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Hades II Technical Test Field Report

I was too engrossed in the game to take any action screenshots, OK?!?
I was too engrossed in the game to take any action screenshots, OK?!?

Note: This blog contains unmarked spoilers for Hades, as well as unmarked spoilers for the mechanics of Hades II. Story elements included in the technical test of Hades II have been marked as spoilers, with the exception of the main character’s name and general descriptions of the supporting cast.

The first thing I would like to say about Hades II is that while I have no idea how many people were given access to the technical test, I feel incredibly lucky to have been one of them. The second thing I will say is that I wish I could keep playing it. The tech test is limited to the hub world and the first dungeon area of the game, including its boss. After beating the boss for the first time (on my third overall run), a message popped up informing me that after 5 clears of the first area, my time with the tech test would be over. The game even made a crack about time being “cruelly cut short” for the protagonist, who is named Melinoë, before sending me back to the hub world in the same manner Zagreus experienced after each successful run in the first game. I debated taking a dive on the final boss just to keep the tech test going, but pride sure is a motherfucker.

Right off the bat, this game feels like more Hades. If you’re familiar with the first game, you will very quickly fall into the same rhythm from your past experience. Ordinarily, I would say that this would be a bit of a disappointment. However, this is Hades we’re talking about, and more of “one of the best games of the last decade, possibly ever” is unequivocally a good thing. The first key difference is the inclusion of a magic bar, which fuels your more powerful attacks (called “Omegas”). Your basic attack, special attack, and Cast all have Omegas, and these range from rooting your enemies to the ground to teleporting behind an enemy for a backstab, in their most basic incarnations. Boons may also alter how magic is used and/or regenerated. Finally, by using enough magic points, you can charge up a “Hex” ultimate attack, mirroring the Calls from last game. I’ve only unlocked one Hex thus far, but each of my three options was transparent about how many magic points I would need to spend to recharge it. In short, the magic bar appears to be the most significant difference from Hades and perhaps the most intriguing wrinkle among returning mechanics.

Another difference from the previous game is that Melinoë can sprint by holding the dash button. Most of the boons that apply to the dash button that I saw are activated by sprinting, not by dashing. These include a knockback effect (that costs magic points per enemy affected) and destroying any nearby projectile while damaging the enemy that fired it. I ran into an early skill check for this new ability with a miniboss, where their projectiles were very hard to dodge just by tapping the button. When I faced it a second time, I was able to run circles around it and better choose my opportunities to get some damage in by deploying the sprint button at the right times. Dodging is still a key piece of the puzzle, and it has better visual prompts than the last game to inform you when it’s ready to be used again.

The two weapons that were available to me were the Witch’s Staff (which plays a lot like Zagreus’ spear) and the Sister Blades (which felt like a hybrid of the fists and bow). Both boons and the Daedelus Hammer make their return, and their impacts on playstyle are very similar to those in Hades. The boons in particular feel very similar to the previous game, though I’ll save the precise differences for the spoilers section below. Other familiar items such as pomegranates, coins, and Centaur Hearts make reappearances, joined by new upgrade currency rewards and the magic bar equivalent to the Centaur Heart. Sisyphus has been replaced in the first area, though again, see the spoiler section for more on that.

The hubworld, named The Crossroads, is also fairly familiar. You have a little bedroom area carved out for Melinoë, several people to talk to, a cauldron that functions very much like the Contractor in Hades, and other things that appear as you upgrade the hub. The Mirror of Night has been replaced with an Altar of Ashes, which allows you to unlock and equip tarot cards similar to the effects you got from spending Darkness. Another currency increases your limit on how many cards can be equipped. The tech test includes nine Tarot cards, and I have to imagine the grid will expand in the full version of the game. Next to the Altar is where you can equip weapons, limited to the two I mentioned earlier. Additionally, you can unlock and equip one Tool per run. This starts with a mining pickaxe that allows you to collect Silver, which is used in recipes and other unlockables. In theory, the Fishing Rod can be acquired as a Tool, though I hit the end of the tech test before I could unlock it. It was a little frustrating coming across another vein of Silver while I had another Tool equipped, but it adds another element of risk/reward to each run that’ll surely have me furrowing my brow at the training grounds every time.

Lastly, while the game does feel very complete for being a mere tech test, it definitely had some placeholder elements. There are a couple of characters I ran into with very similar designs, both lacking any detail on their face. It definitely didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game, and it was a reminder that as good as it feels to play, it’s very much a work in progress. If what’s already present in this tech test was released in early access tomorrow, I think a lot of people would still be very satisfied. Speaking of early access, I saw a mention in the completion screen that threatened informed me how many times I’d completed a run that the early access version will be released “quite soon”. I’m fairly convinced that the game will come out in May, after they’ve had a chance to digest the data from tech test participants. I absolutely cannot wait to play the early access version, and I’m looking forward to watching the game’s progress after only jumping into the first game at 1.0.

OK, enough vague talk: let’s discuss some spoilers.

I forget how much has already been revealed through the press, but the general plot of the game is revenge against Chronos for killing(?) Melinoë’s family. She was apparently born to Persephone and Hades after the events of the last game, and Chronos attacked while Melinoë was an infant. Melinoë was subsequently raised by Hecate, the witch from the trailer, who is also the boss of the tech test. The interaction between Melinoë and Hecate is much more positive than that of Zagreus and Hades, best exemplified in a sequence that I unlocked after my first successful run. Hecate is playing hide and seek with Melinoë, and there’s a nice moment where Hecate stops to just appreciate her student’s laughter. The warm feelings extend to most of the supporting cast, many of whom fulfill the roles of Hades’ court advisers in the last game. I found that each successful run unlocked a little bit more story, and even my failures helped advance things along. It’s hard to say how it goes with such a limited slice, but I do know that I’m interested in unlocking it as soon as possible.

I hinted this before, but the boons slot in pretty neatly with those of Hades. There are several returning gods (Poseidon, Demeter, Aphrodite, and Zeus all made appearances for me), and Artemis appeared in the way that Thanatos popped into the occasional level last game. Her twin Apollo is new and more or less fulfills the Athena role, with some differences. Hestia added fire damage over time effects reminiscent of Dionysus, and Hephaestus added some abilities that I’m not sure map to anyone from the first game. Charon reappears in the same role as before, though his art is still TBD (and how I figured out that a certain character portrait was a placeholder). I haven’t seen any mention of Ares, though with the Olympians all dealing with a siege by Chronos’ armies, it would make sense for the God of war to be preoccupied. Arachne, who slots into the role fulfilled by Sisyphus and others, gave me armor that granted a special boon as long as it wasn’t broken. It was fun to see the returning gods’ personalities again, as well as seeing how the new gods and demigods fit into the already cozy picture.

I’ll end the spoiler section with some speculation. Poseidon made an offhand remark about Melinoë’s family being potentially held in thrall. I think this means that at some point, I’m pretty much guaranteed to be fighting Hades himself. The way the tech test began also might imply that Melinoë has already been successful in previous attempts to beat Chronos, and the trick is figuring out how to off him permanently. Finally, I feel like some elements inside The Crossroads might be bad news, and I’m very interested to see how those storylines develop in the full version. The first game had an undercurrent of threat and subversion by Zagreus in the hub world, and it would be fitting for that favor to be returned to the player in the sequel.

In short (too late), I can safely say that Hades II has justified its status as one of my most anticipated games of all time. Its predecessor was my Game of the Year, and there’s no reason to expect any less from this game, even when it’s just in early access. I definitely hope it’s available to everyone sooner rather than later.

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Hottest Mess 2024: Spring Check-In

Pictured: Embracer entering the games industry (source: news dot xbox dot com)
Pictured: Embracer entering the games industry (source: news dot xbox dot com)

When I started this series in 2022, it was to resurrect a defunct feature of Game of the Year discussions that I’ve enjoyed in the past. After 2023 and 2024 so far, it’s clear why Giant Bomb staff past and present shelved it. The real winner of Hottest Mess in the game industry is the forces that continuously abuse, exploit, and dispose of industry labor, including within the media that covers it. In the last 15 months, this has manifested as unprecedented layoffs that have ranged from studios that released supposedly underperforming games, to Game of the Year contenders whose parent companies decided to arbitrarily shed 8% of the workforce. It’s led to the closures of studios and media outlets, all for the sake of an infinite profit engine that is as capricious as it is impossible. The issue is so dire that it has its own Wikipedia page. And afterwards? Bullshit excuses are given, and the leadership that made the poor decisions leading to layoffs almost always escape all accountability. It’s a total garbage fire and unquestionably the largest challenge facing the industry as a whole.

I wanted to give that explanation before discussing the reason I run this series a few times a year now. If the ultimate form of Hottest Mess is tracking layoffs, I’m not interested in writing any more about that. The types of Hottest Mess I enjoy are things like the Unity trash fire from last year or chasing that dragon: the Randy Pitchford USB stick at Medieval Times saga. Most of the following candidates are bad news, but they don’t feel quite as soul-crushing as the layoff counter racing upwards on a weekly basis. Here’s what I’ve been tracking over the first three months of the year:

  • Apple unveils a new anticompetitive app policy that gets slammed by the EGDF and Microsoft. Later, Apple terminates Epic’s developer account temporarily, prompting an investigation by the European Union. Finally, the US Department of Justice sues Apple over a smartphone ‘monopoly’, accusing the company of preventing developers from offering cloud gaming apps on the App Store.
  • Dragon Ball FighterZ unveils one of the worst rollback netcode patches ever implemented.
  • Dragon’s Dogma II releases with major performance bugs; the game also offers microtransactions that appear to contradict the development team's intent with how the game should be played. Capcom later apologizes for its launch state.
  • Foamstars uses Midjourney, a highly unethical AI tool, to generate art and music; the game reviews poorly on release.
  • Last Epoch uses machine translation that is so terrible, the Polish translation includes ChatGPT requests (in English) for more information in response to a prompt.
  • Nintendo sues Yuzu’s Switch emulator out of existence, with Yuzu Discord instructions cited as proof of malfeasance. Citra and Pizza Emulators also shut down out of fear for being sued by Nintendo.
  • PEGI and other ratings boards spontaneously change Balatro’s rating for being a gambling game, which it is decidedly not. This change temporarily removes Balatro from digital storefronts in many countries.
  • Rockstar forces employees back into the office to finish Grand Theft Auto VI, prompting blowback from their workforce.
  • SAG-AFTRA seems to bypass actual voice actor feedback and agree to deal that allows use of AI voice copies for its members.
  • Skull & Bones fails to hit 1 million total players even after offering a free game trial.
  • Sony loses an estimated $10 billion in value after profit margins and console units sold substantially underperform to expectations.
  • Star Wars: Battlefront Classic Collection launches in an extremely rough state, including only having server room for less than 1% of its PC audience; Aspyr has also allegedly stolen modder work without credit.
  • Steam opens the AI game floodgates, and it’s unclear if Valve is capable of moderating stolen content.
  • Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League gets pulled from early window launch for giving players full story completion on startup; after releasing to poor reviews, it gets lower concurrent numbers than previous games in the Batman franchise.
  • Warner Bros. continues its assault on its own IP by delisting Adult Swim games from Steam.
  • Xbox bans users that upload sex scenes from Baldur’s Gate 3.
  • Xbox offers a confusing response to rumors about several games changing from console exclusives to multiplatform, allowing speculation to run rampant on whether they will continue to exist as a console.

As some window into my process, I also track developing and debunked stories. I’ve got the following early candidates entered into my Notes app:

  • Debunked: Altec Lansing accidentally reveals the Nintendo Switch 2 launch window while trying to announce an AI-driven GameShark reboot. There’s no way Altec Lansing would be privy to this launch date, and also they probably missed the mark by 6+ months.
  • Developing: Borderlands movie, which has the potential to be absolutely terrible.
  • Developing: The Palworld and Pokemon saga, which is bound to turn up some bizarre mess, right?
  • Debunked: Palworld steals digital assets from Pokemon. This was revealed as a hoax from an artist that’s a Pokemon fan.

Have I missed anything so far in 2024? Do any of the candidates feel out of place and not worth considering in December? I’ll probably update this in June unless something absolutely batshit happens in the meantime.

(Editor's Note: an earlier draft of this blog had links for all the relevant stories, and it returned a 403 Forbidden error. I like to cite my messes, but I wasn't able to this time.)

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Winners of the Hottest Mess 2023 (GB Community Voting)

Throughout the second half of 2023, we charted its hottest messes and debated which terrible thing was the most worth screaming at. The polls have closed (not really), and the people have spoken. Without further ado, it's time to crown the winner...

Poll Winner: The Embracer Group's Leadership

I couldn't use the image from their own website (source: Fandom)
I couldn't use the image from their own website (source: Fandom)

Summarizing the actions of The Embracer Group without neglecting at least a few key details is basically impossible, but I'll try my best. The company attempted to partner with a Saudi-based firm, only to see their value plummet after that deal fell through. This started a devastating chain reaction, leading to studio closures and fire sale offers despite solid performance from the games its studios released in 2023. After months of cuts and lives ruined, many of whom were cut off from health insurance in the US right before the start of a new month for extra spite, the board announced that leadership was "discharged from liability". This vomit icing on top of a shit cake was enough for the GB community to give Embracer a lifetime achievement award in late-stage capitalist malfeasance. I assume they will take this award and try to flip it to Amazon for 1/4 of its market value.

Runner-Up #1: Unity

There were funnier pictures but this is a pretty solid one (source: PCMag)
There were funnier pictures but this is a pretty solid one (source: PCMag)

Like Embracer, fully summarizing this sad saga without omission is difficult. It started when Unity announced changes to its monetization and received an incredible level of backlash immediately. It escalated enough to the point where developers were announcing that they would change the platform for their game, and the backpedaling began soon thereafter. For his part in the disaster, John Riccitiello stepped down (though not until April 2024). Since then, Unity has been laying people off in droves (without giving them a six-month grace period, of course), showing how little actual labor matters to the c-suite. It's unclear if the brand will ever recover from this debacle, which feels like it could have been easily avoided. And they still couldn't even win this category!

Runner-Up #2 (Tie!): Jirard "The Completionist" Khalil

Who has two thumbs and allegedly mischaracterized when charitable donations would be distributed? (source: CNN)
Who has two thumbs and allegedly mischaracterized when charitable donations would be distributed? (source: CNN)

Well, this one came out of nowhere, both as a story and in the poll results. Jirard was accused of misleading charitable donors for an organization he ran with his family by a YouTuber whom I won't link to. A number of things happened afterwards, most notably Jirard stepping down from the aforementioned organization and releasing a response. The organization suddenly found an acceptable recipient for the funds, though some money is still allegedly unaccounted for. There were some ripples around the industry, including Sea of Stars removing Jirard's facsimile from the game and Friends Per Second dropping him from the roster. It's unclear if his brand will ever recover from the controversy, but it's sure to be debated online forever.

Runner-Up #2-2: Twitter (Currently Known as 'X')

(Source: The Verge)
(Source: The Verge)

Most of the impact of this one lies outside the sphere of games. However, Twitter became the de facto place for game announcements, updates, and other releases for developers, publishers, and the media. Its implosion and march to the grave has already made it more difficult for larger companies to communicate with their fans, and it's hurt smaller companies by limiting their outreach. Changes to how links are displayed harmed journalistic outlets, not to mention the rampant banning of journalists that don't parrot Elon Musk's soft-brained musings. Scattering an audience to the winds in an increasingly user-hostile internet is definitely a mess, and it's probably no surprise the community chose it as one of the hottest of 2023.

Honorable Mention: The Day Before

Pobody's nerfect! (source: Reddit)
Pobody's nerfect! (source: Reddit)

The above entries were the most passionately discussed throughout the various Hottest Mess Blogs, so I gave this slot to the game that surely would have garnered more attention if the news broke a week earlier. The Day Before is was a game some have called an obvious scam, and it seemed to fight off the responsibility of actually launching for months. The reason anyone cared is that it was, at some point, the most wishlisted game in Steam's history. Of course the game came out, delivered absolutely none of its promises, was delisted, and then the developer permanently turned off the lights. This all happened in a matter of days. The rest of the finalists were more of a tire fire, but we give credit to the fire that burned brightest for the shortest time.

Write-In Winner: Layoffs in General

(Source: The Conversation)
(Source: The Conversation)

I resisted including this because I think it goes against the more fun vibe I'd like Hottest Mess to have. But looking at the above entries, it would be disingenuous to disqualify it (particularly since Embracer and Unity might be the largest contributors). Over 9,000 people lost their jobs due to layoffs in game development last year. Media suffered greatly, with the Washington Post's Launcher and Vice's Waypoint shutting down for good. This very website suffered its first-ever layoffs of on-camera staff. And tech in general suffered (and continues to suffer in 2024) massive layoffs of bracing proportions. Seemingly the only CEO to pay for the mistakes, all of which have been generated by management, was John Riccitiello at Unity, who has a steady job for another 3 months. This will end up being the story of 2023, if there's any justice. Maybe some year, leadership and business executives will accept blame for their poor acumen and not shift all collateral damage to the people, you know, doing the work to try and make it succeed. But 2023 was certainly not that year, and 2024 doesn't look promising either.

With all of that, let's raise the jerseys of these winners to the rafters of Hottest Mess (formerly crypto dot com) Arena, and let's never speak of them again. See you for this feature again in 5-6 months!

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ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2023

2023 was a rough year. The industry saw unprecedented layoffs despite sky-high profits, as c-suite executives ruined thousands of lives in the developer, publisher, and media spheres to avoid taking even a shred of personal accountability. On a personal level, I feel like I spent most of the year low-key sick, mostly due to caring for a second, high-needs hatchling in the Dinos clan. I also spent the last 8 months in an absolute crush of work. I recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent the entire year not only employed, but able to work from home more than 80% of the time. That said, this is the most exhausted I’ve felt in a new year in a very long time.

Pictured: Any given moment between 4 AM and 8 PM in the Dinos household.
Pictured: Any given moment between 4 AM and 8 PM in the Dinos household.

I’m going to be honest: after Jess and Jason were laid off last January, I wasn’t sure there was going to be a Giant Bomb website to publish my 2023 Game of the Year blog / list (blist?). I haven’t watched nearly as much video content here as I’ve wanted to (see being sick / exhausted in the last paragraph), though I’ve kept up with just about every podcast. Many of the games I play are good podcast games; when you have 1-2 hours in a given night for personal entertainment, you learn to multitask. Consequently, taking a night just to recover feels “unproductive”, which is a piss-poor way to evaluate your personal time. Perhaps this context helps explain my top ten list, which is one that I’ve been looking askance at for the entire month of December. I wondered “is this really my GOTY decision?” and whether I screwed up by prioritizing the wrong games. But I really do like my list, even if I’m disappointed by a handful of titles that I thought would be shoo-ins.

Apologies to the following games, which I ran out of time or just lacked the wherewithal to play at the right times: The Banished Vault, Chants of Sennaar, Ember Knights, Endless Dungeon, In Stars and Time, Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name, Mortal Kombat 1, Phantom Brigade, Shadows of Doubt, Slay the Princess, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Under the Waves, and Wild Hearts. I hope I have time to play most of you before I forget you exist.

(Game screenshots mine unless labeled otherwise; feel free to use the images I uploaded)

Not Ranked (So I Can Cheat and Exceed Ten Entries), Board Game Edition:

Source: BoardGameGeek
Source: BoardGameGeek

Dorfromantik (left) - Many of you have probably played the video game, and I'm happy to report that this version of it is also good. I’ve played several rounds of this with 2-3 people, and it’s been a really good time. It’s kind of a soft “Legacy” game, in that you work on a campaign that unlocks achievements and new boxes of content. It’s my new favorite cooperative board game, surpassing the basic version of Pandemic. I also played it once with my 4 year old, and she enjoyed placing the tiles. I’ll make a tile fiend out of her yet!

Source: IGN
Source: IGN

Flamecraft (right) - Holy shit is this game adorable! It’s ostensibly competitive, although you can play it as amicably as you feel like. Collecting cute dragons and building a fantastical town are rewards in their own right, as far as I’m concerned. This game is definitely going to be a staple in my house for years to come, and its praise around the industry is well deserved. It was a little too complex for my daughter, but she did want to look at every single piece of art for a long time.

10. Cocoon (Xbox Series X)

Hey, get your mind out of the gutter!
Hey, get your mind out of the gutter!

I’ve found myself disappointed with every purported heir to the legacy of Limbo and Inside. 2022’s Somerville felt really rocky in its gameplay, and Planet of Lana lacked any sort of propulsion outside of its initial moments. Cocoon addressed all my gripes with its peers by being a brilliantly designed puzzler that limited its scope to its biggest strengths. The game seamlessly (and often quite subtly) places you in a setpiece where you have exactly what you need to solve a given puzzle, and nothing more than that to artificially bump up its complexity. Light touches such as making repositories for world-spheres disappear once they’ve exhausted their usefulness keep the focus on solving, avoiding any sense that you need to double back. And if you want to double back anyway, the save states were incredible (one for every percentage of completion!). A flawlessly crafted game that occasionally makes you feel like a genius, AND it only takes 5ish hours to complete? Pretty much a must-play for any parent or person with otherwise limited time.

9. Everspace 2 (PC, Xbox Series X)

It was very tough to pick a favorite screen shot for this game.
It was very tough to pick a favorite screen shot for this game.

I played a couple hours of this in early access and was immediately hooked. Shelving it in favor of its 1.0 version turned out to be a great decision, because I kept popping into this game for about 8 months of the year (finally beat it two weeks ago!). The best thing about the game is how it devotes its resources to its core strength: excellent ship combat. I absolutely love boost-strafing and swapping through interesting weaponry to feel like an invincible starfighter. Just about any combat sequence can feel incredible, though the conclusion to the main storyline was a level even above that. It’s also full of adorable B-game goodness; I had it pegged as German-made before I even googled the developer’s location (Hamburg). While I didn’t explore it too much, there’s also postgame arena battles that greatly resemble the rifts in Diablo III. If you’ve been looking for something you can hop into for anything between 15 minutes and several hours, you basically can’t go wrong with Everspace 2.

8. Starfield (Xbox Series X)

Another game where I have entirely too many screenshots saved.
Another game where I have entirely too many screenshots saved.

The temptation to qualify why I like Starfield is at times overwhelming. One of the several blog drafts I discarded this year was about finding the fun in Starfield, and I couldn’t figure out how to articulate the ways Bethesda makes it difficult to do so. But once I got past the initial few hours of Space Fallout 4, I found myself enjoying the game a lot. I’m a Mako Pervert when I play Mass Effect, so that probably has a fairly large impact on enjoying the glacially paced exploration. Navigating the menus to get to a new planet also doesn’t bother me, probably due to the aforementioned Mass Effect fandom. But since I’ve already hit a reflexively defensive posture, let me share my top moment with this game. I went to a random system because I wasn’t able to reach my destination in a single hyperspace jump. Not wanting to just immediately boot up another fast travel, I decided to explore a bit. I came across an abandoned space station that turned out to be a casino, which also was entirely zero-G. After poking around for a little while, I found that the casino was infested with "Spacers" (aka hostile freelancers), some of whom were tens of levels higher than me. I found myself in a pretty frantic battle for survival, and using the lack of gravity is what saved me. I could boost myself into combat, hit both slugs on the shotgun I was using, and the recoil force would propel me back away from enemies. I chose my attack points wisely, used my quick strikes to eliminate a single enemy, and I eventually whittled the Spacer force down to their single most powerful member. I lobbed grenades and mines around corners, getting some potshots in when I could, before finally finishing the job with a shotgun. I then explored the rest of the weird luxury station at my own pace. All told, this was probably an hour of action, but I can recall few gaming moments that surpassed it in 2023.

7. Resident Evil 4 (2023) (Xbox Series X)

Uh, it's called FASHION, maybe you've heard of it???
Uh, it's called FASHION, maybe you've heard of it???

I truly don’t know how Capcom does it. RE4 is probably the most beloved game the development team has made, and this remake not only surpassed it, but it also defined the pinnacle of remaking a game. All of the other modern RE games have been more heavily tilted towards survival horror, but the action here is snappy and impactful. The auto-sort button is a revelation for a game that basically spawned a genre of inventory management. The Ashley portions didn’t suck shit! The minecart level rules now! The merchant side quests were all handled very well, and the shooting gallery is a refreshing comedic break from the oppressive environments. My only knock against the game is that the island levels were once again somewhat tedious, although the game certainly handled those areas better than I expected. But for every island moment where the action became tiring, there were times like the “open world” section in the lake, where your freedom in choosing your destination contributed to the horror rather than marginalizing it. Village is probably still my favorite Resident Evil game, but I’ve been getting the itch to replay this one again recently. Frankly, I don’t see why I should resist.

6. Against the Storm (PC)

I promise you that things are not usually going this well for me.
I promise you that things are not usually going this well for me.

Every so often, I get a December surprise in these rankings. I was fully prepared to write about my former #10 game (Dredge) before Against the Storm stuck a titanium rod into the spokes. It is, essentially, an RTS game minus the military units or direct control over the builders (though not as hands-off as, say, Majesty). I’ve always been way more into the economy building in games like Starcraft, the early Warcrafts, and Age of Empires; Against the Storm appeals to that impulse and takes it further with roguelike elements and upgrade trees. Even though everything gets wiped out every cycle, it’s always an opportunity to rebuild better and faster than before. The gameplay loop at every stage is immensely satisfying, and each session feels different even when I pick the same unlockables thanks to the glade events. Being able to pump up the speed to 3x lets me minimize waiting, although I go into such a Zen state that I’m usually content to zone out with my laborers. My only knock against the game is that I lost my original save thanks to a Game Pass-specific bug; I bought the game in the winter Steam sale and have been mainlining it there instead. If city builders and/or RTS games have ever held any appeal to you, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

5. WarTales (PC, Xbox Series X)

Confirmed: WarTales is a JRPG.
Confirmed: WarTales is a JRPG.

A couple of Extra Lifes ago, I watched Dave Lang dig into this game a little bit. Something about it just instantly resonated with me, so I picked it up in early access. This game doesn’t tell you at all how to play it, even moreso than Starfield (jeez, that game can’t win anything!). Figuring out all of its idiosyncrasies turned out to be a large part of its appeal for me, as I led my ragtag group into scrapes I didn’t think I would survive. But the best thing about this game is not the excellent XCOM-like tactical combat or the entertaining troupe management. It’s how the game never stops introducing more and more and more new wrinkles. Whether it’s a rat infestation level where you see how long you can keep your mercenaries safe from infection, or an abandoned village where coming in with a large party guarantees a battle with zombielike creatures, there’s always something unexpected. Figuring out what secrets lay inside my first tomb was one of my favorite sequences of the year. It was gratifying learning my first song for my bard to perform a Guitar Hero minigame in a tavern. Figuring out that leveling up my squad leveled up meters in another screen that would let me further level up my squad in more specific ways (scholarly, merchant, thievery, etc.) was just icing on the cake. The combat system was a refreshing take on tactical turn-based combat, with much more player agency than most games. Every class had multiple viable paths to head down, and you don’t even appear to have a limit on the number of people you can take into battle. WarTales is a game I’ll be playing for years, and I haven’t even checked out its new piracy and naval combat DLC yet.

4. Baldur’s Gate 3 (PC, Xbox Series X)

I love so, so much about this image.
I love so, so much about this image.

Let me be clear that I like Baldur’s Gate 3. Normally this would be self-evident by its inclusion onto this list, but I feel the need to clarify based on most of my experiences being frustrating. I appear to be a magnet for bizarre glitches, like when Gale was unable to take any actions aside from casting feather fall on himself, so I did that and shoved him safely off a cliff to get him to move. Or the total lack of signposting (or mention of the word “undead” in my Paladin's tenets) earning me Oathbreaker status because I did something that I thought was in line with the Ancients I worship. My partner, who has finished the game and is halfway through a second playthrough, has probably witnessed me encounter more glitches in the much shorter time I’ve played than the entirety of her experience. I’ve had an easier time on the console version, but I still watched someone’s brain float several feet above their body within the last few days.

It’s a testament to how well-crafted the story and gameplay are that I consider BG3 one of my favorites of 2023. Obviously D&D, particularly 5th edition, is one of the most user-tested methods of entertainment in the entire landscape of games. But D&D is also not an easy system to pick up, and it’s to Larian’s credit that the rough edges are so nicely smoothed over here. They made the large suite of bonus actions fun and interesting, to the extent that I have a Cleric in an upcoming D&D session fully bought into the shove lifestyle. This game is the promise of the various Bioware games, particularly Dragon Age, finally fulfilled. The party member cast is the best ensemble since the Normandy could still fly. The voice acting (particularly the narrator) is outstanding, perhaps one of the greatest crews of all time. Most importantly, it lets me scratch that D&D itch when I can’t get a group together or time doesn’t permit it. It’ll be very interesting to see if the well-deserved accolades for this game results in a regular Baldur’s Gate series, at a time where Wizards of the Coast needs a new format to keep their game relevant. I hope this is the reality that comes to pass.

3. Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon (Xbox Series X)

Currently my Xbox background and probably the way it'll stay for quite some time.
Currently my Xbox background and probably the way it'll stay for quite some time.

Admittedly, I’m a total mark for From Software games, a fact evidenced by their most recent two releases being my Game of the Year (Sekiro in 2019, Elden Ring in 2022). But this is also my first Armored Core game, aside from playing demos of the early entries. This developer’s golden touch continues, as no other game in recent memory has made me feel so goddamn COOL. I took a number of videos of me beating bosses and groups of enemies just because it all looks sick as hell. The Arena was particularly fertile ground for this practice, and watching the delayed explosion after your final strike on an opponent never stopped feeling incredible. The campaign is also filled with unforgettable moments, chief among them the “I won’t miss” sequence from V.IV Rusty. The economical way the story was doled out to Raven was distinctly FromSoft in a fun new flavor. Fortunately, I didn’t need a 4 hour YouTube explainer to give me the details on what was transpiring.

If there’s any knock I have on the game, it’s that at a certain point, there was clearly a “correct” loadout for advancing past enemies. I would get absolutely wiped by a boss, and rather than experiment with my weaponry and defenses as I did for early opponents, I just slapped on the Songbirds and gatling guns to put the new antagonist down for good. This is mostly a me problem (see above complaints about limited playing time), but I’ve seen others discuss this issue as well. It’s a testament to how goddamn fun this game is that it didn’t diminish my enjoyment. It turns out an overpowered pummeling of an enemy that wiped the floor with you is highly entertaining in its own right, and I’m glad the developer didn’t try to overcorrect and remove this kind of thing from the game after release. I do hope that I can eventually beat the final boss, because the New Game + mode sounds very interesting.

2. Sea of Stars (Xbox Series X, PC)

Hmmmmmmm.
Hmmmmmmm.

I don’t consider myself a nostalgic person, but I occasionally get a strong hankering for a 90’s era RPG. Normally this manifests by replaying Chrono Trigger or a single digit-entitled Final Fantasy game (Tactics if I’m feeling naughty). Sea of Stars immediately scratched this itch, and then already hit the replay rounds late last week. I simply cannot recommend this game enough, and it’s one of my two personal 10/10s of 2023. The battle system is so simple that it really doesn’t fundamentally change past the first couple of hours, and yet I never got tired of it. The engagement on hitting timed attacks and defense definitely helped, but I think having incredible art and music made the experience perfect to cozy up to at the end of the long day or on a lazy morning. The plot (past the opening hour or two) was very engaging, particularly once you completed assembling your party. The twin protagonists, Zale and Valere, were mostly blank canvases, but they sure picked a hell of a friend in Garl. The rest of the main cast all had great moments, but it would be hard to argue that Garl didn’t completely steal the show.

(Spoilers ahead)

In the late middle portion of the game, Garl is killed by the main antagonist of the game. He asks for more time, as directed in the early portion of the game, and races desperately to try and accomplish everything he can in his final hours. Even his infectiously positive attitude is racked with bouts of pain, and the entire sequence is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I lost my father to cancer more than 13 years ago, and seeing this desperate scramble to end all unfinished business was one of the most powerful sequences I’ve seen in a game. Better still, the game never insulted its audience by attempting to make the subtext text. Garl’s death was one of the most genuinely heartbreaking moments of the year and in any game in recent memory. The game’s true ending, where you save Garl through some Chrono-style shenanigans, doesn’t cheapen this moment at all, which is a credit to the strength of writing. Having Garl present for the final battle antagonizes the main villain enough to actually fight you, delivering a truly satisfying ending.

(End spoilers)

I don’t know if Sabotage is planning on making a sequel to this game in the near future (or ever), but they absolutely knocked it out of the park. I would love to return to this world, and it would be incredibly fitting if it was through a polygonal adventure that occasionally disrupted canon and had a cool evil cat dad and a baby daughter clone and… I may have gone too far.

1. Alan Wake II (Xbox Series X)

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Like many people, I didn’t care much for Alan Wake. When this game was announced, I assumed it would be a complete afterthought, fodder only for the most hardcore fans of Remedy. Sure, I enjoyed Control, but it was also a profoundly frustrating game in many ways (and failed to make even my retroactive top ten for 2019). So consider me as surprised as anyone to not only find Alan Wake 2 as my Game of the Year, but the easy choice. I was completely hooked on the story, thanks to its superb writing, narrative, and acting (given a shaky accent or two). Honestly, I haven’t enjoyed prestige television for a long time, and the story here got its hooks in me like nothing since the first season of True Detective. But it was being able to immerse myself in the world, poke around its dark corners, and uncover its secrets that pushed it over the top for me. This game possesses both bombast and restraint. As often as it flamboyantly struts in its live action sequences, it masters the quiet moments. For example, after filling out a nursery rhyme about a wolf that took a child, I was convinced they would have me fight a Taken wolf. The game built up anticipation and let me build my own tension. The wolf never came, at least not in that sequence. It’s a supreme level of confidence to let a small puzzle in a minor sidequest do all its own talking without the temptation to toss a random encounter in there to spike some neurons.

The gameplay, while not as polished as Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space, fit the theme better and did exactly what it needed to do. I certainly had high-octane encounters in those other games, but finding out I was fighting multiple Taken instead of one dramatically changed the calculus of battle. As Alan, trying to figure out which shadows could harm me and which were just there to scare me was constantly running through my mind. The result is a claustrophobic experience, which is expertly broken up with town sequences and quieter locales. Saga’s desperation to save a child that only she knows is fine resonated strongly with me (for obvious reasons). I played a mixture of medium and easy difficulty, and I found it fun in either case; I mainlined easy thanks to having limited time and desperately wanting to push the narrative every night. Although I found myself underwhelmed by the supposed juggernaut of 2023 (as far as gaming quality went), Alan Wake 2 is an unambiguous success, one that feels so different from the typical AAA dross that gets praised to death. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that I will shout from the rooftops for everyone to play. Games can still be something bizarre, unexpected, and unapologetically themselves even in an increasingly homogenized mainstream. For that, Remedy deserves its flowers, and I will damn sure check out the next thing they release.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in the sau-www-nah.

Honorable Mentions: I really, really wish I could have found a place for Dredge. It does run out of steam after a certain point, but it was tough to give it #11… I’m so glad that Dan discovered the greatness of Cobalt Core, because it’s the best roguelike deckbuilder since Monster Train. Now please put it on mobile… Jusant was another game that hit hard, I just wish playing it had been more fun… Like A Dragon: Ishin! cemented my newfound Yakuza (er, LAD) fandom… I played a ton of Forza Motorsport and I don’t regret a minute of it… Finally, Luck Be A Landlord hit 1.0 and became my go-to mobile game. I’ve been guillotined six times!

Dishonorable Mentions: Why did Exoprimal have to be online and pvp? I liked so many things about it, but being trapped in a live service game is a miserable state of being. I will retract these complaints if it turns out to be a test for a Dino Crisis remake… Redfall is truly a boring piece of junk, and the worst game I played in 2023 by a long shot… Finally, just the heartiest fuck you to every layoff-happy executive in the gaming industry. I hope the weight of the lives you ruined in 2023 haunts you like the goddamn Marley brothers in the only Christmas Carol movie worth watching.

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Games of the Mid-Year 2023: Celebrating More Also-Rans

Back in July, I took a look at some of the games on my work-in-progress GOTY list, and it seemed that I would miss the chance to write about them. Staring down both a loaded October and a swollen backlog of games released this calendar year, it seemed like a good time to make a sequel. It's possible a couple of the games end up being honorable mentions, especially the last one on the list. So let's pay tribute to some more good-but-not-great games that probably won't get their due in the final stretch:

MLB The Show 23

For the third consecutive year, my Orioles won their fourth championship!
For the third consecutive year, my Orioles won their fourth championship!

Ever since these games started appearing on Game Pass in 2021, I’ve taken a whack at them. Mostly because my Orioles are usually terrible and I want to rig a victorious season for them, but it’s also just relaxing to play as many baseball games as I care to. This season, they added a Negro Leagues mode that has a really cool presentation, much like the documentary-style clips in Age of Empires IV. I particularly enjoyed the Satchel Paige storyline, the high point of which was rendering the position players gathering around the mound for Satchel’s infamous “Bring ‘Em All In” stunt. The goodwill from this mode was upended in a later scenario, when the presentation made a big deal about Carl Yastrzemski facing off against Satchel, and then Yaz was nowhere in the lineup when I actually played (probably due to likeness rights issues). It was a reminder that at its best, this is still an annual sports game, with all the flaws and limitations of its peers.

But hey, how ‘bout them O’s??? Please for the love of god win multiple playoff series.

Planet of Lana

No Caption Provided

Of all the Limbo-likes, this sure is one of them. I did enjoy my time with this game (which I did not finish) more than I did with Somerville, but most of that had to do with the former’s commitment to staying in two dimensions. It was nice to have a little catlike pet but terrible to watch it get horrifically consumed occasionally. I think I wanted something a lot more chill, or perhaps more explicitly spooky, so maybe my ambivalence towards this game is indicative of my current tastes far more than any statement on the game itself. The central problem is that this game just doesn’t stand out from anything like it, and by this time next year I may have forgotten I played it altogether. I think the next time one of this micro-genre appears, I’m just going to skip it, because it’s clearly not what I want from a game anymore.

Inkbound [Early Access]

No Caption Provided

I love Monster Train, and I really love Hades. So when I heard the developer behind Monster Train was making their own Hades-like, I jumped at the chance to play it. There is definitely a good core to this game, where there’s a much more strategic turn-based twist on the roguelike room crawler gameplay, but it feels very incomplete. Hades has a strong sense of progression even on (and sometimes especially on) failed runs, and Inkbound didn’t give me that impression in the time I’ve spent with it thus far. I think there could be something really special here, and I can’t wait until it hits 1.0. But right now, I think it’s a skippable experience, particularly if you have Ember Knights available or want to start yet another new run of Hades.

Remnant II

Surprised they didn't go with Giant Rotating Cube as the cover art.
Surprised they didn't go with Giant Rotating Cube as the cover art.

I’m very much of the Tam School of Thought when it comes to Soulslikes: I like the Souls games, and the homages / imitators tend to miss a lot for me. The first Remnant game was a rare exception, one I found engaging in its own peculiar ways. Remnant II certainly offers vastly improved gunplay and an interesting array of skills, but it keeps the facet of the first game I found most frustrating: the boring palette. Your first world is randomly generated, and I was taken to a space station and/or planet next to a black hole, which was a cool idea for a setting. Unfortunately, it was very dark and unremarkable, like a budget take on Scorn. Once I beat the area boss, I figured the next world might have more variety. Naturally I found myself in a gray landscape of geometric shapes, and I sort of just fell off the game midway through this area. The Quick Look had a town that also looked pretty monochrome, so I think I’ve seen all I really need to see. Perhaps it would be easier to ignore if I had more time to play with friends, but I have two young kids who shouldn’t be watching this type of game. It’s a good game, but it’s just not GOTY material.

Diablo IV

This fuckin' guy.
This fuckin' guy.

It brings me absolutely no pleasure to include Diablo IV on this kind of list. The campaign mode is engaging in a way Diablo hasn’t really been before, and the cutscenes are incredible. The darker tone worked well for me, and the environments looked incredible despite a dark color palette (see my complaints in Remnant II above). The abilities were fun to use and synergize very well with each other. But in terms of having fun, this game was sadly a downgrade from Diablo III. I ended up feeling constantly underpowered, and it was very easy to get to the final phase of a boss after a long battle and die suddenly. The first major patch made me feel even weaker, reducing my desire to come back to the game. The first season was likewise a bit of a stinker, which I dabbled in but felt no desire to get much further. A lot of the game, including its side quests, end up feeling quite inessential in a way that even the radiant Adventure Mode quests from III didn’t. Perhaps one day, Diablo IV will reach the heights of its predecessor and give me more reason to come back for new characters. But for now, I’ll probably only play it to check out the occasional new season or for some couch co-op.

There are a number of games that feel like they belong in this kind of list that I won't get around to playing: Aquatico, Age of Wonders 4, Deliver Us Mars, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, The Last Case of Benedict Fox, Under The Waves, and The Lamplighter's League. If any of these are actually hidden gems, let me know!

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Hottest Mess 2023: September Update

A few days ago, I was lamenting to a friend that the Hottest Mess competition had cooled recently. Somewhere, a monkey's paw must have curled, because Unity decided Embracer shouldn't go unchallenged for this dubious crown. This is not to say there are only two viable candidates for the top prize, but... hoo boy.

There is no shortage of candidates this year, both from news items I've pulled and suggestions in the Mid-Year Check-In thread from July. This isn't a fully comprehensive list, as I probably missed several during the crazy new release period a couple of weeks ago (or so Embracer would hope). If you have a suggestion, here's a reminder of the criteria I set for this to avoid becoming an enormous downer: "I understand why the category was discontinued [in GB GOTY]: none of the following compare to the biggest problems in the gaming industry. Those include harassment, abuse, grooming, threats, discrimination, exploitation, and layoffs. Some of these issues are even factors in the candidates listed below. However, these are also a huge bummer and the point of this category is to have some fun, at least as I see it." Additionally, the MS-ABK attempted merger was granted immunity for being a 2022 runner-up, but at this point it doesn't feel nearly as messy as a lot of this list.

One final note: I ended up removing the Twisted Metal TV show and Six Days in Fallujah from the original 2023 list. The former turned out to be OK at worst, and the latter didn't cause any splash when it came out. We're looking for bloopers and blow-ups, not tepidly questionable ideas. And lastly, I had a seat saved for the Borderlands movie, but that's coming out in August 2024, apparently.

The Candidates (2023):

Once again, I'll update this list with a final pre-poll post in November or thereabouts. I'm considering making it a multiple answers poll and putting people on scout's honor, just to give each of these rancid little morsels the respect they've earned in the Hottest Mess category.

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Games of the Mid-Year 2023: Celebrating Some Also-Rans

For the last few years, I've been able to play 25-35 games in sufficient quantity to rank them for a GOTY list. I write at least a paragraph about my top 10, as well as short blurbs on my Honorable / Dishonorable Mentions. An unfortunate side-effect of this structure is that I fail to even note some games that are worth discussing. This is especially unjust for any early releases that occupy a top 10 spot until the annual autumnal glut of gaming options shakes up my entire list. With the mid-year mark coming and going over the long holiday weekend, I figured I would take this opportunity to pay tribute to some games that are unlikely to Hang (TM) when December rolls around.

(The numbers in front of each entry indicate where the game currently sits on my rolling GOTY Notes app list.)

10. Luck Be A Landlord (PC)

No Caption Provided

Most of my hours spent on this game were during early access in 2022, but Luck Be A Landlord quietly hit 1.0 this year. Much like fellow Jan Game Super Auto Pets, it is absurdly easy to sink a ton of time into it. I'm not sure of the full list of additions included in the official release, but the most important one to me is Steam achievements. Each one appears to be tied to a specific icon and a quirky way of using it, which made things novel for someone who had mostly grown tired of the game. From the simple (destroy a symbol before X turn) to the not-so-simple (have a Dwarf and a Pirate share a Beer), I had something to shoot for in every run. It's become a game I occasionally pop into when I don't have much play time, and it's always nice to have one of those on tap.

9. Hi-Fi Rush (Xbox Series X / PC)

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I suspect we're going to hear this game discussed a lot around GOTY time, at least amongst video games media people. Personally, I wanted to like this game more than I did. Part of the issue was that I could never calibrate the timing right on my TV tied to the Series X, so I made it a PC game. The thing is, when I exile myself to the PC instead of hanging out with my partner, I'm usually looking for a different vibe than Hi-Fi Rush offers. I'm not close to finishing the game, and I don't know if I ever will, but I can't deny that it's a good overall game. It's squarely in the Subnautica zone of "game I didn't personally like that much but recommend to everyone when it's on a subscription service".

8. Terra Nil (PC)

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Ah, the weight of expectations. I thought this game was a shoo-in for my final top 10 list after playing the demo. It turns out, the game is much more puzzle than I expected, and with my brain fried at the end of every day, it's never what I'm looking for to wind down. I suppose if it were more like Dorfromantik, I'd have an easier time finding my way back in. I still love the core concept of building an ecologically diverse landscape out of a wasteland, then needing to pack everything up at the end. However, I think the game would have been better served by tracking a high score, rather than providing limited resources and potentially forcing you to wind everything back to finish the level. It was released around the same time as Resident Evil 4 (2023) and Dredge, which certainly didn't help Terra Nil's case for my limited time. But the game is really cool and novel, and if it ever caught your interest, it's slightly on sale right now.

7. Matthew Rorie's Tape to Tape (PC) [Early Access]

No Caption Provided

I just grabbed this over the weekend and have been having a lot of fun with it. A caveat is that it's very early in its early access, so it's pretty rough around the edges. But as someone who used to break out my still-functional Genesis to play NHL 97 until a decade ago, I'm always in the mood for an arcade-y hockey game that doesn't care for offsides or human decency. My main complaint is that the runs feel very similar to each other, so I only want to bank a couple before moving to a different game. It's definitely a game to keep an eye on, and once Rorie finishes programming / drawing / publishing the game by himself, it could be really special.

6. Like A Dragon: Ishin! (Xbox Series X)

No Caption Provided

This is a really good game, released in basically the ideal time of year for it, that is going to get absolutely buried after October. For a brief moment, it was my #1 Game of the Year. I entered the Yakuza (er, Like A Dragon) series with Ichiban Kasuga, so the ties to older games didn't do it for me... at first. I worried that its silliness couldn't compare to LAD, but the 19th century setting proved to be fertile ground for goofs and new experiences. The minigames occupies far more time than I'm willing to admit (partially because I could actually play those with the kids awake). At the beginning, I wasn't into the combat, but it ended up being one of my favorite systems of the year. As I neared the end of the story, I kind of didn't want to finish it, since I knew I wouldn't touch it again afterwards. But man, that Diligence Record just has too much stuff in it for me to ever complete, so finish it I did. I mostly enjoyed the story, but the ending (limited by history, to be fair) left me wanting. I think if you got part of the way through it, the game peaks while you're still solving the mystery of the killer's identity. Ending the game can be an afterthought, since the journey there is the real fun. I'm happy this series, made with care, by a loving developer, is getting its well-earned time in the limelight lately.

I'll keep my top 5 to myself for now. But I'm always interested in the Not-Quites that people have for their GOTY lists, particularly if stuff like Wild Hearts or Star Wars Jedi: Survivor end up on their lists.

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Hottest Mess 2023: Mid-Year Check-In

Around the end of last year, I expressed my desire to see the Hottest Mess category return to Giant Bomb, even if it needed to come to the forums rather than Game of the Year discussions. Hottest Mess 2022 got a pretty good response, both in the call for candidates and in the voting. I meant to post something a week after the vote, but life got in the way until the topic felt moot. Recently, a friend and I began brainstorming entries for Hottest Mess 2023, so I thought I would take the temperature with the community while some first-half news was still fresh in our minds. Below is a preliminary list of Hottest Mess candidates for the year to date, with a couple caveats first.

I posted a blurb about ground rules for what I personally consider a Hottest Mess candidate, which I'll just copy-paste here: "I understand why the category was discontinued: none of the following compare to the biggest problems in the gaming industry. Those include harassment, abuse, grooming, threats, discrimination, exploitation, and layoffs. Some of these issues are even factors in the candidates listed below. However, these are also a huge bummer and the point of this category is to have some fun, at least as I see it." Since then, this very site experienced layoffs, and games media appears to be in even more dire straits than last fall. Some of the candidates below touch on these topics, but there are other angles that make it more complex than a pure bummer. Let me know if you feel differently.

Second, I've made the decision to make finalists from 2022 ineligible. So congratulations, Microsoft, your bizarre journeys in acquiring ABK will avoid becoming the Hottest Mess of 2023. If you really want to talk about this issue still, I assure you there are plenty of venues for it.

Hottest Mess 2022 Winner: Hellena Taylor's campaign against Bayonetta 3 (38% of the vote)

Hottest Mess 2022 Runners-Up: Microsoft's attempted acquisition of Activision-Blizzard and subsequent war of words with Sony (11%); Mick Gordon vs. Bethesda on Doom Eternal's soundtrack (11%)

Honorable Mention: Tommy Tallarico, who may have been counting on this award to pad his display case, missed the cut with 10%.

The Candidates (2023):

I'll add any suggestions to my Notes app and return to this thread late in the year when I prepare the year-end poll. Thanks in advance to anyone who contributes and/or calls me names.

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Ranking of Albummers! Final Edition

Just when you thought it was over

Just when you thought we were done

Just when you thought it was safe, man

We did it, did it again

- Ja Rule feat. Metallica and Swizz Beatz, "We Did It Again"

In some ways, this is a blog I didn't want to write. When the site announced Albummer! was ending after a 66-episode run, I was upset by the news. I held out hope when it was announced as a hiatus rather than a cancellation, but it's been over 6 months now. Worse yet, it ended while my family was struggling with the premature birth of my second child; you can read all about that in my blog about a dripping wall penis game. Work ungraciously got very busy when home life called down, and a lot of stuff hit the back burner. These things happen.

Of course, I'm also extremely stubborn, and I always said I'd ride this out to the bitter end. So let's hop on our Harleys like Ja and James Hetfield and take a final death race through some of the worst albums ever produced, just like in the movie Biker Boyz (note: I have never seen nor read a recap of Biker Boyz, and there is no way to remedy this issue; I'm not even sure it's spelled with a Z at the end). Open up all the remaining windows on your Metallimonthtober Advent Calendars, fish out those snake chocolates, and reminisce with me.

A special note before we get into it: I reranked every single album prior to this blog, which is something I outright refused to do before this point. I didn't re-listen to every album, but I did sit through all of that Bad Luck 13 cover of "White Lines" again, which I feel is penance enough. At any rate, you get a couple of sentences for every single album on the list.

(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4)

1. Quake (soundtrack), Nine Inch Nails

This album is good, not great. On a list like this, that's enough for #1.

2. Metallica, Metallica

Yes, it's not as good as the four thrash albums, and all of the singles are overplayed, but it's still a good album!

3. Jugular, Judas Priest

I only dimly remember anything from this album, but I could throw it on the background and have a good time at pretty much any occasion.

4. Attila, Attila

The critical dogpiling of this album makes even less sense than declaring K-Fed's rap album the worst thing ever made.

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

I'm still stunned this was good. I thought the John Cena album was all right, and this one absolutely crushes it. The cream rises, indeed.

6. Liz Phair, Liz Phair

I did a ranking of every Cathy Dennis-sung and -written song recently (for... reasons), and that exercise made me appreciate Liz Phair all the more. Maybe I just strongly dislike early 00's pop music, but this album is well above average for its time.

7. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Various Artists

My brother instructed me to look at the soundtrack to the Digimon movie a couple months back, and I encourage you to do the same. I'm bringing it up here because I conflated it with this album.

8. Shaq Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal

Shaq is performing after a Baltimore Orioles game for their summer concert series this year, and I've never been happier to be an O's fan. They're sporting the second-best record in the league as of the time I'm writing this. Coincidence???

9. Greatest Hits, Chris Gaines

This is the only physical CD I've bought in the last 15 years, and it was worth it for the booklet alone.

10. Still Sucks, Limp Bizkit

Man, I don't know.

11. Songs of Innocence, U2

In hindsight, it's still so funny that this is the album forced into everyone's iTunes library. It's like if the James Bond franchise proudly announced that every Xbox Game Pass subscriber now gets a complimentary copy of Quantum of Solace. Thanks, I guess.

12. Death Magnetic, Metallica

In 2008, I decided to get over my dislike of 90’s Metallica and give their latest album a real shot. Because I was either still in college or recently graduated, this meant “borrowing” their music from Limewire. What I heard was an intriguing, sparse, and sludgy mix that wasn’t the band’s best work, but it did represent the first interesting transformation they had ever made. Naturally, those tracks were fakes. The real album has a few great tracks that overstay their welcome, one legitimate banger in “My Apocalypse”, and several middling songs. Its worst crime is providing another sequel to “The Unforgiven”, which made me realize that there had to be an “Unforgiven II” somewhere since the black album. But the album’s main issue is the one I stated earlier - it’s just too fucking long. When it’s on, it’s actually legitimately good, and for that, it’s getting pretty solid booking on this list.

13. Dead Man's Bones, Dead Man's Bones

This is probably the final album on this list that I would voluntarily listen to again from start to finish.

14. Mission Impossible 2 Soundtrack, Various Artists

The Metallica song's music video is really fun, especially the Jason Newsted portion.

15. Music from Another Dimension!, Aerosmith

After I finished re-ranking everything, I thought "surely it's a mistake putting Aerosmith this high". Then I looked down the list, and... oddly, nope.

16. Deliver Us from Evil, Kryst the Conqueror

What if the David Bowie song "The Width of a Circle" was spread out over 5 tracks and much worse?

17. The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis

By all accounts, Bruce Willis has been an enormous asshole for most of his life. However, it's still sad to see him struggle with dementia. Apparently his youngest child put together a "fun facts about dementia" list for her school, which is the most depressing thing I've heard this month.

18. Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy

Did you see that last entry? I need another minute to recover.

19. 44/876, Sting & Shaggy

Sting is annoying, but skimming this again reminded me that his intentions are good. I don't want to listen to any of this music, but credit where credit is due.

20. Father of All Motherfuckers, Green Day

I really wanted to rank this lower, but that runtime was the most respectful of my time of anything on this list.

21. Sonic Adventure 2 OST, Various Artists

This past weekend, I told my siblings about Shadow the Hedgehog, who they had never heard of before. After noting that Shadow uses guns and works for an organization named GUN, and he is friends with a big-breasted bat that helps the President of the United States, I don't think they're speaking to me anymore.

22. Return of the Dream Canteen, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Dad Rock as a genre comes for us all. And so here I find myself defending this album, at least in part, for being inoffensive and listenable. I’m not sure how others feel about it, but I’ve always been something of a Stadium Arcadium defender. This album captures a lot of the feel of that album, only without a single standout track or interesting angle to put some shine on it. This might be a backhanded compliment, comparing a new album to the bloat of a double LP from nearly two decades ago, but that’s the best kind of compliment I can spare the Chili Peps at this stage in their history. John Frusciante is back for the 69th time, and Anthony Kiedis (scandal acknowledged) is still a great lead singer. There are a lot of cringe-worthy lyrics of course, but considering “Sir Psycho Sexy” is over 30 years old, that’s always been part of their identity. I will say that “My Cigarette” was so rough to get through that I had to take a break for 24 hours before finishing it.

23. Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson

I think I'm still mad about how cowardly the setlist in this album is. Where's "The Eyeball Kid", "Oily Night", and "Filipino Box Spring Hog"?

24. Loud Rocks, Various Artists

I have this album at least 20 spots higher than anyone else, and I still can't remember much about it. Maybe the guy on the album cover just reminds me of Porcupine Tree's In Absentia, and I sank into a blissful state imagining I was listening to that instead.

25. Rebirth, Lil Wayne

I'm not brave enough to suggest this album was a decade ahead of its time, but it probably needs a critical reassessment.

26. Hardwired... to Self-Destruct, Metallica

In Drew Magary’s Jamboroo on Defector (and old Deadspin), he made sure to note that he wouldn’t be commenting on every NFL matchup. Sometimes, he would talk about the things he wanted to say and ignore the subject at hand. I live northwest of Denver, and nearly my entire backyard is covered in either some weird thistle or little thing that looks like Kochia, both of which are not ideal for having two young children. My approach towards these plants usually starts at “let’s pull the weeds out by the root” and ends in “fuck it let’s mow the bastards”. I don’t have the money or desire to re-sod the back yard, as maintaining a lawn of grass is incredibly wasteful in this arid climate. My end goal is to have somewhere the kids can play without getting scraped up by foliage anytime they fall over. Anyway, I think that this album is a soft reboot of Load / Reload, with lessons learned by the band and their production team. “Spit Out The Bone” is a pretty good song, although it fails to incorporate the best thing about “My Apocalypse”: not overstaying its welcome. The whole album is over 77 minutes long, and I really wish Metallica would learn that a tight 40 would be way, way better. In conclusion, any advice for a drought-resistant ground cover that isn’t covered in spikes would be very welcome.

27. Pure Moods, Various Artists

My family never purchased a direct-sales music compilation album (although I did steal Buzz Ballads when I was in college). I distinctly remember the disco hits one (particularly the snippet of “Heart of Glass”), but I don’t think I actually encountered any in the wild. Pure Moods feels like the first album made specifically to be played at a low volume in your local mall’s iteration of The Nature Company. It’s evenly split between ignorable filler vibe tracks and “wait, is that…?” material. I will say that this was the funniest YouTube listen because a) there was a 30 second pause between each track for some reason and b) it was frequently interspersed with UC Health “insurance perks for men” ads. I imagined the kind of person this 2023 internet hellscape algorithm had invented, evenly torn between their needs for gender essentialist healthcare and the insatiable urge to listen to a song featured on a British Airways commercial. I confess that I remember little of the actual material that I hadn’t heard before, but Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene Part IV” had the distinct feel of a song that plays too often during a season 8 Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie. However, I will forever associate this album with the ending of Albummer, and if that doesn’t put me in a Pure Mood, I don’t know what would.

28. Cyberpunk, Billy Idol

I'm regretting writing a blurb about every album now. SOYBEHPOWNK!

29. Load, Metallica

Even as someone who has never spoken ill of Metallica’s mid-90s output, especially on this website, I can’t blame Albummer for covering this record. I still really enjoy the black album to this day, even if there are some very weak songs on it. Load is nothing but weak tracks, to the extent that pablum like “Until It Sleeps” is by far my favorite one. This has also become a common refrain of mine, but the fact that it’s pushing 80 minutes is a crime that, to my knowledge, has gone unpunished for decades. While not even in the bottom half of albums I’ve listened to for this blog, it ain’t my choice, ain’t my jam, ain’t my bitchaaaahhhhhh.

30. Reload, Metallica

Anytime I think about this album, I have a hard time differentiating it from Load (and vice versa). So it’s only fitting I rank them together. I’m giving the slight edge to Load because I have always disliked the song “The Memory Remains”, which singlehandedly kept me from wanting to check out earlier Metallica for a long time. The biggest difference is probably that every song title on Reload radiates Divorced Dad energy, even more than usual for this band. The tragedy with this album isn’t so much as it sucks (though stuff like “The Unforgiven II” does suck, don’t get me wrong), but that it’s all so boring. Aside from maybe Fall Out Boy’s 2010s pivot, I can’t think of another band that redefined its sound by changing it to something so unremarkable. At least they could only go upwards from here, right?

31. Transplants, Transplants

Our final self-titled album on the list. It's surprising that each of them ended up in the top half, though maybe that speaks to any given group's first effort having an actual purpose, unlike many of the albums below.

32. Shine On, Jet

The exact midpoint of the list is precisely where Jet belongs.

33. ANThology, Alien Ant Farm

Like anyone else, I’m too familiar with Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal”. Honestly, I’m surprised it wasn’t the very first track on this album, since it’s the only reason to remember the band existed in the first place. They cruelly ask people to get through a brutal middle portion of the album (“Summer” will haunt me) to get to “Smooth Criminal”, which is the penultimate track. The songs aren’t so much bad as they are annoying, as they jump around in style and tone on a minute-to-minute basis. I don’t claim to understand the mind of a person who spent their own money to hit the Skip Track button 11 times for the sake of the only song they wanted, but this can’t have been an enjoyable listening experience for anyone. At least the band had the human decency to stick their 9 minute track at the very end after everyone had gratefully ejected the CD. For high school-aged me, downloading a copy of “Annie Are You OK by Incubus.mp3” on Kazaa was enough.

34. The Philosophy of the World, The Shaggs

Even just thinking about this album makes me furious that a parent could be this shitty to their children. I don't mind people pumping its tires, but this album is just not a good time.

35. Youth Authority, Good Charlotte

We are firmly entering "absolutely no one asked for this" territory now.

36. Playing with Fire, Kevin Federline

Please know that I tried to get K-Fed into the top half of the list again, but I just couldn't make it work. It's still extremely far from the worst album ever made, and I'm not sure it would make my bottom 100.

37. Mainstream Sellout, Machine Gun Kelly

I've listened to a couple dozen 2022 albums now, and this is still ranking dead last. However, I only hated parts of it, so I feel like music is in a really good place nowadays.

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

Has anyone asked ICP what they think about AI? If not, I feel like that's a missed opportunity.

39. The Tears of Hercules, Rod Stewart

On the topic of Tom Waits covers from like 20 entries ago, I absolutely loathe Rod Stewart's version of "Downtown Train". Hearing that upset me more than "Kookooaramabama".

40. 1000hp, Godsmack

Releasing a song called "FML" is still one of the top five funniest things that happened on an album covered by this show.

41. Van Weezer, Weezer

A friend of mine got really mad at me when I told them this album sucked, so thanks for that, Rivers.

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

Why didn't the Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring movies release a gimmick CD? This is why they'll never hold up in horror movie canon.

43. Cut the Crap, The Clash

Somehow, despite this album’s notoriety, I had never listened to the music that killed The Clash. Now I can confidently state that it might be the most poorly produced work the Albummer crew have covered, with the exception of maybe Corey Feldman. Maybe by some objective scale, this album ranks much higher than where I’ve stuck it here. However, in terms of pure physical pain I inflicted upon myself during this journey, Cut The Crap is a cut above. A sentence on the Wikipedia article for this album states that “after Jones was fired, the band assumed that anyone could write a punk song”. Rarely do we see such incredible hubris not only shoved back into someone’s face, but also see such immediate realization of the full brunt of their failure. And that’s ultimately what makes this album so tragic (and such a bummer to me): they were capable of knowing better and stopping, and something (probably vitriol towards their ex-bandmates) launched them through each of these safeguards. I’m grateful that no mistake I’ve made with the supreme belief of success in hand has ever been this public or this messy. Maybe a competent producer could have fixed some of the songs (I like some of “Three Card Trick”), but the only thing we have is unlistenable garbage. Oh, my corazon.

44. Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven, Kid Cudi

If the vibe of this album interested you at all, it's done a million times better in last year's NNAMDI record (Please Have A Seat). I highly recommend giving that a listen instead of thinking about this album any longer.

45. Origins, Imagine Dragons

I'm still very unclear as to why this album was called "origins". Was it part of getting back to their roots when they made a song for the Wreck-It Ralph sequel?

46. Taste of Christmas, Various Artists

As promised, I included a half-dozen of these tracks in my Trashvent Calendar for 2022. I'm really scraping the bottom of the well for Xmas music trash now, though.

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

This has to be the weirdest album on this list to exist in the first place, right?

48. Scatman's World, Scatman John

The first time I ska-ba-dee-boh-dib-beh-dee-boh-dah-doh encountered Scatman John was probably the same place as most of you: in a friend’s car. We all had a good skibby-doo-doo-deh-deh-doo-doo-deh-deh-ba-dah-deep time with “Scatman (ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop)”, but few of us listened to anything else by the skee-dib-bop-dop-boh man. I guess I’m thankful to the Albummer ski-bop-bobbity-dop-boo-budededede crew for forcing me to listen to this skub-da-bibebe-dop-bop-bee-dah-boh Crazy Frog-esque vocalizing that it took an additional two decades to hear anything else from. I’m worried I would have lost too many brain cells ski-bi-di-dah-bop-dee-bop-dee-bop-dee-bop-dop-bope in a formative time da-bee-dop-bodidididid-oh-boh-dop-dee-ski-doo-yoda-yoba-boh-bip-bop-dedede-brrrrrrrr of my life. Overall, I skibby-dibby-dibby-boh-bee-dope-doh-dibby-mlllrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

49. Crazy Frog Presents More Crazy Hits, Crazy Frog

Am I imagining things, or did Crazy Frog attempt to come back as an NFT?

50. Kidz Bop 3, The Kidz Bop Singers

After I finish ranking every David Bowie song (I'm only on my 9th LP, so it'll be a while), my next task is to rank every Kidz Bop song. We'll see if anything can top their cover of "Lips of an Angel".

51. Too Legit for the Pit, Various Artists

Much of this site's content has operated around the principle of making a pun into a feature. That might work for a website about video games, but it sure as hell didn't work for this album.

52. Believers Never Die Volume Two, Fall Out Boy

Believers may not die, but maybe they should quit.

53. Sex and Violins, Rednex

At this point, I’ve written about more than 60 albums. Is there really a need to give the “Cotton Eye Joe” group a full writeup and assessment? What am I going to say: that a gimmick band from Sweden scored an unexpected hit in one of our stupidest decades? That there are at least two other songs that sound completely indistinguishable from their breakout hit? The only interesting thing on the album is that the music video for “Wish You Were Here” clearly depicts these “rednecks” as fighting for the Union in the Civil War, which is probably not as interesting as it is funny. Instead, let me direct you to the “Other brand ventures” subheading on their Wikipedia page, which discusses the ways the Rednex have attempted to franchise themselves and/or resolve disputes with former band members. There is also apparently a point-and-click computer game called “Inbred with Rednex”, which I strongly feel should be covered in a UPF or user blog on this site. Also, apparently “Cotton Eye Joe” was featured in The Negotiator? Let’s move on for the sake of our collective sanity.

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

Honestly, this album feels downright quaint in a post-Dee Dee King world. More on that below.

55. LuLu, Metallica

I've given it more thought, and I think Lou Reed is definitely trolling Metallica on this album. I submit the end of the music video for "The View" as my proof.

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

I declared this the worst album the Albummer! crew covered last time, and obviously time has softened that opinion. I wish I could say it was because of a change in my critique, but I really just appreciated how short it is.

57. WWE Originals, Various Artists

On the flipside, I didn't give this album enough credit for how much it sucks. At least I'll always remember the "meat wrap" story.

58. St. Anger, Metallica

I will never forget the physical sensation of being ill that I felt while listening to this album for the very first time. Maybe the only time that's ever happened to me, at least I hope so.

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

Funny Minions Guys final update: on October 14th, 2022, they released Funny Christmas Hits: Minions Version. Now you can experience "All I Want for Christmas Is You", "Feliz Navidad", and more in the three-word lexicon of the Minions! My son was born prematurely a few days later, presumably because he couldn't wait to be part of such a world.

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

My nephew apparently demands nothing but Chipmunks in the car now. I sincerely hope nothing from this album ever shows up on whatever playlist my sister is using, for her sake and the sake of future generations.

61. Danzig Sings Elvis, Danzig

This album is akin to watching a mudslide slowly engulf a small town, only it sounds nowhere near as lively.

62. Standing in the Spotlight, Dee Dee King

Wow, these raps are bad! Like, worse than Steve-O bad! The producer on this album claims that Dee Dee banged out the lyrics in 20 minutes, and honestly I’m surprised that much time was spent on them. If this had been a Shaggs-type scenario, I would be far more sympathetic with the incompetence on display in almost every facet of the rap-centric songs. Fortunately for Dee Dee, there are a couple of listenable tracks on this album (“Poor Little Rich Girl” and “The Crusher”) that make it impossible to call this the worst thing Albummer has discussed. More importantly, I now have music to sit alongside Cowboy Troy on my shelf of terrible hip-hop albums. Next time I want to cackle like a maniac, I’ll just throw on the song about the mermaid who read some surfing magazines. On this website, we stan a King.

63. Angelic 2 the Core, Corey Feldman

It took five blog posts to get there, but I finally accepted what Emily objectively determined many months ago: Corey Feldman holds the title for the worst album that Albummer! ever covered. Please accept this correction as my apology for ever suggesting otherwise.

As we ride off into the sunset, I'd like to once again express my appreciation for the entire Albummer! crew and all of its guest stars. You provided dozens of hours of entertainment and introduced me to some true nightmare music. I hope this show returns someday, whether in Albummer! form or elsewhere on the internet, but even if it doesn't: you absolutely killed it. Now, take us out over here, James.

"YEAH-ee-YEH-hehhhh-AWWWHH!"

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WarTales Hits 1.0 on April 12th, 2023

Ever since I watched Dave Lang play some of this game during Extra Life 2022, it's had its hooks in me. They made a fairly major update in early February so I dropped off of it, but the 1.0 announcement came a lot sooner than I predicted. Has anyone else been playing (or was playing and stopped) WarTales, and if so, what were your thoughts on it?

Semi-related, since I've been monitoring several Early Access games for their 1.0s, here's the best of my knowledge on some others in 2023:

  • April 6th - Everspace 2 (PC version only)
  • August 31st - Baldur's Gate 3
  • TBD - Dune: Spice Wars
  • TBD - Songs of Conquest (Q3?)
  • TBD - Valheim
  • TBD - World of Horror (Summer?)
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