice you have available. And more than that, the world is so rich that you just want to pop between destinations and check in on everything for hours.

Briefly, on the mechanics: it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to a Scum and Villainy video game. The RPG mechanics, such as they are, function more as exceptions to the game’s rules (think how the Pandemic classes bend certain parts of the game). The game smartly allows you to do something with your worst rolls within the hacking sub-game, where you need to match dice to progress. It was difficult for me to put this game down when I started playing it, and I immediately started a second character after finishing my first run. I returned again in December, which considering the density of fall games, speaks very highly of its importance to my year in gaming. I’ve only accessed the DLC but not progressed through it, so I still have more content to enjoy. I really can’t wait to see what this developer does next, because Citizen Sleeper was a revelation.

I played Citizen Sleeper on the Series X via Game Pass, and it's also available on PC, MacOS, and the Nintendo Switch.

1. Elden Ring (Xbox Series X)

One of several places I found way, way too early in my character's progression.
One of several places I found way, way too early in my character's progression.

The temptation to punt on writing something in this entry was nearly irresistible. I’ve seen a lot of people write “what more is there to say”, and I felt the same thing. The scope and breadth of Elden Ring is almost impossible to fathom; as others have said, it’s as if they wrapped Dark Souls 4 through 6 into a single game. Since this is my game of the year, and one of the best games I’ve ever played, I suppose I should elaborate on why:

Discovery and Exploration: Elden Ring is a testament to the philosophy of “less is more”. Too often have open world games devolved into a smattering of punctuation across a map, leading to the derogatory term “map game”. Elden Ring’s map provides intrigue through what it doesn’t say. Sure, that looks like an island in Liurnia, but is there something there? Is the island itself even there anymore, or did this map get drawn so long ago that there’s no longer any trace of it? Traversal allows you to engage / disengage with enemies at your leisure, but getting surprised by an undead bird mini-boss is always on the table. I really liked getting to a new open area, setting my sights on something, and working my way towards it. I also loved mopping up the Sites of Grace; I made a Notes app entry that was a checklist of every site listed online, then sought them all out after I’d done my initial foray into the area. It’s a satisfying loop that lets you take a From game at your own pace, something that feels unprecedented in the post-Demon's Souls era. Speaking of which…

FromSoft Answered the Accessibility Question: There was a lot of debate, to put it generously, around the difficulty of Sekiro. Many people wished they (or others) could experience the game outside of its punishing difficulty, while hardliners wanted to avoid forcing From to compromise its game design. Elden Ring showed their response, and it was what we needed rather than what we thought we wanted. Early on, Margit the Fell gates player progression in classic Souls fashion. However, you can just turn around and explore two enormous areas, gathering runes and player skill while fully enjoying what the game has to offer. You can even bypass this fight altogether to proceed into the next major area. A number of people have realized they don’t need to beat Elden Ring to enjoy the wonderful (and viral) things about it. From allowed this kind of player the space to exist, without adding difficulty sliders or other half-baked ideas. It’s a move that I didn’t expect, and it kept my experience as rich as it would have been in a more punishing design.

Dear Lord It’s Big: As noted in this site's staff GOTY debates, the ever-increasing size of the map was staggering to behold. The underground area seemed impossibly big in promise, then maybe smaller than I thought, but then larger than expected again at various points in my progression. Getting launched to a new area and watching the world map push its margins further than I ever dreamed was jaw-dropping each time it happened. The environments were incredible, whether it was wandering a golden plain, descending into a city built into a tree, or carefully hopping along ruins suspended in a perpetual tornado. Even the relative repetition of the dungeons was strategic: just when you thought you knew what was coming, the game threw a curveball. As someone who frequently acts as Dungeon / Game Master in tabletop RPGs, I recognized the use of these tools to create bespoke experiences. The dungeon after a dungeon that descends further and further downward, risking death by fall from a great height, until you reach an underground space containing a secret cult? If you wrote off those dungeons, it’s an experience you’ll never have, and you don’t want to miss out on the enormous graveyard of merchants within.

I’m Never Going to Stop Encountering New Shit: Look at this fucking crab below! I just saw this a couple days ago while looking at a crab in my telescope for basically no reason. I gave the controller to my 3 year-old and she navigated into a corner of Liurnia that I don’t remember seeing for myself the first playthrough. There’s always some detail, some angle of approach, or some item that I just didn’t see in my first game.

I'm from Baltimore, and that crab looks fucked up.
I'm from Baltimore, and that crab looks fucked up.

Elden Ring was my steady hand of 2022, the game that I could just pop into at any time and run around to the next Site of Grace or clear a small dungeon. It hits a sweet spot of gameplay that is simultaneously relaxing and tense. It can be the perfect podcast game or the object of your full attention. No game, aside from Hades in 2020, has made me feel the way Elden Ring did over the last decade. It’s a triumph in the medium and deserves every accolade it’s received. I’m going to play it again tonight, and you can’t stop me!

I played Elden Ring on the Xbox Series X, and it's available everywhere but the Switch. I think the Switch should really try to run this game, because that would be very funny to me.

Honorable Mentions: Both Metal Hellsinger and Scorn seemed to be fairly divisive, but I enjoyed both of them a lot. The former mostly for its excellent soundtrack (guess I’m a fake metal fan), and the latter thanks to being inextricably tied to the birth of my son… Temtem got a shout in my daughter’s GOTY list, but I enjoyed it more than any Pokemon game since Gold / Silver. I also liked Legends: Arceus a lot, while I’m on the topic… Lastly, Marvel SNAP did the impossible: made me care about a Marvel property. It’s quite possibly the best mobile game I’ve ever played, and in a less crowded year, it would have done better than #11.

Dishonorable Mentions: High on Life felt like such a poorly implemented first-person shooter that I immediately downloaded Doom (2016) again to wash the taste out of my mouth… I already wrote a review for Immortality discussing my dissatisfaction with that game. What I’ll add here is that it was my Most Disappointing nominee, as I really enjoyed my first 90ish minutes but ended up souring on it greatly… The game that I enjoyed the least this year was Trek to Yomi. The combat felt so terrible that it convinced me I just suck at video games… Lastly, a big ol’ fuck you to Activision Blizzard for its predatory microtransactions in Diablo Immortal. That game was fun for a few hours, and then I hit the pay-to-win wall others have reported. I hope they get better under new ownership, but I won’t hold my breath.

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Preschooler's Choice: Lil' ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games in 2022

Pictured: Lil' ALLTheDinos meets Baby ALLTheDinos
Pictured: Lil' ALLTheDinos meets Baby ALLTheDinos

Last year, my daughter began to notice video games and express preferences on what I and her mother would play. I wrote up a quick ranking while snowed in on New Year's Day, and it was enjoyable enough to do again this year. Of course, this was a huge year for the kid, as she is no longer my only child. Being a big sister is a huge deal, and it's come with perks both positive and negative. Coupled with the fact that she's a bona fide threenager now (seriously, the "terrible twos" have nothing on this), and it was a year of big emotions and change. It feels like it won't be too long before she's playing games totally independently, so I'm going to enjoy this listmaking exercise while I still have the chance. At least until her brother gets older and- (looks at blue hedgehog toy Santa brought him this year) oh. Oh no...

Same as last year, I've only ranked games that she experienced for the first time in 2022. This reduced the pool somewhat (once again, I'm sorry, Planet Zoo), but there were still nearly 30 games that made the list in some form or another.

10. Tinykin (Xbox Series X)

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One of the major benefits of a game that involves a small person in a big, mundane world is that children have an immediately identifiable and relatable environment to look at. This is pretty much all you need to explain my daughter’s fascination with Tinykin. The realistic rooms of the house were definitely something that pulled her in, but the cartoon bugs that populated each area engrossed her as well. Ultimately, the only thing that kept this game from appearing higher on the list is that its controls are very much adult-oriented, and a lot of precision is needed for progression. However, the vibe of this game was very much something that held her interest, and it deserves a spot on the top 10 for that alone.

9. Sonic Origins (Xbox Series X)

We went to the museum yesterday, and when she saw a gemstone she exclaimed
We went to the museum yesterday, and when she saw a gemstone she exclaimed "that belongs to Knuckles!".

Well, it finally happened to me. All my failings as a parent are on display, as my daughter likes Sonic now. I bought this game (discounted, don’t worry) last weekend, with the goal of letting my daughter play as Tails. She immediately liked pretty much everything going on with Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which is great for me because that was one of my absolute favorites growing up. There are times she got frustrated with Tails disappearing thanks to Sonic moving too quickly, and the trollishness of platforming in the series’ 2D entries barred her from any meaningful progress. That said, she helped me defeat Robotnik in the Marble Garden Zone boss fight in a significant way, and it made her happy to free the animals. Of special note are all the Sonic Mania cartoons and new intro animatics, which she keeps asking me to replay. And while I’ve really only explored the one game, it seems like they introduced a few modern elements (retries of special stages, yay) to help slightly older kids have a good time with the classic Sonic games.

8. Temtem (Xbox Series X)

She absolutely loves this gross little fucker.
She absolutely loves this gross little fucker.

Naturally in a year-and-some-change of three Pokemon games, the “we have Pokemon at home” entry hitting 1.0 captured my daughter’s imagination the most (as well as my own). Part of it is that I can play it on the TV; we only have a Switch Lite in our home. But several of the designs also became things she absolutely loves, such as the Goolder in the above photograph. There’s a yeti Tem, which met her newfound obsession with yetis after watching some ride-along videos of Expedition Everest. I’m thankful she can’t read yet, because the dialogue in the game has much more cursing and mature themes than a Pokemon game. When she gets older, I’m sure she’ll just move towards Pokemon like everyone else, but it was nice to give the other game in the genre its due.

7. Bugsnax (Xbox Series X)

You know, the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear Bugsnax.
You know, the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear Bugsnax.

I truly expected this to be at the top of the list, but for whatever reason, she just didn’t vibe with it more. Don’t get me wrong, she loves Strabby and the Mewon family. However, it wasn’t until she discovered Eggabell that the game really held her attention. She became very invested in the fate of Eggabell, and she even had a little meltdown in the car one day because she was worried about Eggabell. The ending basically didn’t even faze her (maybe she was too young to understand it), but she was happy to see Eggabell and Lizbert all right in the end. Afterwards, she drew Eggabell on her whiteboard for a few days (or at least a then-2 year old’s approximation of a person).

6. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered (Xbox Series X)

All the pictures of Mr. Drippy as a toy are on Etsy or of some Cars oil truck asshole.
All the pictures of Mr. Drippy as a toy are on Etsy or of some Cars oil truck asshole.

The kid is very, very into the G-rated Studio Ghibli movies (Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service especially). So when Ni No Kuni came to Game Pass, it was a no-brainer for us to play in front of her, right? Well, I kind of wish someone had told me in advance that the main character’s mom dies onscreen. But far worse than that for a 3-year old? Mr. Drippy transforming from a toy into a fairy. I guess the idea of a parent dying is far too abstract to get truly upset about, but losing a treasured toy is beyond the pale. She insisted my wife play this game for her for a couple of weeks, but it’s mostly forgotten about now.

5. Tunic (Xbox Series X / PC)

How to sell a game to a kid in a single image.
How to sell a game to a kid in a single image.

This is “the fox game”, which my wife greatly enjoyed and I bounced off of. Maybe it’s the colorful world, or the cute designs, or even just the thumbnail of an adorable fox, but she still shouts it out as something for us to play. One thing I might need to do during the next week or so is put it on no-fail mode and see if she’d like to play the first section of the game. I doubt she’ll be able to appreciate the manual, but it would be interesting if her illiteracy doesn’t matter at all for understanding. She tells plenty of stories without being able to read the words; maybe she’ll put her old dad to shame in decoding the messages.

4. Stray (PC)

Still can't believe how realistic they made the cats in this game.
Still can't believe how realistic they made the cats in this game.

Another game that I felt personally disappointed by but played for the sake of my child. She really loves pressing the meow button, although she was let down by the fact that our cat didn’t care at all about the game. The realistic movement of the titular stray cat is something she still enjoys, particularly when the cat is naughty and scratches / pushes stuff. She really doesn’t like the creepy monsters, and the scene where the cat fell into a pit made her cry multiple times. It worries me because our cat is pushing 16 years old, and he doesn’t have long for the world thanks to kidney issues. Maybe she’ll find comfort in this game when he dies. Holy crap, this was a downer paragraph, let’s move onto…

3. Fall Guys (Xbox Series X)

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This game captured my daughter’s imagination immediately with its silly avatars and bright, fun world. She’s had a great time directing me to do stuff, particularly decorating our Guy with various colors and patterns (usually pink). I’ve let her take the controller and play some rounds, and while she hasn’t finished any race, she’s definitely done better than last place several times. I think this might be something she really loves when she has a little more platforming coordination. She even made one of her little Lego sets out to be a Fall Guys obstacle course, which was hilarious and adorable in equal measure. Sparking a kid’s imagination to find new ways to play creatively is kind of the point of any children’s media, so I’m glad that this game accomplished that. Now as for the ease of spending real money, let’s just say I’ve snatched that controller back anytime we found ourselves in a menu.

2. Elden Ring (Xbox Series X)

If we encountered jellyfish, this was the next 15 minutes of play time.
If we encountered jellyfish, this was the next 15 minutes of play time.

There’s a Patton Oswalt bit where he talks about his daughter walking in while he was watching a werewolf movie, and how she absorbed the entire gory scene. To calm her down, he played some Schoolhouse Rock about bones and sent her to bed. Naturally, she burst into her parents’ room with a nightmare, only the thing that scared her was the skeleton inside her body. As she settled down, she laughed and said “that doggy was wearing a shirt” in reference to the R-rated movie she stole a glimpse of. At the risk of spoiling that entire bit (too late), I thought about it a lot as my daughter kept wanting me to play Elden Ring this entire year. I avoided showing her anything from it for months! But when she picked up an interest in jellyfish in the spring, I thought I’d just summon the spectral jellyfish and walk around with it for a bit. Not only did she have big opinions on what I should be doing at any given moment, she also wanted to play by herself. I let her jump around in relatively safe areas, as it turns out Soulsborne games are not for 2 or 3 year olds. She accidentally saw a fire giant rip its foot off and try to beat me with it, and that didn’t faze her in the slightest. I keep trying to figure out what about Elden Ring nearly made it her #1 game of the year; my best guess is that the world’s grounded yet fantastical art style let her become invested in a way that more elaborate game settings don’t, but maybe she just likes Torrent and the animals.

1. Goat Simulator 3 (Xbox Series X)

She (goat) got to that island all by herself! She rules.
She (goat) got to that island all by herself! She rules.

Sometimes, as with the #2 game on this list, you get something totally unexpected that a kid latches onto. Other times, you get exactly what you expected. Goat Simulator 3 should be a completely unsurprising entry on any kid’s top 10, particularly when one of her favorite games of last year was the first Goat Simulator. She spent a lot of time just running and jumping with the goat, and you could pretty much just hand her a controller and let her go to town. She needed some assistance with dead ends and turning / looking occasionally, but otherwise she was happy as a clam to play in the goofy sandbox. I was also able to get some split-screen co-op with her for the first time ever (and only time, until Sonic Origins). In the end, Goat Simulator 3 ended up being a pretty special part of her year, and for that it’s an easy #1 on this list.

Honorable Mentions: The "crow game", known to you as Death's Door, very nearly made this list for the same reason Tunic did... Joyride Turbo is a racing game with very good accessibility options for kids, so she had a good 1-2 hours with it... An animatronic called "The Creature" nearly propelled Planet Coaster into the top 10, coupled with the fact she likes watching ride-along videos (see the Temtem entry)... Finally, she absolutely loves the galaxy map and Wrex in Mass Effect; too bad it's a shooting game.

Dishonorable Mentions: It's a shame the execs in charge of Ori and the Will of the Wisps are such pieces of shit, because that was her #1 game until that news came out. The kid was playing with a little owl, pretending it was Kuu, and was so affected by the cutscenes... The only game she actively disliked this year was Gang Beasts. I'm still trying to figure out why.

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Scorn and the Second-Born: A Surreal Experience (Spoilers)

Newborns look way more like this than I've ever been comfortable with.
Newborns look way more like this than I've ever been comfortable with.

Parenting in the time of video games is a very strange thing. The predictable effect is that you have far less time for gaming than you did before there were squirming and squealing half-copies of yourself roaming your living space. We all make sacrifices (RIP Civilization series), but they’re worth it. The less predictable outcome is how parenting bends your brain to not only select your games in a way that lets you share the experiences you enjoy with your new loved ones, but also how you perceive the games you play when they’re in bed. Much has been made of how media about children will make you cry after becoming a parent, but video games are often left out of that conversation. My daughter loves her little elephant stuffy, so I had a visceral reaction to hearing about one such stuffed animal getting dismembered in a recent “family friendly” video game. I’ve developed more of a distaste for Sword Guy or Gun Guy games as well, leading me to a lot more indie titles than I was interested in a few years ago.

Despite the gradual warping of my brain that I just described, I became interested in Scorn as its release date approached. Scorn is a video game that was announced an eon ago, resurfaced in 2020 with a dripping wall penis video, and then finally came out this past October. It’s been a pretty polarizing game, as reviews on this very website and in our Game Pass Game Club in the forums can attest. For my part, I enjoyed the game, and I was tempted to write my own review about it. But the timing of its release and my experience with it combined with the premature birth of my second child changed the entire nature of what I wanted to write, and it’s been just about the most surreal gaming experience of my life.

Here’s a quick summary of the game:

Scorn drops you immediately into the game by transitioning the menu screen seamlessly into the introductory cutscene. It’s clear that immersing you in the grotesque, fascinating world is the developers’ primary goal. What follows is the player getting their bearings in a Giger-esque alien landscape / building / organ and solving some light (in both senses of the word) puzzles. Eventually, you get covered in goop after an explosion, take control again in a completely different location some time in the future, and are assaulted by a creepy lifeform. This creature latches onto your character, providing an extra pair of arms that at any given time are either holding your additional items or tearing your body apart in short in-game cutscenes. The combat and evasion sequences begin shortly thereafter, and this is perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the game. Walking from puzzle to puzzle while encountering too many enemies for your amount of ammunition is more or less the bulk of gameplay, culminating in a boss battle and some timed obstacles involving a parasite that eats away at your health. At the final stage, you nearly manage to approach some sort of light, but the aforementioned creature (who you remove after the boss fight, and is apparently the first act’s protagonist) grabs and merges with you.

It’s a disgusting, intriguing, and sometimes frustrating experience. Under normal circumstances, I would be writing about its themes, how the artwork never fully justifies its source materials and/or inspirations, and how I ended up coming around the combat enough to label it one of the game’s positive features. Alas, these are not normal times.

This game can be... a lot.
This game can be... a lot.

My son was due on American Thanksgiving, though neither me nor my wife (go ahead, get it out of your system) expected him to wait that long. Our first child was born 3 weeks early, so we crafted our plans for a similar delivery date. Naturally, the new kid preempted that by an additional 2 weeks, meaning he was born the Monday after Scorn’s release. Mere hours into my son’s life, I walked out of the NICU and slept in a different part of the hospital, in the same room as my exhausted wife. Throughout the next day, there was a pervasive sense of wrongness; I could visit my son occasionally, but then I couldn’t do shit for him. He was still learning how to breathe, how to eat, and how to just… exist, and all of that needs the assistance of medical professionals instead of an extremely worried dad. Less than 24 hours into his life, I had to leave the hospital to take care of my 3 year old. So what did I do after putting her to bed and texting my wife for updates on the newborn? Play Scorn.

By far the most striking early-game imagery is the various ways the player-character peels themselves out of or disconnects themselves from items in the world. This is clearly meant to evoke birthing, which was obviously on my mind, but it hit differently as I thought about my son still hooked up to various tubes miles away from me. At that time, he was being fed via tube routed through his nose directly into his stomach (a process I’ve since learned is called “gavage”), and he had cords hooked up to monitor his heart rate and oxygen (4 in all). On top of that, he needed oxygen tubes lightly jammed into his nostrils. Any interaction I had with him in the first week involved gently maneuvering past a tangled mess of these items, each of which performed some vital task towards keeping him alive and healthy. It’s a careful dance to take a small human out of a crib, avoid all potential snags, then sit down in a chair to feed / snuggle the newborn.

Scorn has a few sequences that focus on the protagonist handling a helpless creature. As observed in the Unfinished, your reward for solving an early puzzle is a mass of flesh, most of which is fused with a humanlike creature. It pleads with its eyes and grasps weakly at your character, and the silent protagonist plods along from station to station. The suffering of this creature is strongly felt through wordless, muffled screaming. There are a couple of choices you have, one of which involves sawing the poor thing apart and collecting its arm. The other removes it from its flesh lump, but then you force its hands into a painful mechanism that allows them to assist you in opening a door. Then, cruelly, you abandon the creature in a locked chamber. Considering it was now a nightly ritual to say good night to my son, struggling to learn basic human physiological functions, you might think this sequence broke me. But it was such an on-the-nose interpretation of the intrusive thoughts I was having at the time that I barely reacted at all.

In hindsight, I should have reacted more strongly.
In hindsight, I should have reacted more strongly.

After a week or so in the highest level of the NICU, my son was transferred over to a lower-level NICU. I don’t remember the exact designations, but the upshot is he was doing well. We had the usual newborn concerns with jaundice, monitoring his weight like a hawk, and making sure he didn’t desaturate on oxygen. On top of that, the doctors needed to monitor his skull plates (since his fontanelle, aka head hole, was way too small) and found a little dimple at the bottom of his spine. Being a parent, particularly a parent of a preemie, is being told about things that you didn’t know could go wrong with a body, then being informed that the solution for many of those is “wait and see”. Logically, everything they tell you makes sense, and the people informing you are the best people you know to handle it. Emotionally, it’s exhausting to learn about a potential problem and not be able to take any actions toward resolving it. It didn’t help that it felt like every time one of these issues was resolved or at least looked like it was heading for resolution, a brand new one would pop up.

One night after 10 PM, I had finished either supervising a gavage feeding or feeding the baby myself, and I decided to stick around to spend more time with him. As I snuggled him, his respiratory rate on the monitor slowly dipped all the way down, eventually hitting 0. The machine started making a noise, and I called for help. My son’s breathing did return, and things all read normally except the flashing red word “apnea”. After setting him down in the crib, I finally tracked down a nurse and frantically explained the situation. I tried not to let any anger or frustration about the lack of response seep in, but I’m sure I was at least somewhat of an asshole (I apologized later that evening, just in case). The verdict was that my son was fine, as his other vitals hadn’t dipped to worrisome levels. After that, it became hard to trust a lot of the equipment. It seemed like false reports happened fairly frequently, and the staff had learned to ignore several indicators that tied up valuable nurses for no actual issue. But that was all my poisoned little brain needed to invent scenarios where a real issue just looked like a false report. The lack of control was never more readily apparent, and there was still no real timetable for my son coming home.

The fact that this image didn't give me nightmares probably says something about me, and I don't like that.
The fact that this image didn't give me nightmares probably says something about me, and I don't like that.

Progress in Scorn is mostly marked by checking out a weird new flesh biome after some transportation sequence. The final area is littered with phallic imagery, people strung up into a collective nervous system, and (as VB and Chip said in their stream) literal “load-bearing” statues. The bulk of your work here is filling up some canisters with goo, which you obtain from monstrous baby-sized creatures. On three separate occasions, you grab an egg from a pedestal, insert it into some golem-like creature, and then pop the egg to remove the monster baby. Afterwards, you gently transport it into a wall-mounted fixture that smashes the baby in a grotesque manner. You might think I, as a parent, would be thoroughly disgusted or shaken by this scene. But it was oddly affirming to me, as I spent several hours per day inside a facility where there was constant care and concern paid towards premature babies. Affection in reality was standing in sharp contrast to the nihilism of Scorn. Just as I lost my immersion in the video game that’s 90% vibes, I gained appreciation for my situation. My son was alive, healthy, and certainly not in the constant danger it sometimes felt like.

By the time I reached the end of Scorn, we were tracking our son’s progress by his feedings. There was a chart full of boxes near his crib, one that tracked the rate of bottle feeds he would get per day as well as the number of successes he needed to move on to more frequent bottles. My brain immediately gamified this chart and treated it as a hard tracker for my son’s homecoming. This was, as you might have guessed, not how the NICU treated it. It was more of a loose guideline to the staff, and we found that some days did nothing to bring him closer to home, while others jumped an entire row. One day, the nurses casually dropped that “maybe” they would discharge the baby soon. The following day, I got a text from my wife that “soon” meant “as soon as you get here with the car seat”. Out of nowhere, the NICU stay was over. It’s definitely a happy ending, and it’s very on brand with the whole situation that it happened outside of the plans we made for it.

It’s weird to reach the end of a video game and come to the conclusion of “oh yeah, this is a video game” right before its ending. But honestly, playing Scorn felt like walking through some interpretative art museum up until that point. The game unexpectedly spoke to me in its own strange language for a long time, and then it suddenly fell silent. We don’t choose the media that resonates with us in weird times in our lives, and we certainly don’t have any say over the ways they resonate with us. When my daughter was born, I was finishing up Tetris Effect, and the song in the final level (“Metamorphosis”) hit me like a ton of bricks. Everyone can recall certain songs or albums that mark their own transition points, and sometimes the memories you associate make absolutely no sense. Scorn being tied to the birth of my son is one of those experiences that defies explanation, and I will never forget it.

Look, I wasn't going to finish an article on Scorn without sharing this screenshot.
Look, I wasn't going to finish an article on Scorn without sharing this screenshot.

Postscript: I wrote the bulk of this a couple weeks ago. Since then, this kid has gained more than half of a pound each week and is eating too damn much. Thanks, Scorn?

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Ranking of Albummers! Part 4

You know, when I started this series, I never imagined I would make it this far. Not only for common sense reasons (listening to and writing about all these albums has to be bad for my health), but I was fairly convinced Albummer would end well before its 50th episode. I'm absolutely delighted to be wrong on the second point, because it's one of my favorite features on the internet. I hope the show keeps going past the point where opening my rankings in the Notes app completely crashes my phone. As with last time, I'm skipping blurbs (except one) on previously ranked albums. If you'd like to read more about them, here are the links to part one, part two, and part three.

1. Quake (soundtrack), Nine Inch Nails

As I’ve grown older, I’ve ventured further into electronic and ambient music. Maybe it’s because I work better when I’m listening to it, but a great influence on that direction has been the evolution of Nine Inch Nails. My favorite album from the group is the sprawling The Fragile, which also includes my favorite instrumental track of all time, “Just Like You Imagined”. This soundtrack was almost certainly crafted while The Fragile was still being recorded, so is it any wonder I loved listening to it? I could definitely see “Aftermath” closing out disc 1, or being a bonus track after “Ripe (with Decay)”. “The Hall of Souls” could be inserted into one of the Ghosts records and I wouldn’t even know it. Trent probably did himself a disservice to overcoming the edgelord image with titles like “It Is Raped” and “Damnation”, but the music itself is tense and compelling. I will admit that my attention flagged during the longest track, “Life”, but I was very productive while listening to it at work. Also, I’ve never played Quake, and I’m burying that fact about myself here so nobody notices my lack of Gamer Cred (™). Album good!

2. Metallica, Metallica

3. Jugulator, Judas Priest

4. Attila, Attila

5. Be A Man, "Macho Man" Randy Savage

6. Liz Phair, Liz Phair

All I remembered about this album were critics hating it and “H.W.C.”, so I was really curious to reassess it after the better part of two decades. My initial thought was “holy crap this is the most 2003 album of all time”, a conclusion that is supported by a cursory look at the songwriting staff. Songs like “Rock Me” and “Why Can’t I?” are extremely not my cup of tea, but Phair looks and sounds like she’s having a good time on them. It’s hard to resist criticizing the clearly-written-by-middle-aged-white-dudes lyrics on the singles, but knowing the little I know about Liz Phair, that feels like a trap a lot of critics fell into. It also sells short songs like “Little Digger”, which is a pretty unique story and perspective in pop music. So while the album is decidedly not “for me”, who gives a shit; it’s still pretty good.

7. Still Sucks, Limp Bizkit

8. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland (soundtrack), Various Artists

To further destroy my Gamer Cred (™), I have never been a fan of the Tony Hawk skateboarding games. Even worse, I’m not sure I’ve heard the original versions of at least half the songs on this soundtrack. I do however know I greatly disliked the cover of “Search and Destroy”. Beyond those particular nails on my personal chalkboard, I had a generally good time with the album. I know IGN gave it a really low rating for being a bunch of emo bands or some such nonsense, but it seemed like a collection of competent covers appropriate for a Tony Hawk game. It was also pretty funny seeing Dropkick Murphy’s deliver a straightforward cover without any of their typical quirkiness. Very clearly the best job the infamous Various Artists have done thus far in this series.

9. Songs of Innocence, U2

10. Shaq Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal

11. Greatest Hits, Chris Gaines

12. Music from Another Dimension!, Aerosmith

After a 68 minute listening experience, I’m still unclear why Aerosmith bothered to pick a theme for the album. I’m pretty sure they just enjoyed the aesthetic of old movie posters, and they got their design team to generate the title and cover art while they made the same music the band has made for decades. Based on the topics covered by the music itself, I personally think they should have named it “Lovely to Love Your Lovin’”. The best thing I can say about this album is that it’s virtually indistinguishable from everything else I’ve heard from Aerosmith from the 90’s. Unfortunately, this is also the worst thing I can say about the album. These old dudes had no way of knowing this a decade ago, but in 2022 we live in a constant churn of resurrected old content. Every single story seemingly needs to be adapted, and any side character from a 40 year old Star Wars movie can get a prestige drama about what a sad parent they truly were. All our presidential candidates are between the ages of 75 and dead. Musically, the album is fine, but I don’t have enough appreciation for Aerosmith’s work to say whether it compares favorably or unfavorably to the rest of their discography. I wish they’d thrown in some extremely ill-advised dubstep to capture the zeitgeist, though.

13. Mission Impossible 2 Soundtrack Album, Various Artists

The greatest voices of turn of the century butt rock (and also Tori Amos?) contribute to one of two soundtracks released in honor of the worst Mission Impossible film, and all I feel is indifference. I was definitely forced to listen to this album in the basements and cars of friends when it came out, yet I can’t recall a single track besides Metallica’s and Limp Bizkit's. The fact that this album charts as highly as it does on this ranking is mostly an appreciation that it’s not a bunch of ill-advised covers. It also becomes pretty clear that we’re actually getting these bands (who are not enjoyable to listen to, with a couple of exceptions) at something close to their best. So for every “Rocket Science” and “My Kind of Scene” on the album, there’s something else that’s listenable at minimum. I found my time with the album to fly by, which is sometimes the most I can ask for on albums covered by the show. One final note, though: if you can’t nail a cover of a well-known Pink Floyd track for a movie, please don’t even try. At least it wasn’t Velvet Revolver’s version of “Money”? Or better yet, get these guys to do it.

14. Deliver Us from Evil, Kryst the Conqueror

15. 44/876, Sting & Shaggy

16. Dead Man's Bones, Dead Man's Bones

I love a good celebrity vanity musical project, so seeing Baby Goose make a “gothic folk” album seemed like a promising prospect. This anticipation was heightened by reading the background for creating this album, which sounds like one of those “I went crazy playing a Batman villain” interviews from the stupidest actors on the planet. Imagine my surprise when the album was unremarkable in any direction. It sounds like a spooky predecessor to the stomp-clap epidemic of the post-Imagine Dragons world, such as the banal outro to an otherwise fun “In The Room Where You Sleep”. I can’t differentiate between the majority of tracks in hindsight because they all sound like they’re auditioning to be the intro music for a 2010 prestige TV show. There are child chorus portions, and they go roughly as well as you might expect. The biggest crime of this album is the long stretches of boredom that accompany listening to it, especially with the overlong “Buried in Water” and “Dead Hearts”. Overall, you would do well to avoid this album, just because you can probably use the 46ish minutes to do anything else and have a better time.

17. Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy

18. The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis

19. Father of All Motherfuckers, Green Day

20. Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson

I’m an enormous fan of Tom Waits’ music, to the point where he’s probably one of my top three favorite artists ever. If there’s one piece of advice I could give any aspiring artist who wants to cover one of his songs, it would be: don’t. Or rather, don’t if you can’t come up with any interesting spin on his music. ScarJo truly flubs that latter point, with every track being a straightforward and lesser version of Waits’ originals. The closest the album gets to justifying its own existence is with the David Bowie-assisted “Falling Down”, although there are quite a few problems with the track. There are some truly laughable synth noises throughout the album, contrasting heavily with the careful selection of instrumentation typical in Waits’ music. As a result, every song sounds like something played over the trailer for a new season of True Detective. Well, almost every song: the self-insert original “Song for Jo” sounds like it came from a completely different album. It’s the most coherent song on the entire collection, but unfortunately for ScarJo it’s still very boring to listen to. Under no circumstances can I recommend this collection of crawlers, lollers, and sad bastard covers, even if you don’t share my oversensitivity to poor renditions of these songs.

21. Loud Rocks, Various Artists

22. Sonic Adventure 2 OST, Various Artists

80 songs! You motherfuckers made me listen to 80 songs on a single soundtrack! I kept thinking I accidentally opened a playlist exclusively made of anime opener music, but no, it was still Sonic. Probably the worst part of this is that no song was a complete unlistenable shitshow. Even the Knuckles raps were semi-competent, although the sheer number of them was an act of violence. I was very amused by “Throw It All Away” being a poor knockoff of NIN’s “March of the Pigs”, as well as the “E.G.G.M.A.N.” theme trying its best Ozzy Osbourne. The soundtrack could have used a lot more of those, because the vast majority of songs bludgeoned me into a hazy stupor. I don’t know what possessed the freaks at SEGA to commission this behemoth, but it might stand up as one of the most ill-advised video game soundtracks of all time. The Chaos deserved better than this.

23. Cyberpunk, Billy Idol

24. Rebirth, Lil Wayne

25. Transplants, Transplants

Never before in my rankings have I disliked a competently made album this much. Maybe it’s just because I have no nostalgia or fondness for Rancid, Operation Ivy, or this kind of punk writ large. The robotic drumming of Travis Barker made me very sleepy as well. And while I have no issues with bizarre voices (see aforementioned Tom Waits fandom), something about Tim Armstrong’s vocals bothers the absolute shit out of me. If you do remember this album fondly, more power to you. For me, it was an unpleasant slog (48 minutes long! How?!?) that made me wish I was listening to nearly anything else.

26. Shine On, Jet

At the risk of further dating myself, my freshman year of college started in 2004. At least in western Pennsylvania, Jet’s “Cold Hard Bitch” and “Look What You’ve Done” were inescapable that fall. I thought it strange at the time that the band would slingshot between late 90’s hard rock misogyny and sad lad breakup songs, but I was also a very ignorant teenager. One of the common complaints with Oasis is that they sound like a Beatles record that got thrown in with the wash, and that the end result was a muddled facsimile of a better band. If that’s true, then Jet’s Shine On is a copy of Be Here Now that you forgot was mixed up with your laundry until you moved your clothes to the drier. There’s enough competent musicianship to avoid falling into Van Weezer territory, but songs like “Rip It Up” ensure that the full listening experience is outside the realm of tolerability. I ranked this album based on its music alone, but I want to say that the video for the title track reminded me a lot of Russell Brand’s character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I assure you is not a compliment because that movie came out a year earlier. Also, since I’ve spent way too much time thinking about Jet, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a great movie, and Bill Hader is especially good in it.

27. The Tears of Hercules, Rod Stewart

28. The Philosophy of the World, The Shaggs

29. Mainstream Sellout, Machine Gun Kelly

30. Van Weezer, Weezer

31. Playing with Fire, Kevin Federline

32. Bang! Pow! Boom!, Insane Clown Posse

33. Youth Authority, Good Charlotte

34. 1000hp, Godsmack

35. Freddy's Greatest Hits, The Elm Street Group

Ah good, I was worried we weren’t doing ploddingly unfunny concept albums that consist mostly of covers anymore. Listening to this album evoked the feeling of feeling sick at work: a dull ache that seemed to slow time down, and all I wanted to do was go to bed. My head swam with feverish possibilities, like if this was a band in search of a gimmick or a gimmick in search of a middling record to be applied to. Was this album solely invented to sell for Halloween parties, or to gift to the horror fan in your life (if that was even a thing yet)? I delved into my own nightmare landscape (YouTube comments) and found that a whole lot of people love this album. I’d rather listen to Freddy growl randomly over a song in progress than hear another Crazy Frog noise, but this was still a profoundly upsetting listening experience.

36. Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven, Kid Cudi

37. Origins, Imagine Dragons

38. Taste of Christmas, Various Artists

39. Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, Joe Pesci

40. Crazy Frog Presents More Crazy Hits, Crazy Frog

41. Kidz Bop 3, The Kidz Bop Singers

42. Too Legit for the Pit, Various Artists

43. Believers Never Die Volume Two, Fall Out Boy

44. WWE Originals, Various Artists

Maybe I mentioned this in a previous post, but I’ve been doing a weekly Trash Song Tuesday segment with friends and colleagues since the start of 2020. I did some extracurricular wrestling music listening earlier this year for content, so it’s with some certainty that I can declare this album to be one of the worst in that mini-genre. Making your very first track a 2+ minute skit is an extremely questionable choice; making it only the first of FIVE Stone Cold Steve Austin skits is simply a terrible one. I wish I knew more about the decisions leading into creating this album, because Wikipedia doesn’t have that information (but it does have two separate “Reception” categories, for some ungodly reason). It’s mostly unlistenable dreck, but surprisingly strong tracks from Lilian Garcia and Lita stand out, despite their “discount Evanescence” and “flat vocal” issues, respectively. Special shout-outs to two of the worst songs I’ve heard in this entire series, courtesy of Kurt Angle and Eddie / Chavo Guerrero. Hard to believe this album came out a year after the excellent Randy Savage rap album. Final request: do not, in fact, put a little ass on your baby.

45. Rock'n Roll Gangster, Fieldy's Dreams

46. LuLu, Metallica

47. Angelic 2 the Core, Corey Feldman

48. St. Anger, Metallica

49. Danzig Sings Elvis, Danzig

50. Around the World with the Chipmunks, Alvin and the Chipmunks

51. Funny Minions: TV and Movie Theme Remixes, Funny Minions Guys

As part of your regularly scheduled update on the Funny Minions Guys' discography, it appears that part 3 of their mainline series has been taken down from iTunes. Fret not, because they've added an additional four volumes of their "Top Hits" series to make up for that loss. Unfortunately, none have been released since July 11th of this year, meaning that we may have seen the last of your quarterly Funny Minions Guys reports. Let those dudes know if you want to hear a cover of the latest Santigold album, though; it's your support that keeps them going.

52. The Dumbest Asshole in Hip-Hop, Steve-O

This will probably sound at least a little surprising, but I’m in my 30’s and have really never watched an appreciable amount of Jackass. Steve-O, therefore, is a relatively unknown commodity to me. What I do know is that he made a bad comedy album that, to its credit, tells a coherent story. It’s unfortunately interspersed with things I will generously consider songs, most of which clock under the 2-minute mark. There’s an enormous amount of self-deprecation that becomes just about the album’s only theme after a certain point. Don’t get me wrong, I like self-deprecating art, but it only works for me in moderation. For the thankfully short 22 minutes this album lasted, I sat completely stone-faced as Steve-O told me how funny other people thought his songs were. Clinically, it’s an interesting artifact of a bottoming out in a celebrity’s life, and the only reason it’s interesting rather than tragic is because Steve-O is in a much better place now. But with all the other bottom-feeders on this list, I could at least see the point in their creation. The Funny Minions Guys wanted to profit off some idea they had before their local radio station’s wacky morning DJs beat them to the punch. The Chipmunks wanted to stretch their legs with various musical styles under the tried-and-true format. Steve-O pretty much admits to this being a meandering waste of time, which is at least insightful of him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make it at all listenable.

There you have it: a new album reigns supreme as the worst thing covered by Albummer. Will it be topped by the time part 5 comes out? We can only hope.

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Next Edition of Dungeons & Dragons Announced

In case you missed it, Wizards of the Coast announced a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons today, with a preliminary release date of 2024. As with 5th Edition, they've started a playtesting process, which you can find out more about in that link. I participated in the previous playtest and was pretty confused by the early form of 5e (which attempted to go by the name "D&D Next"). This one seems a lot more like an expansion than a reinvention of previous editions, as they've done with 3e, 4e, and 5e. I've been extremely satisfied with 5e (to the point where it's now my favorite edition of the game), so I'm not exactly in any hurry to purchase a bunch of new books. However, the long lead time and integration into existing game architecture is pretty promising.

Scrolling through the 21-page document they provided as the first part of the playtest, it really does look like any of the Unearthed Arcana online supplements WotC has steadily unveiled over the last 8 years. The biggest changes appear to be the return of feats as a key part of character creation (and giving them levels), moving the ability score bonuses from a racial to a background perk, restructuring magic into sources (like in 4e) rather than class-specific lists, and formally incorporating a lot of rules present in nearly every game actually played. Of course the playtest materials are limited to level 1 impacts, and even then just to races and backgrounds. You can't use this material to start a campaign, but you could certainly use it as the framework if you wanted to homebrew a system.

Overall, it seems like an interesting though not unexpected development. I had wondered if they'd attempt to incorporate a lot more elements of smaller TTRPGs, but with D&D still accounting for more than half of all Roll20 games, why fix what isn't broken? Interested to see what others think about this announcement, and if anyone else is checking out the playtest at this time.

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Ranking of Albummers! Part 3

Yes, I bought this and had it shipped to me from a St. Louis-area Goodwill store for $5. Spoiler: I hate my dirty basement carpet more than I hated this album.
Yes, I bought this and had it shipped to me from a St. Louis-area Goodwill store for $5. Spoiler: I hate my dirty basement carpet more than I hated this album.

Last year, I made an ironclad commitment in a blog post to rank the Albummers every 13 albums. In March, I made good on that promise, thinking it might be the last time I fulfill it. Fortunately, I turned out to be wrong, and I've received enough ear poison the last few months to kill the king of Denmark as a result. This time, I've upped the commitment level by purchasing music in order to listen along, as well as (gasp) re-ranking some of the previous entries. As with last time, I'm forgoing the thumbnail images for album covers (to avoid crashing the blog before I can save it), and I'm limiting my commentary on albums covered in part one and part two to reordering and reexamination blurbs. I hope this show continues to the point where even a simple text list crashes the draft, because I am not yet even close to sated. However, the albums and episodes covering them are the highlight of my week, and I'm grateful the crew has pumped them out weekly with only one break for nearly a year now.

1. Metallica, Metallica

2. Jugulator, Judas Priest

3. Attila, Attila

When I listened to Kevin Federline’s “Playing with Fire”, I experienced a disconnect with music critics who said it was one of the worst albums of all time. That feeling now pales in comparison to what I felt during this album, dubbed the “worst rock album of all time” by some (presumably older) critics. Truthfully, I don’t even know how they arrived at that conclusion, because Attila is legitimately good. Sure, it can be a chaotic mess at times (such as moments in “California Flash”), but that rawness is part of its appeal. Billy Joel is such a known commodity, with an enormous body of work of consistent polish and varying quality, so hearing him stretch his legs as a young musician is a great treat. The organ and drums of “Amplifier Fire (Part I: Godzilla)” are highly entertaining and skillful, and the full song gives me new appreciation for a musician that I’m admittedly very tired of. Honestly, the only track I didn’t enjoy on the album was “Tear This Castle Down”, and that was mostly because Joel and his friend threw way too much stuff at the wall at once to see if any of it stuck. At any rate, I can’t understand anyone walking out of the club while Attila played, because the 40 minutes as a whole were mesmerizing. I would voluntarily listen to this entire album again, which is probably the highest compliment you’re going to read from me for the rest of this post.

4. Be A Man, "Macho Man" Randy Savage

5. Still Sucks, Limp Bizkit

6. Songs of Innocence, U2

7. Shaq Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal

8. Greatest Hits, Chris Gaines

As desperately as I’d like to factor in the utterly bizarre origins of this album to these rankings, I remain as ever committed to judging them by their musical content only. And let me just say that this album being “fine” is the weirdest possible outcome. Aside from being miffed on behalf of the Wallflowers that “Unsigned Letter” is the most blatant ripoff of “One Headlight” that I’ve ever heard, nothing on this album surprised me in a bad way. Clearly Garth Brooks’ writing team keeps up on contemporary pop trends, because just about every song sounds like an industry standard sometime between 1997 and 2003; thus in some ways, it’s actually ahead of its time in places. Of course, if the idea was to develop a radically different sound as some sort of creative experiment, Garth and co. failed miserably. “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” could easily top country charts, and the true unfamiliarity with funky beats gives “Way of the Girl” an edge that I don’t think the musicians intended. With a pretty consistent sound throughout the 13 tracks, it’s almost disappointing to see such a lack of commitment to the conceit of capturing an artist’s discography spanning multiple decades. In any case, I’ll always have this strange relic sitting alongside my other CDs.

It contained an alternate cover on the inside in case you were terrified people might judge your CD collection (or more likely, not buy it in resale).
It contained an alternate cover on the inside in case you were terrified people might judge your CD collection (or more likely, not buy it in resale).

Let me know if you want to see more album booklet screenshots. The "cover" to Triangle is hilarious.

9. Deliver Us from Evil, Kryst the Conqueror

Sometimes, an album leaves me with relatively little to say about it. Often it’s because I don’t have the full context for the musicians performing the tracks (which is the case here) or a strong enough background in the genre (less so). I almost wish I could split Deliver Us from Evil into separate collections of songs, and even portions of those songs, for the purposes of this ranking. I found myself jamming out at times, laughing at its absurdity at others, and even gasping at the implications of the “Wherever I Roam” track. When you listen to nearly 40 “bummer” albums over the course of roughly as many weeks, it’s easy to become desensitized to dreck. With such an uneven album, it’s hard not to give the band a perhaps-overly generous standing for making me pay attention track after track. I enjoyed parts of this album, hated others, and always awaited the next track with something resembling eager anticipation. That’s kind of a win, right?

10. 44/876, Sting & Shaggy

11. Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy

Ask a boomer for their opinion on the worst music ever made, and at some point they’ll probably at least mention Leonard Nimoy’s discography. But here in the year 2022, more than 50 years after Mr. Spock’s half dozen-or-so albums, it’s worth a critical re-examination. The conclusion I’ve reached is that it certainly isn’t good music, but it’s so light and goofy that being good or bad is beside the point. It feels like a poorly executed version of Shaq Diesel, where an entertaining star of a different medium stretches their legs in music to chase a dream. Sure, I wish Nimoy could carry a tune, but I have absolutely no problem with him singing about Bilbo Baggins in ways that don’t sound factually accurate to the books (and which I’m far too lazy to fact-check). I’ve chalked up some of the content of this album to being from the 60’s and earlier, but I still don’t like hearing Nimoy-as-Spock base a verse around “women be complaining” and asking if a woman still wants him to put a baby in her. But with only a single writing credit out of 13 tracks, it’s tough to put that on him too. I wish today’s stars (or at least more than Jeremy Renner) would take a page from the original Star Trek and make their own ill-advised concept albums. The cost of living has increased dramatically since the 70’s, but our vanity project music has basically stayed the same. Something’s gotta give.

12. The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis

Bruce gets the first bump in the revised rankings, albeit by a single spot. I just fondly remembered "Youngblood" the other day, that's all.

13. Father of All Motherfuckers, Green Day

14. Loud Rocks, Various Artists

So it’s come to this: another compilation album covering hip-hop songs. Unlike the terrible Too Legit for the Pit, at least each artist had some discernible level of enthusiasm for the music being played. Some of the choices were… bizarre, to say the least (hi, Incubus), but others sounded downright acceptable. I confess to having relatively little knowledge of the Loud artist discography, including Wu-Tang Clan, so I can’t speak to what sacred cows are or aren’t being slaughtered here. Even if the covers pale in comparison to the originals, there is at least a throughline of competence, which is more than I can say for other compilation albums. Probably the biggest bummer for me personally came from the first track, as Serj Tankian shouts the n-word a lot, and that’s not really something I needed embedded in my memory. While the album is fun, it lacks the cohesion of albums ranked above it, and so it lands in a spot between the albums I legitimately enjoy and the ones that are just fine. I’d say given the star power present in this album, that could be considered a letdown, I guess.

15. Cyberpunk, Billy Idol

16. Rebirth, Lil Wayne

17. The Tears of Hercules, Rod Stewart

Like Rod Stewart, I have a dead dad. Unlike Rod Stewart, I didn’t tell you I’m desperately horny for 40 minutes before getting to that bit of information. I mentioned in my last ranking that I felt a huge disconnect between the thematic elements of Shaq Diesel with its actual recording, in that I wanted to like it more than I did. With this album, I desperately wanted to rank this lyrical sludge in the Feldman Zone, but the performances and hooks made that impossible. From the generational predation of “One More Time” to the retiree rock of “All My Days” to the… whatever the hell “Kookooaramabama” is, Rod Stewart’s raspy cooing made my stomach turn in many ways. However, the man can write a dang song, and it was even pleasant to listen to at times. Despite the absolutely nonsensical attempts at metaphor in the title track, I thought it was actually a nice song overall. While I don’t want to ever listen to a song from this album ever again, I wouldn’t mind if it were played over the grocery store sound system.

18. The Philosophy of the World, The Shaggs

19. Mainstream Sellout, Machine Gun Kelly

Separating the art from the artist invariably ends up being a theme on my writeups. In the case of this album, it meant ignoring the fact that this was the smirkingest collection of faces on any LP I’ve listened to in a long, long while. I also needed to get past my indifference (and at times, hostility) to the Blink-182 discography, since half of this album sounded like b-sides from their 2003 self-titled disc. So what was left over after all that? A perfectly fine pop-punk record with a few dud songs; I would dearly like to never hear “make up sex” or “papercuts” again. My biggest complaint is the album’s lack of fun on many of its tracks. There was a playfulness to “ay!” that made it a true standout, one that’s been stuck in my head in a good way since hearing it for the first time. It’s probably not a coincidence that Lil’ Wayne (author of a better rock pivot album) is featured on it. Overall, Mainstream Sellout sits one spot away from the exact middle of my total rankings. It feels appropriate for a work that hit neither the highs or lows of the music covered by this show.

20. Van Weezer, Weezer

Weezer would have been #16 on this list without the re-ranking. For a band so desperately mid, the exact center of this list just feels more correct.

21. Playing with Fire, Kevin Federline

22. Bang! Pow! Boom!, Insane Clown Posse

While I’m not familiar with their entire body of work, the Insane Clown Posse is nothing if not reliable. You paid for a specific thing, and they are going to deliver on that thing. In general, I find the Juggalos an interesting (and misunderstood) community, and ICP does a solid job serving that community year in and year out. All that being said, there has to be a better way to spend 75 minutes of your life than listening to Bang! Pow! Boom!, an album that is not only crammed to the gills with skits, but also advertises itself given even the flimsiest pretext to do so. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m aware of three alternate collector’s versions of the album, so it feels like milking a loyal fanbase. I’ve been intimately familiar with “Miracles” for over a decade thanks to its silly music video and comical lyrics, but it’s one of the least provocative parts of the album. This includes highs (“The Bone” is a legitimately good song that has a ton of fun with itself), as well as cavernous lows (the misogyny, which is bad even for the genre). Each song is more or less just what you expect, never blowing away your expectations or falling short of them. The theme of a given song is clear from the outset, and nothing about the music or lyrics really evolves as the runtime increases. For this reason, it was more like getting stuck in traffic than it was being involved in a wreck. I wanted to feel more strongly in either direction about this album, but in the end it’s fairly middling. That seems to fit what the cult of ICP actually is: not as vicious as their reputation among squares, and not as lovable as their reputation among outsiders.

23. Youth Authority, Good Charlotte

24. 1000hp, Godsmack

Look, I know all Butt Rock is for divorced dads, but this album is clearly made for extremely divorced dads. I swear I’ll make one of these posts without trashing Metallica’s Load and Reload, but this sounds like a dimestore version of the album tracks from those two records. In fact, some of the songs even seem directly lifted from prominent Metallica hits; I swear the drums in “Turning to Stone” are identical to the opening and closing part of “Enter Sandman”. The album as a whole is aggressively mediocre, which I guess makes it better than the aforementioned Metallica stinkers when you manage your expectations for both bands. Lastly, I can’t verify this thanks to a lack of notes about the songs on Genius, but I’m pretty sure “Locked and Loaded” is about them being really mad about the idea of a veteran being anti-war and accusing them of stolen valor. Does this make Godsmack the original creators of Inventing A Guy To Get Mad At? Probably not, but that won’t stop me from thinking it.

25. Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven, Kid Cudi

26. Origins, Imagine Dragons

Aside from “Radioactive” and “Thunder”, I’ve managed to make it to 2022 almost entirely avoiding listening to Imagine Dragons. This was no active impulse; it was just clear from their first single that it wouldn’t be a band I’d be into. So more than a decade passed where I wasn’t entirely sure what Imagine Dragons’ “sound” was. After listening to this album… I’m still not sure what that is, but now I know that I don’t like it. Is the band even sure what its sound is? I heard attempts in the first half to sound like store-brand versions of Foals and Foo Fighters inside some of the tracks, and all the singles sound like they had too many cooks in the studio. Being older than 25, pop music is clearly not targeted for me, but each song was far too busy with random noises and instrumental flourishes. During the song “Bad Liar”, I thought I heard my cat beginning to vomit. The second half of the album features some really bizarre choices that didn’t work at all for me, but at least they were going for something different. The worst parts of the album by far are the lead singer’s yawping, which was painful to listen to each and every time (especially on “Bullet in a Gun” and “Digital”). Lastly, I want to note how much I enjoyed the music video for “Zero”, if only for the fake gamertags and giant head-people.

27. Taste of Christmas, Various Artists

28. Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, Joe Pesci

I shared this album with friends, and it may have increased my appreciation for it as a result. Before changing its position, it would have been #33 at best, which is simply too low.

29. Crazy Frog Presents More Crazy Hits, Crazy Frog

30. Kidz Bop 3, The Kidz Bop Singers

I was torn whether to even rank this album. Kidz Bop is such low-hanging fruit that even rank amateurs in the field of musical self-harm can correctly list it as trash music. However, I relented based on two factors: first, there are 30 songs on the album, which is absolutely unconscionable. Second, there is a distinct texture to the covers that’s worth talking about. On this latter point, you can really tell how much effort was put into a given cover, and which songs the Kidz Bop producers felt really passionate about. For example, you could tell they really loved that Celine Dion song, even bothering to find a passable vocal mimic for the lead part. On the flip side, it’s often difficult to figure out whether they just wanted to bang out as many covers as possible in limited recording time, or if the cover artists they selected were just extremely out of their depth. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, if the abysmal “Heaven” and “Wasting My Time” covers are any indication. Regardless, it’s a dire slog of an album, and listening to it made me wonder if a warrant for my arrest was being drafted as I neared the end. At least the producers didn’t make the kids use the n-word, although you know they were considering it.

31. Too Legit for the Pit, Various Artists

I'm beginning to think this Various Artists band might just be really bad.

32. Believers Never Die Volume Two, Fall Out Boy

33. Rock'n Roll Gangster, Fieldy's Dreams

A quick swap with Corey Feldman after listening to "Lovin' Lies" from Angelic 2 the Core again.

34. LuLu, Metallica & Lou Reed

This is the third Metallica album I’ve been forced (well, “forced”) to write about in the context of this show, and each one has involved the band trying to change their sound in a significant way. Unlike the other two, this album was always intended as a one-off collaboration. I’m definitely no Lou Reed expert, but I’ve seen a wide variety of opinions on him. I can’t tell if he’s secretly brilliant or just asinine masquerading as secretly brilliant, but I can say he did himself absolutely no favors collaborating with the notorious Dumb Guys in Metallica. When James Hetfield’s middle-aged mewling of “I am the table” doesn’t sound out of place with Reed’s vocals, it sure starts to feel like this album is completely nonsensical. I appreciate Metallica taking a big risk on making this and then releasing it for public consumption, even if I think the album sounds like shit. It compares (marginally) favorably to St. Anger, which felt much safer coming off of their 90’s output but made even worse decisions. If you’re going to strike out, you might as well swing for the fences rather than bunt it down the wrong side of the baseline.

35. Angelic 2 the Core, Corey Feldman

Fuck, I just realized the "Core" is Corey. I'm so dumb.

36. St. Anger, Metallica

37. Danzig Sings Elvis, Danzig

38. Around the World with The Chipmunks, Alvin and the Chipmunks

Knowing full well how poorly a lot of media from 1960 maps to modern sensibilities, it’s still pretty incredible how terribly this album has aged. Since the only comparison on this list lies with the Minions, it’s impossible not to see Alvin and company as their horny, racist progenitors. The Chipmunks sing about making girls their slaves, insulting Hawaiians, and worst of all: subjecting the listener to skits in every track. It’s never a treat to listen to Dave Seville and his three dipshit sons blunder through any song more than once, and twelve consecutive tracks is bad enough on its own merits. When those songs also happen to be dreck musically, lyrically, and pacing…ly, it becomes borderline intolerable. Even the “best” track, “Spain”, has to end with an abysmal impression of a Spaniard. When I wrote about the Minions last time, it at least made me feel something. By the time I got to the final track of this album, I was just tired. Living in a country where a purple-faced vocal minority holding disproportionate political influence is desperate to regress into the 1950’s, Alvin and friends don’t feel much like a hilarious curiosity from a bygone era anymore. Maybe I’m reading into it too much, and this is just a lonely man trotting the globe with his three mutant offspring, each of whom is desperate to push their tongue down a human woman’s throat. All that being said, how is this better than the Minions? As the crew pointed out, there are some genuinely funny jokes in the middle of this shit sandwich, and those moments kept me going. However, I would prefer not to listen to anything like this ever again.

Ah who am I kidding, I need stuff like this all the time to soothe my sick brain.

39. Funny Minions: TV and Movie Theme Remixes, Funny Minions Guys

Not only is this album still up on iTunes, but there are now 8 total albums released in 2022 alone. We have, in addition to the original released on January 19th:

  • Volume 2 of the mainline series (Feb. 2, 2022)
  • Nursery Rhymes Kids Songs: Minions Edition (Feb. 3, 2022)
  • Volume 3 of the mainline series (Feb. 18, 2022)
  • Funny Minions: Top Hit Covers (Remixes) (Feb. 28, 2022)
  • Volume 2 of the nursery rhymes spinoff (Mar. 23, 2022)
  • Volume 3 of the nursery rhymes spinoff (Apr. 1, 2022)
  • Volume 2 of the top hit covers spinoff (Apr. 27, 2022)

This is truly the music of hope, joy, and optimism.

3 Comments

Diablo Immortal Is Pretty Fun, It Turns Out

In the wake of, uh, this entire week so far, I'm not surprised this topic hasn't come up in the forums yet. However, I did want to put something out there, because I happen to be enjoying this game despite its flaws. For reference, I'm playing the PC (technically in beta) version using a mouse and keyboard. Here's a bulleted list of some of my thoughts:

Positive

  • The gameplay loop is authentically Diablo, which exceeded my expectations.
  • It didn't waste much time getting to the Adventure Mode-style stuff that made postgame Diablo 3 so much fun.
  • It's fun seeing other players populate the world. I've inadvertently traveled with a small group, and we organically went our separate ways at some point.
  • Necromancer + corpse explosion = good time for ALLTheDinos.

Negative

  • It's very clearly a beta. The point of interaction is occasionally nowhere near where I think it is, to the point I got stuck in a dungeon because something was up with the passageway. Some real weird movement and hitching with my character during combat has also almost gotten me killed several times.
  • While I haven't found as obtrusive as I was warned it would be in reviews, the microtransactions are undoubtedly predatory towards a certain subset of players. I have a friend who would love to play but can't because she knows it would be trouble. That's a suckass way to design a game!
  • No Witch Doctor :(

I'm interested in hearing what other people think of it. Jeff Gerstmann was saying it kind of made him just want to play Diablo 3, which I totally get.

14 Comments

Ranking of Albummers! Part 2

Three years ago back in October 2021, I created a ranking of the then-13 records the Albummer! crew had discussed to that point. Through rigorous scientific and empirical processes, I found which albums were secret successes, which were solidly in "bummer" territory, and which caused listeners physical pain. Now that the show has covered an additional 13 albums, I feel compelled to update my rankings. One sidenote before we get into it: I had a draft written of this earlier today that got completely wiped by an errant keystroke, so I'm not going to include album art or blurbs for everything on the list again. Also, RIP KRL; I hope the show covers the McGruff the Crime Dog album in your memory.

1. Metallica, Metallica

I understand why many people consider this album a bummer. I even understand why some people think it sucks. However, my opinion is that scientific analysis states that this is, by a wide mile, the best album covered on the feature. The riff for “Enter Sandman” is iconic for a reason: it absolutely rips, and it stands up well with their 80’s content in spite of its radio-friendly leanings. “The God That Failed” might be the heaviest thing they ever wrote, with the exception of “Dyers Eve”. They even indulge in silly bullshit songs like the one about turning into werewolves. It’s an album that is simultaneously deathly serious and full of Dumb Guy energy, but it’s all good. Considering how dire things got immediately thereafter with the abysmal Load and Reload, we should be thankful this album exists at all.

2. Jugulator, Judas Priest

3. Be A Man, "Macho Man" Randy Savage

If this series has taught me anything, it’s that the hilarity of the “lol celebrity rapping” subgenre has been overstated. Even on its surface, it’s not hard to see a trash-talking wrestler with well-documented beefs creating a secretly successful hip-hop album. Best of all, the title track absolutely brutalizes an all around suckass human being in Hulk Hogan, all the while not uttering a single curse word. There are some low points to the album for certain, but I came away feeling like it was better than it had any right to be, particularly for something released in 2003. Plus, it gave us the treat of seeing everyone’s Macho Man Randy Savage impressions, something my life would feel emptier without witnessing.

4. Still Sucks, Limp Bizkit

I’m not sure whether this is a compliment or a criticism of Limp Bizkit and what they were going for, but this album is fine. I listened to it all in one sitting and could not relate a single memorable hook or line from any track. This suggests two things: first, that it was competently produced and inoffensive in execution, which sets it apart from a lot of reuniting bands from the early Aughts. Second, that it was entirely uninspired and has no need to exist. I’ve always thought of trash as not necessarily being bad media, but having a worth that was far eclipsed by the amount of time, money, and prestige poured into a project. So is Still Sucks trash? Even if it meets that definition, it’s not nearly as bad to listen to as most of the other albums on this list.

5. Songs of Innocence, U2

6. Shaq Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal

Based on the backstory of Shaquille O’Neal being encouraged by his mother to chase every dream he could, I want to rate this the best album on the list. However, I am bound by law to judge each album on its actual musical content. And the content of Shaq Diesel is competent and enjoyable, although its shine is dimmer than some similar albums this show has covered. My favorite track is a song Shaq is barely featured on. Honestly, I was more disappointed that it wasn’t a bad album than I was delighted by any individual song. That said, I have incorporated “gigged on ‘em” into my life in a big way, and I have this basketball legend to thank for it, I guess.

7. 44/876, Sting & Shaggy

8. Father of All Motherfuckers, Green Day

9. The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis

10. Cyberpunk, Billy Idol

Honestly, there’s nothing sadder in music than seeing someone announce a grand vision for a concept album, and then it turns out their vision was milquetoast. “Billy Idol makes a cyberpunk-themed album” is crazy enough to be enjoyable in either direction, but the real product fails to move the needle. The weirdest thing to me was how conventional lead single “Shock to the System” is. The vast majority of the album is just boring, overstuffed at 73ish minutes, and even the interludes don’t feel original for the time in which they were made. Overall it’s pleasant enough to listen to, but there are so few moments among the bloat that you could pick out after listening to it. Maybe it was a grand statement about how the true terror of a cyberpunk future will be so mundane it doesn’t even feel like anything changed, and you’ll be numb to the daily debasement you’re subjected to. Or Idol simply liked saying the word “cyberpunk”, who could say?

11. Van Weezer, Weezer

12. Rebirth, Lil Wayne

13. The Philosophy of the World, The Shaggs

Much has been stated about separating art from its artist in all media, but the case usually presented is the art being great while the artist commits abuses or worse. In my opinion, this is a prime example of the exact opposite, where the art is really not good, but I want only the best for the artists. I won’t go into the trauma and abuse inflicted by Austin Wiggin (which Lucie and Emily addressed in the episode), but the Wiggin girls were put into an incomprehensible situation and made music that people genuinely love. The only musical comparison I can think of is the Portsmouth Sinfonia, but that was a collective of willing amateurs (as far as I’m aware). Alas, since I bound myself to rate these entries musically, this one finds itself in the exact midpoint of albums covered by the show. I don’t enjoy it, and I’m automatically suspicious when people say they love it, but I have a better appreciation for its appeal after listening to the Albummer crew talk about formative band experiences. Pour one out for Foot Foot.

14. Playing with Fire, Kevin Federline

15. Youth Authority, Good Charlotte

In the Shaggs episode, the Albummer crew mentioned how weird it is for middle-aged people to sing heartfelt breakup songs about people they’ve forgotten. In retrospect, this entire episode feels like that specific type of awkwardness. It has perfectly competent pop-punk from a group everyone forgot about a decade prior. Aside from me rolling my eyes every few minutes, I could see a number of my friends unironically enjoying the album. However, the nostalgia-drunk “40 oz. Dream” deserves to be mocked relentlessly; the kids are all right, you dorks.

16. Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven, Kid Cudi

I knew some guys in college whose sole musical ambition seemed to be creating a store-brand copy of Icky Thump. This is the same thing, but for Incesticide. A better comparison point might be Angelic 2 the Core for this album’s bloat, half-assed attempts at creating a dense mythology, and INTERMINABLE skits. Only Kid Cudi managed to scrap together a bigger budget, pulling together decent production values and competent instrumentals. Then he undercuts it by getting Mike Judge to play Beavis and Butt-head in the aforementioned skits. I know the album comes from a place of real trauma and struggle, but the ideas are extremely underdeveloped. Presumably, completely changing the sound with which you became famous means you’re very passionate about your new direction; none of that passion is perceptible here. Lastly, I listened to the entirety of the second disc, and I could honestly not tell the difference between the songs marked “demo” and the tracks that made the final cut.

17. Taste of Christmas, Various Artists

Every year, I put together a playlist I call the “Trashvent Calendar” for my friends and family, where I take songs about the holidays that I personally think suck and unveil one per day, often with the worst Christmas song I heard that year on December 25th. In past years, I’ve drawn almost exclusively from the Hark! Podcast song ranking (which I’ve listened to in its entirety after taking umbrage with how they ranked Weird Al). From this album alone, I was able to grab seven songs that I think will make the final cut for my 2022 Trashvent Calendar. The only reason this isn’t lower is thanks to the level of skill by the original artist, leading even the truest suckass performance covering it to have a higher floor than you might expect. I think I would rather listen to a new Bob Rivers album than hear The Used create a single new holiday cover. My opinion on Christmas music may have turned a corner in recent years after experiencing true holiday dreck, but I doubt I will ever come around to liking this album.

18. Crazy Frog Presents More Crazy Hits, Crazy Frog

I’m 35, so I’m intimately familiar with the old Insanity Test and Crazy Frog covering "Axel F". So perhaps this is me just being numb to the percussive inanity of our blue-dicked little Swedish friend, but I couldn’t find room further down the list for this follow-up album not a single person asked for. Bland Europop covers of pop songs barely move the needle for me, and adding some half-hearted ring-a-ding-dongs on top of them became trite in short order. I did like how they tried to make a pseudo-official anthem for the World Cup; given that I didn’t hear about that until 2021, it must have gone well. Novelty albums have diminishing returns in both directions. This is the 2020’s now, and I expect a Crazier or Craziest Frog at this point in my life. If I’m not even questioning my sanity 30 seconds into what you made, you’re simply not honoring the legacy of Mr. Frog to the fullest extent possible.

19. Too Legit for the Pit, Various Artists

20. Believers Never Die Volume Two, Fall Out Boy

21. Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, Joe Pesci

How long do you think you could make a single joke? How long do you think you could commit that joke to music? At some point, in the crafting of this single joke, do you think you would question why you or anyone thought it was funny to begin with? Would it cause you to develop a finely-honed contempt for your prospective audience? How would that go if it became popular enough to perform live? Would this derail your plans in your new chosen livelihood? Would your album eventually find root in the irony-poisoned future and create a fandom that truly appreciated you, long after you stopped caring about that album’s performance? Who could say?

22. Angelic 2 the Core, Corey Feldman

(Note that this result does not contradict Emily's tournament answers - March Madness routinely shows us that upsets are not just possible, but often the likelier outcome than a top seed winning the entire thing.)

23. Rock'n Roll Gangster, Fieldy's Dreams

Perhaps I’m just a sicko, but I found aspects of this album to be higher quality than some of the entries on this list that precede it. There’s some solid production work, real hooks, and the choruses sound exactly what I would expect from a background member of Korn. However, it’s impossible to understate how rudimentary and laughable the work present in the verses is. The biggest issue with the infantile lyrics is that Fieldy genuinely seems at a loss for stuff to talk about over the course of the album. It’s as if he believed all rap subject matter solely consisted of drugs and women, and therefore it would be fairly simple to make 40 minutes worth of content. I don’t even like Korn, and hearing Jonathan Davis make an appearance on “Just for Now” made that the best track on the album by far. Lastly, there are 5 interlude tracks out of 17 total, and I can’t decide if that should be a jailable offense, or if it just dates this album’s recording to 2001 with laserlike precision. EDIT: Wikipedia says this was recorded in 2000, so I’m giving myself partial credit.

24. St. Anger, Metallica

25. Danzig Sings Elvis, Danzig

26. Funny Minions: TV and Movie Theme Remixes (Vol. 1), Funny Minions Guys

Back in high school, my extended family would all get together between Christmas and New Year’s Eve somewhere around Baltimore to celebrate the holidays. This tradition continued through college and into my adult life, and it eventually became basically the only time I saw any of my maternal-side cousins. The most distinct type of memory I have of this time is that it was an opportunity to see which type of late-Aughts internet content my relatives had veered off into, as these reunions tended to include a lot of sharing whatever we were enjoying lately. I’m sure this went both ways, but there were times that my cousins from one branch of the family would excitedly show me something, and it completely whiffed on making me feel anything but the discomfort of knowing a positive reaction was expected. Just like the snooty food critic eating a simple country dish in Ratatouille, this album hurled me through time to experience this sensation as if I was physically present inside my memory itself. In a way, it’s a perfect album for the nihilist nightmare that is the 2020s thus far. I’m grimly amused by the fact that the clips sung over by the Funny Minions guys are looping a snippet less than 30 seconds long, but not enough to actually enjoy it in any form. To debate the quality of this album is far beside the point. A much more interesting debate is whether this album actually exists, or if it’s a collective delusion manifested by an entire planet’s latent self-hatred, coalescing and manufacturing itself into this Platonic ideal of anti-parody. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a “banana”.

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An Alternative Beginner's Guide to Elden Ring

This is one of three screenshots I've taken of the game, so I'm using it, goddamn it!
This is one of three screenshots I've taken of the game, so I'm using it, goddamn it!

The first time I played a Souls game was the original Dark Souls back in 2013ish, when it became free on Xbox Games with Gold. I immediately fell in love with the aesthetic, its contemplative pace, and its dense RPG systems. Choosing a sword-and-board character, I found progression difficult but rewarding, and I looked forward to having a large, lauded game to sink my teeth into.

I quit after a few hours.

I'm not sure what got me to retry that first Dark Souls a few years later. But I did, with a different approach, and it completely changed my enjoyment of the game and the series. After 6 years, I've now played all of the Soulsy games available on PC and Xbox, beating all of them except Elden Ring. What I'd like to do here is share the things that gave me a new outlook on the first game I got into in a real way. The unfortunate thing about Souls fans is we are extremely eager to share tips with people just starting out, and it leads to an overload of information. With that in mind, I'll try to keep this relatively brief, with the intended audience being people who find themselves bouncing off the game:

Tip 1: Use A Walkthrough

There is a kind of gaming purist, certainly not limited to the Souls games but very vocal within the fandom, that absolutely abhors the idea of using a walkthrough. Don't listen to them. Without a walkthrough, I wouldn't have finished Dark Souls, not for difficulty so much as just feeling like I was on a progression of some kind. It opened up areas I never thought to search. Some would argue I robbed myself of making these discoveries organically; while I appreciate their concern for my enjoyment, I wouldn't have gotten there in the first place without walkthroughs. And even with a written description of a cool or trollish thing that happens, actually playing the game and reaching that point is the only thing that does it justice.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of using a walkthrough is item mop-up. By the time I played Dark Souls 3, I was progressing through an area solo then consulting a walkthrough to grab the items I missed in my first go-around. Items are super important in these games - maybe that weapon that'll totally change your play style is in an obscure chest in some dungeon you raced past. Historically, I've used the Fextralife walkthroughs, although the guide for Elden Ring is still very much a work in progress. Maybe if you find something not covered there, you can add it yourself! If you want some looser guidance, they also have a map for recommended character level in each location. Warning on this last one for the spoiler-averse: that link shows the entire game map.

If you're level 20ish and wandered into an area that looks like this, like I did, it's not too late to turn back.
If you're level 20ish and wandered into an area that looks like this, like I did, it's not too late to turn back.

Tip 2: CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE

The dirty secret among Souls fans (as Jess gathered in a recent Twitter thread) is that the "git gud" bravado masks a reality: that most of us are just exploiting very video gamey flaws in every enemy and boss. Anytime you find something to exploit, From Software put it there, so it's entirely legitimate to take advantage. I got hung up on trying to do things the "right" way in my first whack at the series, and it made me enjoy the game less as a result. Even now, the only reason I beat Margit, the Fell Omen was because I summoned a jellyfish that poisoned her early on, so I could play conservatively and watch her life tick down when I didn't want to put myself in harm's way. I also summoned that NPC sorcerer mostly as another character to draw aggro, which led to me taking fewer hits early on. All of this shit is exactly as valid as some Parry God beating Margit in 30 seconds.

A notorious aspect of the Souls games is how poorly many enemies fare on different elevations. If you're just downstairs of an enemy, you can whack its legs continuously while it feebly swings a meter above your head. And this tip is not limited to pure exploits. One thing I cannot recommend enough is carrying a ton of bone throwing knives, and using them specifically to pull one poor fucker off an encampment or group. You might feel like you're being a coward by picking off a lone person while his idiot buddies don't notice you dispatching him ten meters away, but that's just taking exactly what the game gives you. Lastly, summoning is always welcome. If you feel like you need to beat a boss solo, let me offer this: the type of person that wants to help you beat a boss is full of joy, and when you eventually fell that boss, you get to share the victory (and often a gesture) with an anonymous stranger you will likely never see again. It's a strange, beautiful moment that is a great part of what makes the series so fun.

Tip 3: Make A New Character

This one is mostly directed at anyone who's played less than 10 hours, although it can apply to everyone. Sometimes your initial choice doesn't work for your play style, and you end up fighting your own class as much as you fight weird skeletal dogs. You don't have to delete this character, but you will probably benefit from starting a new game with a different class. Early game is mostly about the loadout you receive; the differences between each class fade over time as you accumulate items and levels. Perhaps you wanted to be a tanky faith-caster on first glance, but you discover that it's the greatsword-and-bow Samurai that really works for you. Or maybe you even bounce off that second character, but it gives you new perspective on the one you chose the first time around. There's really no limit to how many characters you can make to explore the early game, as long as you're having fun. Much like Outer Wilds, the true item of value you obtain is knowledge. You may find yourself breezing through early sections that were difficult with a higher-level character, thanks to your new fit and your memory.

Quick Tips

I addressed some of these above, but I tend to write more than I intended so here's a bulleted list:

  • Summon whenever the game gives you the opportunity to do so: whether that's a few "lone" wolves or a stranger over the internet. You can do both at the same time!
  • Put YOUR summon sign down in front of a boss door. The lower stakes (no rune loss if you die) relax you and might give you new insight to a boss' attacks and weaknesses. Note: I have not done this yet thanks to Xbox only fixing network play yesterday, so I'm assuming it works like the other games.
  • Craft a bunch of those bone knives and draw aggro with one enemy. If it backfires, get on that horse and run away.
  • Put levels into Vigor (at least to 20 to start). More HP means you can get away with more errors, and winning a battle you feel like you should have lost is a thousand times better than losing it.
  • Making progress is overrated. If you're enjoying exploring a certain area, don't feel like you need to leave to go do the next big thing. And when you get tired of that, the recommended level map I linked above can help point you in the direction of gentlest progression.
  • Finally, you can always walk away. From an encounter, from the area, from the game itself. I walked away for three years and now I love the series. Even if you don't return, the world is stressful enough without games adding to it.

I'd be interested in hearing if anyone had a similar experience to me, and if these tips mirrored their own path. And if you think I'm bad at games and a pitiful wretch, you're right, so you can keep that to yourself.

For example, I still can't bring myself to get into sword-swinging distance with whatever this thing is.
For example, I still can't bring myself to get into sword-swinging distance with whatever this thing is.
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ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2021

This is the third year I’ve actually had the gumption to post a Game of the Year list, and in the past two I’ve written a couple of paragraphs about the year and overall mood I had with the games I played. Well, fuck you 2021, you don’t deserve a couple of paragraphs. Let’s instead get right to my favorite games of a year I don’t want to talk about (yet).

(With apologies to Hitman 3, Resident Evil Village, Deathloop, Wildermyth, and Subnautica: Below Zero, all of which I didn't find time for but was interested in.)

Not Rated: KID A MNESIA: EXHIBITION (PC)

This image is labeled
This image is labeled "gah" on my desktop

This is a game that would have made my top 10 list if it weren’t for one minor complication. Within the first couple of minutes of walking around, I found writing on a wall that stated “this is not a game”. Since this game experience has generously given me an excuse to put 11 things into my top 10, I’ll happily oblige them. I’ve only spent around 90 minutes in the exhibition, but that time included the “How to Disappear Completely” / “Pyramid Song” / “You And Whose Army?” triad, the latest of which was my personal highlight of the time I spent. I consider myself a casual fan of Radiohead’s music, to the extent where many of the references in the game interactive museum passed over my head. I also don’t love Kid A like a lot of the fandom does, but I do like Amnesiac quite a bit. If you have anything less than a total aversion to Radiohead, I strongly encourage dropping into this game thing for at least a half hour to check out the visuals and space out for a bit. Particularly for the price of “free”, I can certainly think of many worse ways to invest a small amount of time.

I played KID A MNESIA: EXHIBITION on the Epic Games Store, and it is also available on Playstation 5.

10. Age of Empires IV (PC)

Image from PC Gamer
Image from PC Gamer

Back in the early Aughts, I devoted entire winter vacations to playing through as much of the campaigns from the first two Age of Empires games as I could. I never got into the PVP scene, but I really enjoyed the unique pace of AoE compared to other contemporary RTS games. The latest entry in the series heavily leans on nostalgia for those games, to the point that it feels like a soft reboot of Age of Empires II. While I wish we could have seen more unfamiliar campaign territory (I didn’t need the Hundred Years War again), the stretched timeline for each nation drove the focus to their progression through history rather than great individuals. It’s a more mature take on a core idea that worked very well for me decades ago, and this approach works well for me in the modern day. I loved the documentary-style videos interspersed between campaign missions both for having very high quality production and being relevant to the story. I do wish there had been fewer “plop you into some stone walls and hold off a siege” missions, but I was overall satisfied with the objective variety. I haven’t gotten around to playing as the Mongols yet (which I’ve heard are the standout nation), so it may improve even further once I hit that campaign. If you’re time-poor and not a big RTS fan, you might want to skip this game, but I’ve certainly enjoyed it.

I played Age of Empires IV on the Xbox app via Game Pass Ultimate, and it is also available on Steam.

9. Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars (PC)

No Caption Provided

Now here is a game that absolutely surprised the hell out of me in a good way. It’s a simple traditional RPG-lite with the trappings of a card game, and also there are dice rolls. It doesn’t have the most memorable story or writing (although the latter is delightfully goofy), but I appreciated its character flourishes and simplified scope. In fact, that simplicity greatly enhanced my experience, because it gave me something to pleasantly wind down with late in the year when my mental stamina had been more or less completely spent. No big cutscenes or infodumps, no long battle animations, and no 80+ hour time to beat. There’s a lot to be said of having a neat idea and executing a relatively short game, well before the concept gets tired and tedious. The presentation of the cards, table, and dice rolls gave the game a cozy feeling that made it even more enticing on winter nights. My only complaint: you can’t show me four- and twelve-sided dice before every battle and then never use them! Those dice are so cool! LET ME ROLL YOUR D12; I WILL PAY YOU!

I played Voice of Cards on Steam, and it is also available on Playstation 4 and Switch.

8. Valheim (PC)

Image from PCMag
Image from PCMag

Crafting games are, generally speaking, a miss for me. I tend to prefer more macroeconomic genres like 4X games and park management simulators. Consider me quite surprised when Valheim ended up scoring much higher on my Game of the Year ranking than my most anticipated entries in both of those other categories (Humankind and Jurassic World Evolution 2, respectively). I grabbed this game on a lark after seeing the playdate streams earlier this year, then bought a copy for my brother so we could have a new game to play together. It turned out to be 90% of our co-op content through the end of the year, as both of us found something irresistible about the game. Building out our base was a fun exercise, as the space was open enough to let us get to our own tasks while collaborating and contributing ideas to the other person. Going on raids was fun, and exploring new biomes for better resources or potential base sites stayed entertaining for dozens of hours. I created my own Zoombiniville to the best of my abilities just because I could. Lastly, I want to echo a point Brad made on a Bombcast where he shouted out the graphical style as being reminiscent of early World of Warcraft. I had no idea that would be the aesthetic that triggered my nostalgia reflex (something pixel art has never managed to do), but it did, and the game is better for it.

I played Valheim on Steam, and if you want to play it on Linux, good news.

7. Encased (PC)

No Caption Provided

I wrote up some early impressions on this game several months ago, and this is more or less where I figured the game would end up on my list at that time. In short, it’s a throwback to CRPGs from the late 90’s, particularly the first couple of Fallout games. There’s a good mix of active and passive abilities in each skill category, plus Perks that can greatly impact your play style. Better still, there was no level cap, so I could really experiment with off-build things late in my playthrough. The total length of the game was pretty reasonable (somewhere between 40-50 hours for a very completionist run, and it could have been finished in 20-30 hours). The writing was often not for me, but I would attribute that to cultural differences. However, the world-building was terrific, the story was engaging, and I was genuinely surprised at some of the twists and turns it took. The late game mopping-up of quests did get a bit tedious, eventually, but that was mostly because I was trying to do everything with a single character. There’s a high level of replayability, and I’m already thinking about starting a new game with a very different protagonist.

I played Encased on Steam.

6. Halo Infinite (Xbox Series X / PC)

No Caption Provided

If you had told me after that 2020 E3 showcase that this game would be anywhere near my top 10, or even outside of my Dishonorable Mentions, I would have laughed you off. When I finalized my list, this was the toughest cut from my top 5 games. I decided to give the game a shot after seeing the Unfinished for the single-player campaign, thinking I would occasionally pop into the multiplayer maybe once a week if my friends were online. Over a month later, I’m playing this game at least 3 nights a week, even solo-queueing PVP matches just for fun. No other first-person shooter has resonated with me in this way (with the major asterisk that I haven’t played Titanfall 2; yes, I know I really should). The online multiplayer, warts and all, has been one of my best gaming experiences of 2021 and the new year. The reason this game fell out of my top 5 is because I ended up not really digging the campaign all that much. The early-middle section of the game where it was 90% open-ish world was the highlight, but unfortunately it became very linear after a point. I did some mop-up of the armor cosmetics after finishing the fight, but I haven’t felt any desire to replay those early levels to collect skulls like some people have stated. No game subverted my expectations for how I would enjoy it quite like Halo Infinite. Since I can hop pretty effortlessly between console and PC, I’ll be playing it a lot throughout 2022 as well.

I mostly played Halo Infinite on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, but I've played a couple hours on PC through the Xbox app as well. The game is also available on Steam.

5. Psychonauts 2 (Xbox Series X)

Image from Screen Rant; sorry if this is a spoiler, I think it's cool
Image from Screen Rant; sorry if this is a spoiler, I think it's cool

Several years ago, I bought the first Psychonauts for some absurdly low amount on Steam. I got about 45 minutes into it and decided it wasn’t for me. So when its sequel finally got a release date, I can’t say that I was at all hyped for it. When one of the previews centered around Jack Black singing, I was more put off by the game than intrigued by it. Honestly, I’m not even sure why I decided to pick it up when it was released; sure it was on Game Pass, but I measure video game value more by time spent than on price these days. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I took the chance on this game, because it deserves every bit of praise it’s received from critics and on these forums.

Platformers are not one of my favorite game genres, but this was at worst a fully competent one. The visuals and characters are the standouts, particularly the psychedelic mystery brain segment. I was highly invested in the old weirdos that populated the Psychonauts universe, and Raz being an outsider to the organization despite his actions in the first game helped me engage with the story and world in a way I didn’t expect. On top of all that, the game is legitimately funny, which is a tightrope walk so many other games fail to manage for their entire length. There’s a ton of empathy for (almost) every character, which gave the final boss fight far more weight. Games can be nice and positive without having to be “for kids”, and Psychonauts 2 has raised the bar for what I expect out of them. Everyone should check out this weird and wonderful thing.

I played Psychonauts 2 on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, and it is also available on PC and Playstation 4.

4. The Forgotten City (Xbox Series X)

No Caption Provided

My latest entry to this list, this is a game I finished* on December 31st, the date of my self-imposed cutoff. I was instantly impressed with the game, and unlike other loop games, my interest never flagged near the end. I greatly enjoyed exploring the world, talking to each of the unique characters, and trying to solve mysteries big and small. Danny said on a Bombcast that it was clearly the developers’ second pass at this game (after the Skyrim mod I haven’t played), and I think the tightness of the experience was on full display. For the 8 hours I spent with the game, my attention was fully locked to the point where it was noticeable to the people around me. I consider that a huge credit to the skill of the writing and voice acting, as well as how compelling the story was. I fell out of love with Outer Wilds before completing it, which ended up diminishing my overall experience. There was no such problem here.

It’s virtually impossible to fully talk about why I love this game without offering heavy spoilers, so you may want to be careful when you hover your cursor / finger. My asterisk above indicates that I finished endings 1, 2, and 4, with a general goal to circle back to grab ending 3 sometime this month. Ending 4 has been the one I think about most often, for obvious reasons, but one takeaway I had was that it felt like a supremely well-written comic book (specifically, the DC universe). Figuring out how to win a logical dialogue with a godlike alien being was a really fun twist on final bosses, particularly when my first attempt ended in a sprint through five heavily-guarded halls to get back to the time portal. I love how the game allowed me to pick up on the Karen / Charon connection well in advance of making it explicit, and the gradual reveal of where you were was a lot of fun. It’s a credit to the game that even after Hades set the bar super high for use of Greek / Roman mythology, this one managed to clear it. I can’t wait to try out the Skyrim mod and compare / contrast with the creators’ final vision.

I played The Forgotten City on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, and it is also available on PC, Playstation 4/5, and Nintendo Switch.

3. Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox Series X)

The amount of community-made dumbass car skins available is truly staggering.
The amount of community-made dumbass car skins available is truly staggering.

The last time I really enjoyed a racing game was Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, which came with my Playstation 2. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t played any Forza Horizon games before, but this one absolutely blew my mind with how incredibly FUN this is. The set races are tremendously enjoyable, especially the offroad point-to-point ones, but the open world aspect is what ended up cinching this game’s position near the top of my list. I’ve bounced off far more open world games than I’ve stuck with, and there was something insanely playable about speeding from race to race, grabbing XP boards, and most importantly: ramping it. I took so many videos of driving off ramps in increasingly absurd vehicles to share with friends and family. I’m not sure there’s been a game in recent history that made me cackle like a complete idiot as often as this one.

A great indicator that this game is more than the sum of its parts is how it was one of my least favorite stories and voice acting performances of the entire year. I found every character beat grating, the festival people even more annoying than the Fuser DJs, and the dialogue to be fundamentally idiotic. Because of these factors, it became a perfect podcast game. Some of my favorite gaming nights of the last couple of months came courtesy of catching up on my favorite podcasts while speeding around like a stupid dirtbag. I’m not good at the game, but I feel like it’s my go-to choice when I just want to unwind and enjoy myself now. One thing that helps is how quickly the game loads on a Series X, and also how absolutely gorgeous everything is. It’s very clearly a labor of love, and a cool perspective on a country I live next to and have seen almost none of. I just hope their inhabitants aren’t mad about all those soccer goals and fences I’ve destroyed.

I played Forza Horizon 5 on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, and it is also available on PC.

2. Inscryption (PC)

Image from Eurogamer
Image from Eurogamer

Ever since I saw the trailer, I knew I was going to be grabbing Inscryption as soon as I could. A creepy deckbuilder with environmental puzzle elements sounded crazy in the best way possible. The final product had all of these aspects and more, including metatextual layers on top of metatextual layers, found footage horror, and truly jarring sequences that merged the real world with the game’s. But most importantly, the execution of the core elements didn’t suffer for all of the factors that elevated the game beyond other card-based video games. I’ve bounced off of more roguelike deckbuilders than I’ve enjoyed, and this was fortunately one of the latter cases. Last year, Hades provided the gold standard for how to use player failure productively. This game may not have been quite as effective, but I got value from every loss and failed run. It’s an extremely difficult balance to strike, but Inscryption was successful while providing a far more compelling story and world than its peers.

(Extensive spoilers to follow)

My main complaint with the game is that I enjoyed the first phase (Leshy’s cabin) more than the subsequent phases. In particular, P03’s lair felt very thin compared to its predecessors. It was balanced by the card game itself being checkpoint-focused, which kept me seated at the table for longer periods of time than Leshy’s cabin did. However, the highlight of the game was the portion of P03’s lair when I wagered my computer’s files on my own abilities. The game stuck the landing in a big way, particularly in the final Scrybe arena battle with Magnificus. I would have liked to see more escape room elements later in the game, but I can see why they were largely left out of P03’s factory given his personality. I haven’t seen the extra ARG stuff yet, but considering how engrossing the story was, I’ll definitely seek it out at some point.

Overall, Inscryption was one of the most memorable and enthralling video game experiences I’ve had in years. It took me a while to figure out whether it belonged at #1 or #2 on my list. Maybe I’ll consider them 1A and 1B; I already cheated with the number of games in my top 10, after all.

I played Inscryption on Steam.

1. Chicory: A Colorful Tale (PC)

Image from the trailer; I guarantee I couldn't make it look this nice on my own.
Image from the trailer; I guarantee I couldn't make it look this nice on my own.

I largely avoid talking about the ongoing COVID pandemic for a lot of reasons. First, I’m aware that I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to work from home and keep myself and my family safe, as well as afford both time and money to play video games. Second, it’s an extremely bleak situation that still inflicts an enormous physical and mental toll on a lot of people, and it’s easier to avoid trivializing it by not speaking. Lastly, it has changed my life and mental health for the worse, and 2021 was even less kind than 2020 on that front. Most of my daughter’s life has happened during the pandemic, a fact that stresses me out just typing it. The lines between home life and work life blurred more than ever, and it became way easier for my brain to punish me for “not doing enough” even in my leisure activities. I got so burned out late in the year I felt like I could barely think at times. A source of comfort during these low points of my year was one game above all others: Chicory.

Yes, this is fundamentally a game about burning out and dealing with imposter syndrome. But it’s also relentlessly positive, literally introducing brightness and color into a dismal world as its core game mechanic. This brilliant marriage between an indie drawing game and a 2D Zelda-like works in concert with its wonderful characters and writing, and I was constantly impressed while playing. It helps that I’m a completely garbage artist, because I felt every half-hearted compliment for my terrible work the same way as my protagonist (“Pretzel”). Her supportive family, her budding relationship with Chicory, and even her interactions with borderline-obsessive fans were all so charming and life-affirming. I enjoyed the puzzles and exploration, eventually grabbing most of the collectibles because I wanted to keep playing. It was fun to zoom out and see how I’d colored the world, and it also helped backtracking more than the majority of other games.

One aspect of the game deserves its own paragraph: the music. Lena Raine is a brilliant composer, and the Chicory soundtrack is my favorite work of her already impressive discography. I haven’t been this in love with a game’s soundtrack since Later Alligator, and the track “Dinners, the Big City” gets stuck in my head on a near-daily basis months after finishing the game. Some of the songs (particularly “Supper Woods”) evoked the legendary soundtrack of Chrono Cross for me, a comparison I don’t make lightly. There are 60 tracks listed on Bandcamp, and it represents a massive variety of musical styles and moods. Listen to the two tracks I named above, then listen to “MONSTER”; it’s crazy that they all fit so perfectly into the same game. Even if you’re on the fence about the game itself, the music is a must-listen.

I know better than to look at this new year and think, “well things have to be better this time around, right?” But it’s games like this one, with deceptively simple but actually quite intricate mechanics; engrossing characters, themes, and story; and an absolutely killer soundtrack that make me look forward with anticipation instead of dread. I don’t know what games I’ll fall in love with this year, but I hope they’ll make me half as happy as Chicory did.

I played Chicory on the Epic Games Store, and it is also available on Steam, Playstation 4 / 5, and Nintendo Switch.

Honorable Mentions: If not for technical performance issues, Sable would have made my top 10 for its excellent world and fun protagonist… I spent some time highly frustrated with Jurassic World Evolution 2, but the gameplay loop hooked me in a huge way… The visual style and soundtrack merit The Ascent a mention here, even if the gameplay left me wanting… Dorfromantik was the first game I had trouble quitting this year, and I’m looking forward to its full release… Finally, Mundaun had an extremely cool aesthetic that I’d like to see more of (and in a less frustrating game).

Dishonorable Mentions: Outriders was often frustrating to play, but its nihilistic story and utterly nonsensical story were some of the worst narrative moments of the entire year… I already blasted this game in my daughter’s GOTY list, but I Am Fish was simply terrible to play… The Medium was cool until the Maw showed up, and then it became laughably bad; not enjoyable enough to finish, though… Lastly, a special place in my heart is reserved for Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance for not just being the worst game I played in 2021, but somehow being the worst D&D-branded thing I’ve ever experienced. I think Hasbro needs to lie down for a while.

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