Stuff I played this year, ranked. What a season, what a season.
Stuff I played this year, ranked. What a season, what a season.
The likely GOTY champ as of this writing. I can't quite stop thinking about it. NORCO lingers like several other games vaguely similar to it also lingered, most or all of those I consider to be some of the best games of the decade, lifetime-ass award material. Fantastic company to keep.
🏆: Game of the Year; Character of the Year (Detective LeBlanc)
One of the only narrative-heavy games giving NORCO a run for its money this year, plus its dice mechanics are somewhat more inventive and interesting than NORCO's light RPG combat. Not an equal comparison, of course, nor was NORCO really focusing on pure gameplay systems to begin with.
Forget all that. In either a NORCO or a Citizen Sleeper, it's the storytelling that get me in the door and keeps me there, all other concerns are secondary. Where NORCO succeeded as near-future southern gothic somewhat magical realist sci-fi, Citizen Sleeper hits its far-future deep space sci-fi just as hard, regardless of if you've done these rounds involving matters of artificial intelligence and identity before.
Some minor loss of friction and tension relaxing the narrative momentum towards the end of the game is the only thing keeping Citizen Sleeper from fully rising to NORCO's height, but there's enough variation and potential off-ramps and opportunities for divergent paths that by no means will every player share my experience or even see such possibilities as a negative. Not sure I really do either. Difference is difference.
🏆: Most Bittersweet Endings; Best Vending Machine
Coming in right under the wire to challenge NORCO for the best narrative position and *probably* bump Citizen Sleeper down a peg or two. It'll finish high. How high? Could it force a tie? A rerun of the double banger, 1-A and 1-B situations of GOTY lists past, two games leapfrogging each other 'til death takes us?
🏆: Weirdest Little Guys
"Holy shit I got a half hour into Stray before I realized the title was a reference to playing as a stray cat." - Dan Ryckert
A lot of people kinda turned on Stray as soon as the GOTY season hit with a particular venom that I found rather sad and unnecessary. Maybe this was due to it getting multiple Game Awards nominations and winning at least one of them, and hey, in fairness I doubt I would've voted for it over Citizen Sleeper either.
But the reaction, man, it's rare to see grown adults become so unchill about a cat. It's as if Stray's orange tabby materialized atop their PC towers and vomited salmon puree directly onto their motherboards. Paraphrasing Tim Rogers: Y'know what? I like Stray! It's okay to like that video game!
Full disclosure (and a CW for general sadness): I lost my cat of 12-ish years not too long after finishing Stray. It was one of the only times I saw her react to anything I played and I'll always remember that. 2022 was a shitty year, snowballed out from 2021's shitty year, these few moments in those last months ended up meaning a lot.
🏆: Coziest Atmosphere
Side One, Track One of Suikoden mastermind Yoshitaka Murayama getting his band back together. The real deal hits next year in Hundred Heroes, which is the true spiritual successor for which Rising is an appetizer, but I hesitate to use a modifier like "merely" given there's a good deal more going on in this prequel/side project than I expected.
I've also seen this referred to as "Sidequest: The Game" in other places (I almost always find descriptions like "x: The Game" to be eye-rollingly reductive and wish folks would find more interesting and less knee-jerky ways to get that thought across) yet Rising is nonetheless equal parts town-builder and dungeon-diver, and sidequesting is a natural part of that arrangement.
Maybe that's not what everyone's looking for, which is fine and understandable given the pedigree, but it's a better, tighter version of such a loop than I've seen in a lot of other similar games and a worthwhile preamble to the larger work to come in Hundred Heroes next year. If you're gonna play that, play this.
🏆: Post-Trine Award for Trine-like Games Better Than Trine; Chillest Loop
Tunic didn't quite grab me at 100% the strength that it grabbed everyone else, but it got damn close. A good, solid 95% of the way there, more than enough to inspire me to walk the golden path for a time, only really stopping upon reaching the familiar, slightly depressing realization that I'm just not wired the right way for puzzle games. And these are some dang puzzles, man.
A different approach to the combat could've made up that scant 5% deficit. I hesitate to refer to it as a Soulsborne or even a Zelda exactly, despite the obvious aesthetic choices - Tunic obviously exists only because of the latter - yet the bag of tricks here, the core strengths, the intangibles that make Tunic really sing, generally always feel at odds with what the game is asking of you as a battler. It just doesn't need it like this the way something like Hyper Light Drifter might.
Every other part about it rounds up to a helluva package, whether you're looking for puzzles or music or art design or just vibes, Tunic is best-in-class across the board, successful enough on those counts that an entire system can be set on god mode and it still finishes in the top ten.
🏆: Best Puzzle Design; 12th Annual Mysterious Fox Award for Best Fox
Much of what Hardspace: Shipbreaker was when it launched into early access and found itself somewhere on my 2020 GOTY list did not exist yet like it does now. Open Shift mode, which I consider crucial due to my fairly severe anxiety around time limits, did not exist. An endless oxygen toggle probably did not exist? The entire story, I'm pretty sure, did not exist.
Yet the potential of what Hardspace could be, and the ideas, themes, questioning, and values it could represent, was always visible right from the start. You could feel it in your bones. 1.0 reached all those potentials and found a few more waiting along the way.
Hardspace is both a brutally honest portrayal of what the future of work could look like after several centuries of decayed labour power and Mike Rowe "sweat pledge" bullshit, and a strangely zen experience of pulling apart complicated mechanical systems, piece by piece, until only their ghosts remain.
🏆: Shake Hands With Danger Award for Best Worker's Rights Representation
The closest thing I probably have to a AAA GOTY depending on your particular definitions. A wall of text fussing around with my feelings about it will probably have to wait until some other time.
I think it looks fine but it's okay if you disagree.
🏆: Best Depiction of Wandering Loner Behaviors; Most Tim Russ
Do not pursue Lu Buleth
🏆: Best Alternate Universe
🏆: Best Game That I'm Almost Entirely Incapable Of Playing
One of 2022's best outta nowhere indie surprises, even if it was (initially) built off the back of older mobile games. Clones are still a thing, rarely, and even more rarely one of them will emerge in such a way as to completely memoryhole its original inspiration, and this is that. Warms the old shareware developer's heart.
🏆: Kirkland Award for Best Store Brand Castlevania Aesthetic
Everything is political, and perhaps nothing more so than economics, yet even with that in mind I really didn't expect Vicky 3's moment-to-moment gameplay to launch quite so heavily slanted towards its market management side. That could take my particular lizard brain a very, very long time to come to terms with, or it could be something I mod into oblivion in favour of its far more approachable political simulation and Paradox's first (?) attempt at a mostly hands-off war system.
Victoria 3 is a big tent, and right now one of the poles is several feet taller than the other ones.
🏆: Harshest Chart Spikes; Second Best Use of Kras Mazov
I've never had this much fun spiraling out of control.
If we were currently surviving on some other planet (or around another planet, encircling, like a ring, perhaps) I'm not sure if asteroid mining would be our best or worst collective option for our continued existence under the thumb of capitalism, but at least Rings of Saturn avoids the expected debt traps I've come to expect from games intentionally seeking out to model hypothetical far-future occupations, such as Hardspace Shipbreaker.
That difference alone makes Rings a surprisingly relaxing experience, nearly meditative at the best of times, even if it can be somewhat difficult to break out of the spins. Like Hardspace until recently, Rings is still in early access, so there's the same chance it'll hit 1.0 next year or later and reappear on that list in a similarly high slot. Given the frequency and consistency of updates so far I'd say they're already on the right track.
🏆: Ambrosia Software Memorial Award for Unintentional Escape Velocity Flashbacks
I have only just begun to poke at this, but the shadow of NORCO will be a tough act to follow for any point-and-click adventure this year. Minimum, this year, who knows where the maximum sits.
Chinatown's rather unnecessarily arcane save game structure isn't helping me at all, but perhaps that's no barrier for others, or will eventually be patched into a somewhat more reasonable form. A lot of the writing, sense of setting, detective work, and especially the stellar voice acting should move a lotta folks of a particular disposition into completing it anyway, though.
🏆: The Secret World Award for Best Google Sleuthing
The slice-of-life-est episodes of Sailor Moon, if the Sailor Scouts were also a high school Shakespeare troupe completely aware they're inside an RPG. There is some drama, but This Way Madness Lies is almost entirely comedy with approximately zero tragedy. It's beyond light, it's featherlight, and after one too many bite-sized tangents leading to a joke about campfire smores or whatever, you could perhaps say it's light to a fault, however I did make the possible mistake of playing this right after finishing Pentiment.
Peer inside a little further and you may find the "Shakespearean magical girls" descriptor obscures the game's actual depth somewhat. More than just a gimmicky premise, there's some really neat battle and progression quirks here which should hopefully hit big with anyone looking for a quick, snappy, innovative JRPG-styled combat system. Zeboyd has gotten really good at this.
If nothing else, it's a surprising late entrant and probable winner in the music category thanks to banger after banger and an unexpectedly high number of vocal tracks for a game of this small a scale.
🏆: Best Soundtrack
It's Overwatch again, this time with a whole lot of extra baggage, a lot of it unnecessary. It might be a comedy of unforced errors if some of that baggage wasn't coming from such a dire place, thus rather hard to find any humour in.
I still enjoy Overwatch quite a bit once I'm in the thick of it and a lot of the core changes and additions they made have been worthwhile - I'm writing this while sitting on a hot pink D.Va Secret Lab Omega, I'm already in too deep - it's all just buried underneath a solid mile of loose dirt and complicated by uncertain potentials and countermotions that could threaten to upend the whole game at any time, whether it's good or not.
Proper evaluation of Overwatch 2 is going to be a moving target that likely takes it well outside this year's GOTY period. For about ten minutes in 2022 there was an attempt made at "early access" branding which apparently got quietly scrubbed before release, remember that?
🏆: Worst Launch
A collection of "this but that" statements at varying levels of damned-with-faint-praise. Anno: Mutationem is charming but cheesecake. Broadly well-made but not particularly innovative. Aesthetically evocative but spiritually insubstantial. Occasionally surprising but probably not surprising enough. It could be more interesting later, but how much later? I'm on the clock here.
There's a pleasant mix of visual styles at play which along with some competent voice work and better-than-average sidequesting keep it from falling off the board completely. Some areas have the cozy Dreamcast-era orange-brown earthtoned familiarity of a midgame Jet Set Radio level. Others are a bit Backbone, others still beat games like Replaced (or that milkshake duck thing) to the punch. Character sprites have that smooth idling, pleasantly big 'n' chunky approach common to both a lot of recent indies and old RPGs that ran smaller ancestors of these sprites over rougher 3D backgrounds or prerendered splashes.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that if you just feel like hitting X to do some quick dagger slashes and Y to hit some big slower greatsword strikes while jumping and dodging a lot on a largely 2D plane, Eiyuden Chronicle Rising is all the way up at #6 while Anno: Mutationem is an honourable mention.
🏆: That One Shelf Near The Back At Blockbuster Award for Best Mid-90s Anime Fan Service
I liked a lot of what The Witness was doing, or perhaps trying to do. That said: lol, lmao
🏆: Best Comedy
A mystery/romance visual novel with only a passing flirtation with thirst. Neatly written (it's no Eliza, but nothing is) but impeccably drawn, if more VNs looked like this I might dabble in the genre more often.
There is a choice or two made in its worldbuilding and backstory that felt a little off-note, but it's no big deal.
🏆: Best (Only) Romance
The straight line leading to Midnight Fight Express runs from Hotline Miami and through the John Wick movies and The Raid. A game exactly like this was always going to happen, I just doubt anyone could've predicted it would come from a solo developer and former stuntman.
It's really good, I'm just rather bad at it.
🏆: Best Kickpunching and/or Punchkicking
Ogre Battle combat shoved inside a Fire Emblem structure resulting in a generally enjoyable tactical turducken with a perfectly decent twixt-chapters strategy layer and good ideas scattered throughout. From a pure gameplay perspective this may be one of the better tactical RPG implementations in a while.
But. Some technical hangups do occur on busier maps, perhaps owing to the age of its underlying engine, which someone must've broken over their knee to get all these complex bespoke systems running at all. It may we worth rolling the dice on those issues if you find the story and its characters compelling, which... I don't. Or, I did, in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Worse still is almost everything about the art direction, especially the blandly rote character design and intensely awkward portraits, which all have a bizarre Photoshop airbrushed slickness to them that is seriously offputting. I can count on one hand the number of games that have made me go "gah!" upon meeting new characters, and perhaps none of them this frequently. It's a real shame considering all the combat and map sprites are good to great.
🏆: Best Tactical Systems Blend; Worst Character Design
One more great example of games I want to like more than I actually do, although in fairness it's not far off from cresting that hill. A rewind, or instant retries for lost fights, or a slower Bushido Blade-ier approach to the combat, or some combination of these things, could've got me to stick around for the duration.
Yomi does nail its presentation and inspiration, however, and that ain't nothing. For my money these black-and-white film aesthetics work just as well here as they do in Ghost of Tsushima. Maybe better? Not every character model holds up as well to tighter shots, unfortunately.
In a year full of early bounces, Trek to Yomi is at least more successful than the others, and more likely to get a deeper revisit from me than most.
🏆: Most Sobbing Widowers Per Ransacked Country Village
Weird West evokes an absolute ton of very specific nostalgic energy I still have swimming around my head for the original Fallout games that, oddly, but not totally unexpectedly, has only been imperfectly and incompletely fulfilled by the actual-ass modern-ass Fallout games.
Unfortunately, the combat here isn't remotely close to where I want it to be for such an unusually loaded comparison to go all the way, so that particular box remains fully unticked, for now. But it's enough to give you an idea of what could be done elsewhere. Just get this in front of the right set of eyes, and...
🏆: Almost There Award for Narrowly Avoided Brilliance
Being just about the only melee-focused and wrestling-inspired battle royale that I can think of gives Rumbleverse acres upon acres of cartoon muscley-fleshy potential, but I just don't think I have another one of these games in me. A combination of royale meta and fighting game meta means in my few months of inactivity I've already fallen too far behind the curve to ever realistically catch up.
I wish Iron Galaxy the best of luck, though. No one else is doing this exact mixture and chances are no one else will, unless it gets popular enough for Fortnite to steal it.
🏆: Radical Heights Memorial Award
I am so impossibly, comically horrible at Windjammers 2 that I've actually seriously considered refunding it and maybe trying again someday on Game Pass, but since I'm not 100% sure if my incompetence is natural or inflicted upon me by a slowly dying gamepad, and because I love what Dotemu does and would rather support them than bail outright, I will continue feebly attempting to jam that wind despite myself and my myriad shortcomings.
It looks and sounds and moves exactly how a Windjammers should, even if I can't seem to catch anything or score any points that aren't entirely accidental. That is all for now, until maybe I have the kind of social life again that makes local co-op a possibility.
🏆: Dave Lang Lifetime Achievement Award
We are living in a Mothman renaissance thanks to Fallout 76 and the Shin Megami Tensei series. Mothmen 1966... has nothing to do with those games, but if you're down with the moth and you have some nostalgic affection for the ancient two-toned CGA adventure games that ran poorly on your school monitors in the second grade, here you are.
🏆: Best Horror
Various silly gifs and videos on Twitter involving rail grinds and fighting game styled car combat tricks piqued my interest in Buck Up and Drive. The menu flag toggle joke sold me a copy. This one might not stick around for a long time, but it'll be a very fun goofy time, is how that saying might go. "Here for a good time not a long time" is how the saying actually goes. Pretend I said that.
🏆: January-February Award for Game Most Likely To Appear On An Honourable Mentions List
Vampire Survivors pulled off that neat trick of quietly launching a simple $3 game built entirely with pleasurable hooks and then very-not-quietly exploding into an indie juggernaut almost overnight, and in doing so it has spawned a dozen other contenders in its wake.
The best of those so far, or at least the best looking, might be 20 Minutes Till Dawn, listed here as 10 Minutes because the full game isn't actually in the Giant Bomb database. It's not entirely Vampire Survivors, however: your shots aren't automatic, and there's an active reload, so ultimately this may shake out to become a more traditional dual-stick shooter. Whether or not that's to its benefit, I don't know. We'll find out later.
🏆: Best Demo
I appreciate a lot of what it's doing but I don't think it's for me. No knocks against it, I'm just already not much of a puzzle-platformer person, and so not really looking to invite another platformer-puzzler into my life. I'm too old now to be broken again in the ways they always break me. A quintessential Game Pass game, good for a shot, don't worry about it too much if that shot misses.
🏆: Most Arbitrary Tides
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