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Yours Truly's 2021 Game of the Year Awards

I dont really have a full #1 this year, but that's less that the winner was a disappointment but it was more that the top 5 made it a "first amongst equals" thing.

List items

  • Usually, when Dungeon Crawlers get talked about, its usually in danger of one of two pitfalls: hewing too close to classic series of old, or desperately trying to sell itself as something its not (ie, a soft game genre). Caught between tradition and the need to expand, the question of "how" is almost an afterthought.

    But now, thanks to Ito scrounging enough loose change to his basement cubicle to craft a game, we have that answer. Similar but via a very different route to his coworker Kawazu, DE strips down to its roots and rebuilds not just the Crawler, but all video game RPGs to a large extent. The presentation is pure theater of the mind. Graphpaper grids, highly abstracted characters more portraits than lavish animations, and two very vital changes: teardown stats and a wildly potent movement system by mid-game.

    Stats basically boil down to HP + Defense of the type vs. weapon power x random, aerial, and/or all. That's it. Yet there's this depth from such simplicity; enemies with 0 armor, characters bringing but one weapon, the value of a few more PP or Speed. Well, there's a bit more to that like exclusive gear, but you get the drift. And you get teleports. Oh the kind of BAMFing most DC makers wouldnt dare: past an easily visible enemy, up to safety, randomly about the floor, randomly about the dungeon, down to the next available square. Its to the point where it tempts you to find the Wandering/KOed party members once you have the ability, then switch to them then a quick jaunt to end boss. It's nuts.

    ​I guess the music is kinda bleh like my 2015 GOTY Rocket League? Just Uematsu electric guitaring out old Classical standards.

    ​At any rate, this is Square Enix putting one of gaming's greatest minds for use for once; lets hope they do this again soon.

  • If there's been a problem with post-Indiepocalypse, its the glut of Metroidvanias. I say that as alot get lost in the shuffle, either from mediocre well-tread design, or just being overshadowed by breakthru titles. Astalon, it doesn't do that.

    Coolly intricate, with a VERY unique character-building system, and stupendous level design, ATotE is a serious head above "just another Metroidvania". Powerups are useful in multiple ways immediately, the game can be beaten without dying but once, and the level design is immaculately dense, both with the passage thru the tower, but also with secrets aplenty. I also seemed to either one-shot bosses or die over a dozen times one. Shout out to a new innovation sweeping the industry: Actually Good CRT Filters. Im so glad people figured this out.

    ​Main gripe is the oddly-sluggish menus on the title screen.

  • When trying to get the granddaddy of Atlus series out of the shadow of its favored son Persona, the team behind V could have just called it in for safety. But they didn't. Building off of the SMT:Nocturne rerelease and the lessons that all-time classic had to teach, we get that Spiky Design in full effect despite dancing on multiple cliff's edges thruout the game.

    And it wasn't just Nocturne; there's DNA from every Megaten game [ISPOILER](female protagonist for a stretch with magic affinity {SMT1}, "YHWH's little Tokyo biotope" {SMT4}, If's cast parallels, etc)[/ISPOILER], and if you step back and look at things from above, you see the Etrian Odyssey peoples' involvement given the new areas replicating the "Stratum" system, down to the bosses acting as delineators between "floors" and some gameplay nudges like tanky Demons who taunt. Its even got DDS' elemental system in the form of Dampeners and the Kumbhanda chase! All with a strong sense of "OK, AGL was busted in 3, Smirk made for a Tetra/Makarakarn fest, etc we can do better" going on here that manages to avoid falling into rote grinding and simplistic "find the weakness" boss fights for the most part.

    ​It looks really good. From sparkly sand to subtle shine effects, to great animation, this is really pushing the wheezing Switch to its limit (a bit too much really). And that music! I'd say Kozuka did just as good here as in IV; stronger overall but not reaching the same highs. From vicious chaotic countermelodies to horrifyingly vast beauty, he's still one of the best in the business.

    ​But there are problems. Performance, as mentioned earlier is iffy oddly on Docked for some reason. In an odd inverse of previous games, the dungeons are few and VERY weak compared to the overworlds, initiative is still stat-based despite the attack animation (really?), ALL voice acting turns off or its ALL on, level scaling on stats is much more blatant here, and for reasons unknown, the menus and the Press Turn system are pointlessly sluggish. There's no more buffering or queueing and be prepared for Surtr to do his very looooooooong hit animation many many times.

  • I usually give a wide berth to deck builders, as the Building part of it becomes the overarching stone one drags behind one as the game trundles on. LH goes around this by balancing that with different player more stuff to control, while also taking control of the character himself away from the player. Placing the world around the hero trudging along, swtiching gear, but letting him fight. Inerconnecting systems like Rogues loving the Outpost as they get 95% of their gear thru trophies, the Warrior going full dodge/regen, or the Necromancer laughing off vampires. Its really ingenious. To an extent, I mean. There is still the last two bosses and the need for bespoke builds + luck getting what you when you need it.

    Note the really great CRT filter, plus the plethora of options a'plenty. Also its so joyfully morose like only Mother Russia can do right.

  • I love me some Trails, (as my shilling will attest), and the last of the "lost" games has come into my hands: Azure.

    Playing thru Zero and now this proves why the Crossbell duology has such praise. Taking the lit fuses from its prequel and never, ever stopping the raising stakes from chapter to chapter, getting the player to keep asking "how much more can these characters take? how much can this city take?" without just going brutal. Police work feeling like a breather before the next wave, bombshells dropping all errwhrrr. I can get why many say the last half of this game is Peak Trails because its like the last manic 1 to 10 hours of other entries for 20+. It's that good.

    Shout out to the end boss, which is easily my take for the best boss in the series. Taking every narrative thread and power at play into consideration, it tests us the best of any I've faced. Truly great.

    And that music! It's a bit more partial than the other "back half games" like SC, CS2, and CS4 but it hits, and it hits damn hard.

    It's not without its faults, as its 5th place finish will attest. Sometimes characters can get erratic scene to scene (Randy especially early on), and this is the entry where the mindless creepy creeped into the series (way less than say, CS4 but any is too much), and it really drags down a strong-willed and really excellently-handled tale.

  • When you get to talking about the wilderness the JRPG genre went thru during the darkness of Gen 7, there's a flipside...when a series makes it to the other side and makes a breakthru, it gets a light shown on it they never had before.

    Arise was one of those recently. Going with a largely gorgeous watercolory look and sporting DNA from other series like Souls, MMOs, and Character Action games, ToA really hit the big time and mostly earned it.

    For being a non-Tatsuro Udo-derived battle system, the aforementioned splicing makes for a good parallel evolution line to complement the Destiny line than the Symphony line. Committing to attacks and stacking % damage makes for alot more fun than managing TP bars, and forces one to concentrate, understand, and prepare, the sign of a good ARPG system.

    I liked the choreography and general tone of dialogue. There are strong personalities interacting here, and except for A Certain 4th Realm Scene and Anime Logic veering the plot really close to excusing chattel slavery, we see that Tales cast strength shine. Love me some Dohalim and how the story uses him; he's so interesting and frustrating and pentient in a role that coulda went VERY wrong. Rinwell is a really great 14 yo and her mental journey from shellshocked to smartass as her personal situation improved was wonderful.

    Shoutout for asking for Metrics. I'll always tip my hat to that.

    A very-much NOT shoutout for doing the Dragon Age Origins Camp Store thing which they finally FINALLY got rid of.

    Music was good, not Limiter-Off Sakuraba good (sigh...) but he did good work with the orchestra he was given. That does not extend to the Tiny Tim that blasted out of our speakers every time you went to the main menu early on.

    Love the spectacackle of great choreography and brevity-minded Graces f quality supers and dual supers, but the latter was milked too much. I even had a boss not die or do much till I did The Thing Again, which wore out the welcome of Law dunk-punching bullets into the enemies which explode real good. You gotta save that sorta thing.

    Not sure what the story was doing with Vholron. I guess he was supposed to be percieved as another Sephiroth? He was a Zagi if anything. Loser.

    And one final gripe, the pop-in was excruciatingly bad...unless you modded like us on PC. Not sure why they deemed fit to give Alphen myopia, but modding seemed to have no tradeoffs. It's weird.

    Anywho, Im really looking forward to seeing them fix things and do it without Covid making some things disjointed.

  • D&D is cool, even in solo form right? We've gotten alot of that lately, from Lariansofts work, Pathfinder, and now Solasta. But for some damn reason, the team making this didnt have access to the whole kit so we have (when I played it) 4 races, 7 classes, and you can only reach 10th level. That is it. Ok...but they were able to do some real goofy fun stuff that other tabletop-alikes havent such as some unique traversal mechanics, expedition abstraction, and the aforementioned hilarious perils of magical flight. Wonderful sound effects and it looks swell.

    Didn't care for the enemy faction in this (how is something so barbaric so cunning and slick enough to do all this?)

    It's just a shame this is so obviously, inescapably partial; although once more is added (there's like 3 new races and 3 classes as of now) and it seems we'll get the whole rulebook liscence in this...eventually.

  • From the glories of Bubble Era Anime came Record of Lodoss War (seriously watch it), it only stands to reason that the games look that splendiferous right? Ladybug's got you covered with their gorgeous animation.

    I really liked the game's use of everything in Jane of All Trades Mistress of All Deedlit's skills to their max in this, with the end boss being a particularly great test of everything we've learned so far. Great Prog soundtrack too.

    But...its rather rote to go about the game's levels, especially the last two levels. That Touhou game a few year's back was a more flavorful, inventive go.

  • A Skyrim mod but dont let that put you off (does this mean I've finally played it?). Going in a good direction for exploring a space, coming to grips with its rules, meeting the characters, and solving its mysteries is intuitive and fun...to a point. I couldn't get with the final few revelations and storybeats which didnt do the rest of the game justice. Great for a sale price though!

  • Ah, CAVYHOUSE, my little kaleidoscope secret. Expanding out the developer's Extended Universe by showing where Irene got her fortune (and oddly the only one I know of without Hamomoru), we get into a Roguelite and solve the mysteries of a ratty, used dungeon, which in this world are supposed to be basically farms but here are wild with rogue alchemal spirits. You go and AGRICULTURALIZE it in a quite Nippon Ichi sorta way. It's neat and very different from everything else out there like all their work.