Thoughts on Into the Breach's Squads

So, I've been playing a lot of Into the Breach lately. It's a fantastic game, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys turn-based tactical games, or puzzle games (which I might argue it's more of the latter). There's a lot of little details about it that I think make it an extremely well-designed game, but that's not what I'm here to discuss today. No, I'm here to talk about the game's different squads.

For the uninitiated, you control a squad of three mechs in every run of Into the Breach. The game comes with eight unlockable prefab squads, plus custom and random squad options, and even a "secret" squad. I'm only going to focus on the eight primary squads here, as they are the ones that are clearly orchestrated to synergize in some pretty interesting ways. I also found that I liked different squads more or less than others, and I don't think all of them are equally powerful. So this is also serving as a ranking of how much I liked each squad personally (not always an indicator of raw power, though that's a big factor). I'm listing them in order from most to least favorite, and briefly describing what I like and dislike about each one.

A pair of important notes here. First, I've beaten the game on normal with all eleven squads (the primary eight plus the three special ones), so these thoughts are based on how I felt squads compared on that front. I have beaten the game on hard with a couple squads, but not all yet, so these thoughts apply only to normal difficulty for now. Second, there are some pilot abilities that can alleviate some of the drawbacks in various squads. However, I'm giving my thoughts on the squads proper, not any pilots or additional weapons that can improve them. Take that for what you will.

Anyway, let's dive in! Hope you enjoy reading, and let me know if you have different thoughts on any of the squads!

EDIT 5/31/2018: See spoiler block for updated thoughts after playing more!

I've played the game a lot more since first writing this, primarily on hard. A brief updated ranking with a few thoughts:

  1. Rift Walkers. Still the best- got a perfect game with them on hard (4 islands no casualties), and it wasn't even that hard.
  2. Steel Judoka. A lot of people seem to disagree here, but they are so versatile. I played 1 game with them on hard, 4 island victory with 1 casualty, didn't break a sweat. So good and so fun.
  3. Rusting Hulks. They're a lot more versatile than I first thought, though Pulse Mech is still borderline useless most of the time, and one of my least favorite mechs in the game. The other two mechs make up for it though, and are both among the better mechs in the game. They make this squad much better than I first thought.
  4. Flame Behemoths. They struggle a more on hard, as fire damage does not scale well. But I still love using them.
  5. Hazardous Mechs. Still lots of fun, not much has changed here. Their range and damage output is crazy good.
  6. Frozen Titans. Not much has changed here either, though the Ice Mech's freeze weapon scales well to higher health enemies and higher difficulties. It's kind of OP sometimes.
  7. Zenith Guard. I still struggle with Defense Mech a lot. I rarely have a good use for it, and unlike some of the other squads with a useless 3rd mech, the main 2 aren't good enough here to carry the team. I've had by far the toughest time with this squad outside of the Blitzkrieg, especially on hard.
  8. Blitzkrieg. Still the worst. Gosh I hate them so. I feel it even more on hard.

1. Rift Walkers

Simply the best.
Simply the best.

They're just the best. Despite being the starting squad, and also the most straightforward and least thematic squad, the Rift Walkers are, in my opinion, the strongest and most versatile squad in the game. Each of the three mechs deal good damage, and all of their attacks push at the same time. That means you have good killing power, but can also push enemies out of the way whenever you can't kill them or prefer to rearrange the board. These mechs all have decent range and mobility to boot, and when you put it all together they can find their way out of almost any situation. I don't really have any drawbacks to them; they're not fancy, but they get the job done. And really, Combat Mech might be the best mech in the entire game. Turns out punching shit to death just works.

2. Steel Judoka

The only squad that can possibly rival the Rift Walkers is the Steel Judoka. This squad comes with a passive effect that causes enemy Vek to deal more damage to each other, and all three mechs come with attacks that can push enemies around. The clear theme here is to arrange enemies so that they kill each other for you. That's a surprisingly powerful effect to have, especially since it scales nicely throughout the game as Vek both gain more health and deal more damage. This squad's raw damage output is not quite as strong as the Rift Walkers, which is the main reason they're not as good to me: in the rare cases where the Vek don't line up well, it can be harder to deal with them. Also, I think Judo Mech is a bit of a weak link more often than I'd like, as its Vice Fist can be tough to use in tight spaces. All that said, this is still a really reliable squad with a lot of board manipulation potential. I like using them a lot.

3. Flame Behemoths

KILL IT WITH FIRE
KILL IT WITH FIRE

Despite lacking any direct damage out of the gate, I think the Flame Behemoths are not only surprisingly effective, but a ton of fun. They come with a passive effect that makes your mechs immune to fire, and then have a lot of ways to set the board on fire and push enemies around. As I've found in my time with the game, being able to push enemies is often more useful than raw damage, and with this squad your enemies will also take constant passive damage from fire as you push them around. Also, Swap Mech just might be my favorite mech in the game. It's uncanny how powerful its Teleporter is in almost any situation, and to me it's the only mech who can rival the Rift Walker's Combat Mech. My main concern with the Flame Behemoths is that fire damage doesn't scale well to higher health enemies. It's possible I may change my tune if I tried for a four-island hard victory, but from my current experience this squad is awesome.

4. Hazardous Mechs

On paper this may sound like a crazy pick to have in the upper half, but I had a lot of success, and a lot of fun, with the Hazardous Mechs. Yes, they damage themselves when they attack, and don't even have higher health to make up for it. But their passive effect that heals them every time they kill an enemy is not to be underestimated; it even brings them back to life on the spot if they kill themselves while killing a Vek. With that freedom to be more reckless, combined with good damage output, great range, and pushing effects on all three mechs, the Hazardous Mechs are more powerful and versatile than they have any right to be. My main concern is that they can be, well, a little hazardous to others. They almost have too much range and pushing effects, and it can be hard to avoid damaging buildings in tight spaces. But if you are mindful of that, this squad is a blast.

5. Zenith Guard

The Zenith Guard is one of two squads based around lining up enemies for the prime mech's attack, in this case being Laser Mech's Burst Beam. It goes through multiple units, and can dish out stupid amounts of damage in the right situation; possibly the best raw damage in the game. But I also found it to be less versatile than I wanted: it can be hard to avoid hitting buildings, and it lacks any pushing effect. How much you get out of this squad depends heavily on how often you can line up that laser, and I think the other two mechs have contributing issues. Charge Mech's Ramming Engines is your best pushing ability and deals decent damage, but hurts itself without a good way to heal. And Defense Mech's Attraction Pulse is blocked by other structures and units, which makes it more difficult to use effectively than I expected. There's certainly a lot of potential with the Zenith Guard, but they're held back by some situational caveats.

6. Rusting Hulks

Unfortunately smoke only gets you so far.
Unfortunately smoke only gets you so far.

The Rusting Hulks rely more on disrupting attacks with smoke than dealing damage or pushing. And smoke can be powerful, shutting down any enemy's attack regardless of its stats; Jet Mech's high mobility makes its Aerial Bombs the star of this squad. Yet while smoke is helpful, sometimes you need to be able to actually kill shit, and that's where this squad struggles. Their direct damage output is modest at best, and while they have a passive effect that makes smoke damage enemy units, smoke neither travels with enemies nor scales well to higher health enemies. On top of that, smoke still prevents you from attacking. So once the board it littered with smoke, I've found it hard to line up attacks how I'd like. Finally, I really wish Pulse Mech flew, like comparable non-damaging mechs in other squads. I like the Rusting Hulks overall, but it's hard not to see where other squads outperform them in a number of comparable areas.

7. Frozen Titans

The Frozen Titans are a goofy squad. In some ways I find them charming, but they just don't hang with the other squads in any meaningful way. To me their main weakness is a lack of pushing ability, which may be the worst of any squad. Only Mirror Mech can push, and given that its Janus Cannon shoots in both directions, you have to worry about hitting buildings (or allies) with it a lot. And their damage and mobility are about average, certainly not good enough to make up for the lack of pushing effects. Most hit or miss is Ice Mech. The ability to freeze enemies is very powerful, but freezing itself proves tricky. If you can line it up over an emerging Vek or in the line of another Vek's attack to break the ice, it's pretty great. But other times it just takes itself out for a turn. There's really nothing about the Frozen Titans that they do better than other squads, even if I kind of had fun with them.

8. Blitzkrieg

Simply the worst.
Simply the worst.

Fuck the Blitzkrieg. They're the only squad I do not like, and the only one I had any trouble winning with on normal with. But boy did I struggle. This is the other squad built around the prime mech's attack, this time being Lightning Mech's Electric Whip. This attack chains through adjacent units to deal damage to all of them, and is the squad's main source of damage. But the caveats are numerous. First, the chain will hurt your own units, which will become a necessary evil at some point. Second, Hook Mech is almost useless for any purpose other than extending your chain, all of which is very situational. Third, and most importantly, YOUR CHAIN WILL DAMAGE ALL OBJECTIVES. Nothing can prevent this either, so any mission where you have to defend trains, bombs, tanks, etc. is drastically harder, as you cannot use your main damage-dealing mech to clear anything adjacent to an objective. It sucks, big time. And without building good chains for the Electric Whip, nothing about the Blitzkreig is as good as other squads, be it damage, pushing, or mobility. In my opinion, this is easily the worst squad. Boulder Mech deserves better.

7 Comments

Ranking the Years in Gaming: 1991-2017

All throughout 2017, I heard a particular refrain on a near weekly basis: “This is one of the best years for gaming.” 2017 was definitely a strong year with a lot of very good games. But was it among the best ever? I wasn’t so sure, and expressed some skepticism about the claim in my own GOTY 2017 list. At the same time, I had never actually sat down and tried to rank all the years in gaming by my personal preference. After a brief conversation with @slag (thanks for sparking the idea!), I realized this could be something worth sitting down and doing. Where did 2017 actually stand for me personally?

What followed was a much tougher task than I could have anticipated, and far and away the most difficult ranking I’ve ever done. While ranking anything is a highly subjective and somewhat arbitrary process, I found ranking the years in gaming to be infinitely more so. How do you even decide one year is better than another? The year with the best game? The year with the most games? And how do you account for evolving standards over time? There are so many variables in play, and the longer I stared at this list the more I realized how impossible a task it was. Which means eventually I realized I had to toss out all the science and go with my gut. While it’s tempting to try and explain my process with all its caveats and experimental formulas, the only thing you really need to know is that this list is completely subjective in every way possible, wholly reliant on the games I played and my personal gaming tastes. As long as you keep that very important clarification in mind, this list will make a lot more sense than it would otherwise.

A few more other ground rules that may help:

  • I was born in 1986. That almost certainly influences a lot of my preferences here.
  • I decided to rank only the years 1991-2017. That’s 27 years for anyone counting, beginning with the SNES’ launch year, my first console. I’ve certainly played plenty of games released before then, but not enough to evaluate those individual years.
  • I didn’t do much PC gaming until the late 90s, and even then it was pretty sparse for about another decade. There are also some consoles that I had little exposure to or missed entirely, most notably Sega’s stuff.
  • I’m using original US release dates to decide what year a game belongs to. For games I played that never came out in the US, I use its original release Japanese release date. Also, I did not consider remakes, only original release dates.
  • The push and pull between years with a small number of amazing games (quality) vs. the years with a large number of generally good games (quantity) was a constant struggle on this list, and something I tried to balance. I don’t think there’s a right answer here.
  • More games come out every year than the previous year (think of it like a kind of inflation). This made comparing older years to newer years incredibly tough. I did my best to account for inflation and compare years based on their relative strength of their time.

Hopefully that covers the most important stuff. As I made this list, I came to realize just how valuable every single year is; they all have some great games, even the years that were considered worse at the time. So this list is all relative, and again, super subjective (and large chunks of it are splitting extremely thin hairs). I try to explain my picks as best I can, and if anyone has further questions feel free to ask! As difficult as it was, this was a fun and worthwhile exercise. I hope you enjoy it as well, and thanks for reading! Warning: this is long!

The TurboGrafx-16's finest.
The TurboGrafx-16's finest.

27. 1993. This is the only year in this span that didn’t have a single game I can point to as an all-time favorite, and it didn’t have the quantity it needed either. By any reasonable metric, 1993 couldn’t be anything but the bottom of my personal list, despite having a few really good games that I enjoyed. Reminder: I did not play many PC games in the early 90s (sorry, Doom).

1993 favorites: Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Aladdin (both the SNES and Genesis versions), SimCity 2000

26. 1991. This is one of two years on the list to dodge the last place bullet by virtue of a single amazing game: Super Mario World. This is a personal top 10 game for me, and if we were judging years based on its best game (and in this case the wonderful console it launched with), 1991 would be near the top. It’s a shame, then, that its supporting cast was so sparse. For that, I can’t really justify this being any higher on the list; a single game does not a year make.

1991 Favorites: Super Mario World, Final Fantasy IV, ActRaiser

25. 2002. This is the other year that survives based on a single amazing game for me. And being Metroid Prime, it’s one of the few games I like as much or better than Mario World; this is one of the very few games that is a legitimate contender for my favorite game. 2002 also had a slightly stronger supporting cast than 1991, but for the most part I feel pretty similarly about these two years. Alas, Mario World and Metroid Prime really deserved better.

2002 Favorites: Metroid Prime, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Metroid Fusion

In 2012's defense, I feel the need to say XCOM is an incredible game.
In 2012's defense, I feel the need to say XCOM is an incredible game.

24. 2012. At this point things step up a notch. 2012 doesn’t have the quantity issue anywhere close to the previous entries on this list, but it still lacks depth for me. It had a handful of really strong games, but dropped off fairly quickly by the standards of the time. There are going to be a few years that fall into this category, and to me 2012 is the weakest of them based on my enjoyment of the games themselves.

There’s another theme here as well. I always thought the period from 2012-2014 felt really weird, and you’ll see all three of these years together here. I have a hard time separating them. I don’t know what happened, but that transition period into the PS4 and Xbox One generation was a noticeable dip compared to the previous decade or so. These years get judged more harshly due to the standards set by the preceding decade.

2012 Favorites: XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Journey, Mark of the Ninja, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, Far Cry 3, ZombiU, Rhythm Heaven Fever

23. 2014. This got a bad rap at the time, but when I looked back on it I found a surprising number of games I liked. It didn’t have many big standouts, and shared plenty of the issues I noted above with 2012. I think it was more of a quantity over quality year, but looking at it now, its quantity was solid. At least good enough to earn it a few spots on this list.

2014 Favorites: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Dark Souls II, Theatrhtyhm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, Far Cry 4, The Banner Saga, The Talos Principle, Shovel Knight, Titanfall, Transistor, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

22. 2013. Rounding out the 2012-2014 period is 2013, which had the best combination of quantity and quality of these three years to me (and the new consoles too), but otherwise suffered from many of their same issues: some solid games without many clear standouts, and then a noticeable drop off. Still, it did a little better in both regards, which earns it the higher spot.

2013 Favorites: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Pokemon X and Y, Papers Please, The Swapper, The Last of Us, Fire Emblem Awakening, Gone Home, Antichamber, Pikmin 3, Tomb Raider

It's easy to pick on now, but this game had a huge impact when it came out.
It's easy to pick on now, but this game had a huge impact when it came out.

21. 1996. This was a case of having a few really amazing games, and not much else. We’ll see this for a number of years in the 90s, and where these years place is dependent on the relative strength of those brave few games and how many good backups they could muster (which in this case was not many). 1996 was also notable for being the year that 3D became a thing for games in earnest, with the launch of the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64. If it only had one or two more good games, it would fare much better on this list.

1996 Favorites: Super Mario 64, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble!, Diablo

20. 1997. Similar to 1996, 1997 survived on a few really amazing games, and not much else for me. The main difference between the two is that I simply liked these few games ever so slightly more. And yes, I was one of the people who was blown away by Final Fantasy VII at the time.

1997 Favorites: Final Fantasy VII, GoldenEye 007, Age of Empires, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

19. 2000. This year had a handful of really strong games, and it would be higher if a few of them connected with me more personally. Two big examples are Deus Ex, which I played way too late for it to have the impact it might have otherwise had, and Vagrant Story, which I always thought was neat but never actually finished. Following in the shadows of the previous two years didn’t help it either. Still, there were some good ones here, and it was a solid year to close out the N64 and PS1 era.

2000 Favorites: Chrono Cross, Perfect Dark, Final Fantasy IX, Banjo-Tooie, Deus Ex, Counter-Strike, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Yep.
Yep.

18. 2017. Ah, the year that inspired this list. I struggled a little on where to place 2017, as it’s still very recent. And it even landed lower than I expected, but after looking at all of this, I feel 2017 belongs somewhere in this section of years with a few big games followed by a drop off. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece, and there’s a half-dozen or so other games I really enjoyed here. But perhaps I didn't like as many of 2017’s games as much as most people, or maybe I liked games from other years more than most people. I also judge it more harshly on this list due to the high standards of the time.

2017 Favorites: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Hollow Knight, Pyre, Persona 5, Cuphead, Nier: Automata, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey

17. 2001. This year was the coming out party for two new consoles, GameCube and Xbox, and both had some big games for their launch. In addition to having some games I greatly enjoyed, 2001 felt like one of those years that signaled a step up for the medium; all indications were that with new hardware and a new player in the scene (Microsoft), things were about to get real. And sure enough, they did. The only reason 2001 doesn’t place higher is that I didn’t enjoy some of its more popular games quite as much as most, most notably Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Final Fantasy X.

2001 Favorites: Super Smash Bros. Melee, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Paper Mario, Pikmin, Civilization III, Halo: Combat Evolved, Final Fantasy X

The last Metroid! It's in captivity!
The last Metroid! It's in captivity!

16. 1994. This was, by far, the hardest year to place on this list. Between Super Metroid and Final Fantasy VI, it has two legitimate top 10 games for me. And at least one (maybe both) of them are among the precious few games in my “favorite game” conversation. I seriously don’t think any other year can front a pair of games this important to me. The problem is, of course, there wasn’t a lot else to back them up. So what to do with a year with unparalleled quality, but disappointing quantity? Somewhere relatively close to the middle, I suppose.

1994 Favorites: Super Metroid, Final Fantasy VI, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man X

15. 2015. This is the part of the list where I can stop making big excuses about lack of quantity or quality; from here on every year is generally solid in both categories. The main differentiator is simply how much I liked the games on offer. And given that, it makes sense that 2015 is at the bottom of this batch. It had a lot of games I really liked, but not quite enough stand out above the other, similar years. Still, it was a deep year with a lot of variety; something that doesn’t always get enough credit.

2015 Favorites: Axiom Verge, Super Mario Maker, Bloodborne, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Pillars of Eternity, Ori and the Blind Forest, Life is Strange, Rise of the Tomb Raider

14. 2011. There was a period in the late 2000s where I felt like big games were just coming out nonstop. 2011 seemed to cap that period, yet in a lot of ways I feel it suffered from heavy sequilities for the previous years’ games. That’s the main reason it felt less impactful to me, but there’s no denying it had a lot of really wonderful games. I mean, Dark Souls ya’ll.

2011 Favorites: Dark Souls, Bastion, Top Spin 4, Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Outland, Gears of War 3, Pushmo, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Dead Space 2

Na naaaa, na na na na na, na na, na na na na naaa, naaaaaaa
Na naaaa, na na na na na, na na, na na na na naaa, naaaaaaa

13. 2004. By this point in time the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era was in full swing, and 2004 was a great year with a lot of games I liked for those platforms. As we’ll see later, it got heavily outclassed by the years just before and just after it, at least for me, which makes it feel less important in some ways. But when I look over this list of games, it’s still pretty amazing how many good ones came out in 2004. I even say this as someone who didn't care for most of 2004's most popular games, like Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, World of Warcraft, or Half-Life 2, and yet I found more than enough past those. This was a great period for gaming, and 2004 held its own.

2004 Favorites: Ninja Gaiden, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Pikmin 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, Katamari Damacy, Burnout 3: Takedown, Tales of Symphonia, Metroid: Zero Mission, Astro Boy: Omega Factor

12. 2009. This was an odd year in some ways, and it produced a lot of unique and personal picks. Like the previous three spots on this list, 2009 was a deep year with a lot of variety. But something about the particular games here connected with me strongly, even when they don’t always look like the best games on paper. It’s an admittedly personal pick, but that’s what this list is all about. I spent a lot of time with a lot of these games, and many of them hold a special place in my heart. I wouldn’t trade that for a second.

2009 Favorites: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Demon’s Souls, Borderlands, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Shadow Complex, Resident Evil 5, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Little King’s Story, Rhythm Heaven, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, Splosion Man, Dragon Age: Origins, Infamous

It's kind of hard to overstate how much I love this game.
It's kind of hard to overstate how much I love this game.

11. 2006. This was a year that didn’t quite have the depth of some other years near it on this list. But it got close enough, and the games it did have were real bangers. In the relative scheme of things it was a year for quality, and there are some big personal gems here that carry it a long way. It also felt like a transition year, with both the PS3 and Wii coming out, along with the Xbox 360’s first must-have games. For better or worse, 2006 gave us the HD era and motion controls. The results were exciting if nothing else.

2006 Favorites: Elite Beat Agents, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Gears of War, Company of Heroes, Final Fantasy XII, Okami, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Dead Rising, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter

10. 1992. Trying to decide where to place the better years from the 90s was tricky; as I said in the intro, more games come out every year than the previous year. Given that, it’s important to remember the context for each year, and by that measure 1992 was pretty incredible. Not only did it give us The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, one of my absolute favorites, it also had a handful of really great games to back it up (including a pair of the all-time great beat-em-ups). That’s a lot by the standards of the time, making it one of the best years of the 16-bit era. And on some level it still competes with more modern times. That’s extra impressive.

1992 Favorites: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy V, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, Super Mario Kart, Mario Paint, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage 2

9. 2010. This was another very difficult year to place. Between Mass Effect 2, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, and Civilization V, it had a trio of games that almost no other year can match, all games I adored and spent a ton of time playing. They're all personal top 10 contenders, and 2010 gave them a few other strong games as back up too. I even say all of this as someone who didn’t like Red Dead Redemption. But I have to admit that, by the standards of the time, it drops off slightly too quick in the quantity department. If it weren’t for that it’d rise even higher, as the games it does have are incredible, and it has just enough of them to earn this very high spot.

2010 Favorites: Mass Effect 2, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Civilization V, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, BioShock 2, Heavy Rain

Doom was robbed. #neverforget
Doom was robbed. #neverforget

8. 2016. If 2015-2017 is to go down as the defining period of the current generation of consoles, then 2016 is the one that resonated with me the most. It’s a combination of both quality and quantity too. In Doom, it had a game that rivals almost any out there for me. And the list of games I enjoyed from 2016 is surprisingly long and varied; there’s not many years that can beat it on quantity. I remember great games just coming out every month throughout 2016.

2016 Favorites: Doom, The Witness, Dark Souls III, Forza Horizon 3, Fire Emblem Fates, Civilization VI, Hyper Light Drifter, Titanfall 2, XCOM 2, Superhot, Firewatch, Hitman, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, Salt & Sanctuary, Inside, Picross 3D: Round 2

7. 1999. This had the impossible task of following up the esteemed 1998, but by my count it did quite well for itself; I think it’s very deserving of a high position all of its own. In the context of its time it had a lot of great games, and some really unique ones I got super into. It was also at the height of my personal JRPG fever, which defined a period of my life, and one of the first years I played a lot of PC games. So maybe there’s some nostalgia in play here, but I won’t hold that against it. 1999 was a fun time.

1999 Favorites: Final Fantasy VIII, Star Ocean: The Second Story, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Super Smash Bros., Syphon Filter, Medal of Honor, Alpha Centauri, System Shock 2, Jet Force Gemini

6. 1995. Where many years during the SNES era had one or two great games, 1995 had four: two of my favorite platformers, and two of my favorite JRPGs. Those also happened to be the genres that defined the SNES for me. Even past those four it has a decent supporting cast for the time period. It’s often hard to compare years from the early 90s to modern ones for the sheer difference in the number of games released, but 1995 makes the comparison easy. It’s just good, and probably the SNES’ best showing for quantity and quality, at least for my tastes. The Genesis even got a great game in there, and if I was into PC gaming at the time I’m sure it’d look even better.

1995 Favorites: Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Ristar, Mario’s Picross

<3
<3

5. 2007. It’s funny, when 2007 was happening I remember people calling it one of the best years ever. I was skeptical at the time, as I remember a lot of that talk being about first-person shooters, namely Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and The Orange Box, which were not all games I loved at the time. However, when I sat down and looked at the games for this list, I realized 2007 had more variety than that. In retrospect I feel like 2007-2008 was the period where games really started diversifying a lot, and that’s not to be taken lightly. Over the next few years we started seeing new genres, new twists on old genres, and small games start to take the spotlight. 2007 was the start, and it was exciting. It also has some all-time favorites if there was ever any doubt about its quality.

2007 Favorites: Super Mario Galaxy, BioShock, Aquaria, Mass Effect, Portal, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Picross DS, God of War II, Jeanne d’Arc, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Rock Band, The Witcher, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2

4. 2008. Speaking of 2008, it turns out that, at least for me, 2007 was simply the warm up act. 2008 outclasses it in almost every way, especially in the depth and variety department. While both years have a lengthy list of great games, 2008’s is stronger on the whole, and has a lot more variety too. There are some personal, quirky picks here, and 2008 was the real coming out party for indie games as well. Even past 2007, it’s hard for me to find many years with a list of games this long that I love this much. Hence such a high position, and if anything part of me wants to move it higher. The only thing holding it back is that my top games for 2008 aren’t quite as strong as those in the years above it, but they're darn close. And I didn’t even like Grand Theft Auto IV or Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, arguably 2008’s most popular games. What a year.

2008 Favorites: Dead Space, The World Ends With You, Burnout Paradise, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Braid, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, Valkyria Chronicles, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, World of Goo, Sins of a Solar Empire, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Prince of Persia, Fallout 3, Gears of War 2

An incredibly important game in a number of ways.
An incredibly important game in a number of ways.

3. 1998. Yes, I know, this is supposed to be #1. For the longest time, 1998 has been considered the pinnacle of gaming years, and it’s not hard to see why. It had a slew of games that were not only great, but also groundbreaking and influential. Genres were created and/or perfected this year, and it’s when 3D games really came of age in a big way. I think all of that is true, and nobody would be wrong to put 1998 on top. However, for me personally, some of the big games of 1998 didn’t grab me, primarily Metal Gear Solid and Suikoden II. Additionally, I haven't played a whole host of well-regarded games like Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate, Xenogears, Thief: The Dark Project, Gran Turismo, Grim Fandango, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

Yet even with those caveats I think 1998 deserves to be near the top of this list. It’s importance to the industry is apparent, and I still liked a good number of games from the year. That includes a few all-time favorites of course, and by the standards of the time, my personal list of games I liked from 1998 is still incredible.

1998 Favorites: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, StarCraft (plus Brood War), Pokemon Red and Blue, Banjo-Kazooie, Final Fantasy Tactics, Half-Life, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron

2. 2003. So how do you top 1998? Release a crapton of games I really like. This is where things get extra personal, as these top two years made their mark by having a long, long list of games I greatly enjoyed from all sorts of genres. The selections from both years include more all-time favs than any other year as well. In a way it’s weird that these are the two years on top, and part of this likely has to do with my age, and some amount of time and place. And there’s likely some degree of me liking a lot of these games more than most people did. Regardless, something about this period of gaming really clicked with me. The argument for these top two years is very simple: the quantity and quality of their games, from top to bottom, is more impressive to me and my tastes than any other year on this list. Given that, I figure the games should speak for themselves. There’s no caveats anymore; just a lot of games I really like.

2003 Favorites: Fire Emblem, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Freedom Fighters, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Top Spin, Gladius, Beyond Good & Evil, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Viewtiful Joe, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

On the right day, my favorite game.
On the right day, my favorite game.

1. 2005. For me, 2005 had it all. No fewer than four all-time favs, including two likely top 10ers in Resident Evil 4 and Civilization IV. The former is even a strong “favorite game” candidate. It had a long list of quality games in my favorite genres or franchises, with many of them among my favorite entries. It had some varied and wonderful brand new games that kicked off great new franchises, or did things I’ve never seen before. It was the coming out party for the Nintendo DS and the launch of the Xbox 360, which introduced the HD era and Xbox Live Arcade (an important first step for smaller games). It saw the aging GameCube and PlayStation 2 produce some of their best games. It was a conflux of platforms and technology that was kind of weird, yet somehow produced a lot of exciting stuff. That’s not even to mention some popular games I didn’t like or didn’t play.

I have no further explanation why 2005 turned out how it did, and I know not all of these games will connect with everyone. But this was a year where almost everything connected with me, and that’s what this list is about. By virtually every measure, 2005 is my sweet spot, and my favorite year in gaming.

2005 Favorites: Resident Evil 4, Civilization IV, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, God of War, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Shadow of the Colossus, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Mario Kart DS, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Psychonauts, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

4 Comments

2017: Ranking the Rest

I really like making and reading top 10 lists every year: there’s a kind of solidarity in everyone distilling all of the games they played in a year down to the 10 they enjoyed the most. At the same time, there are well more than 10 games worth talking about in any given year, and I often play a good chunk of them. That’s true yet again for 2017, and since I’ve stopped regularly writing about games I’ve found that ranking of all the ones I played from the year is an effectively quick way to talk about them. It’s also pretty fun :)

With that, for the second year running, here’s my new tradition of ranking every game I played from 2017. Obviously I can’t get to everything; some notable omissions include Resident Evil 7, Divinity: Original Sin II, Uncharted: Lost Legacy, and Fire Emblem Echoes (all games I might get to someday). But I still touched a good number of games in 2017, and I do my best to rank them here. I consider this a “rough” ranking, meaning the margins are often slim, and I didn’t stress over it too much. But it’s close enough, and I had fun putting it together. Thanks for reading, and away we go!

1-10: See my GOTY 2017 list.

An emotional tale worth experiencing.
An emotional tale worth experiencing.

11. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. I like a lot of what Hellblade does, and it was my “tough cut” for 2017. From a presentation standpoint, the visuals are very striking, and the audio design is among the best I’ve ever heard; those voices are just gnarly. And of course, the performance by Melina Juergens is phenomenal. This was my emotional gut-punch game for the year, and hit me pretty hard. What holds it back is something I experienced in a number of otherwise good games this year: I didn’t really enjoy playing it. The combat became a tedious slog over time, and the environmental puzzles were tedious from the start. I could see the argument for that tedium being some kind of metaphor for mental illness, but the interactive parts still bugged me just enough to keep Hellblade off my top 10. Great game though.

12. Horizon: Zero Dawn. This is one of those games that I had a mostly good time playing, but once I put it down almost nothing stuck with me. I think it is a very well-made game in a lot of ways, and it’s downright gorgeous at times. But it perhaps plays it too safe to stand out more than that. As someone who’s not the biggest fan of traditional open world games, I had high hopes this one might break the mold more than it did. It was also too long and repetitive for my tastes, and the late game audio log dumps really got to me. Horizon is a good open world game that simply got overshadowed by other games that did more unique and/or impactful things for me as 2017 wore on.

13. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. This is a really amazing thing that (sadly) just isn’t quite my thing. As someone who’s not prone to sinking dozens of hours into a multiplayer-only game, I haven’t spent nearly enough time with PUBG to either get good at it, or have it endear itself to me in a lasting way. Still, most times I do play it are very fun, especially when playing with friends, and I think it is an amazingly cool thing with some smart ideas in it. I can understand why it’s the phenomenon that it is, even if I haven’t fully caught the bug. Though I did headshot that dude out of a car as he was trying to run me over with it that one time. That was cool.

14. What Remains of Edith Finch. This is another 2017 game that I like a lot of things about, but didn’t enjoy playing. Its narrative hooks are wonderful, and it tells a really touching and artistically creative tale about family, tragedy, and embracing life in all its brevity. I only wish I enjoyed playing more of its vignettes than I did. I think a few are great, with Lewis’ being the clear standout. But the majority of them I found too clunky, or too devoid of meaningful interaction. I think people’s mileage will vary a lot on this one, depending on how well the simple interactions connect to the narrative in their heads. For me that was generally very little, which left me not quite as enamored with the final experience as I otherwise could have been.

Title screen of the year.
Title screen of the year.

15. Nidhogg 2. Nidhogg is great! And Nidhogg 2 is more Nidhogg! Its weird art style eventually won me over, and I even came around on the new weapons (including the wonky bow). I think this sequel expanded on the core game in just enough ways to make it worthwhile, even if my favorite way of playing is basically like original Nidhogg. Oh, and the soundtrack is incredible. Really, it is. I had a great time playing this (even that one 30 minute match that wouldn’t end), and I’d put it higher if it simply brought more new to the table.

16. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I played a lot of games in 2017 that I felt were simply too long, and Mario + Rabbids is probably the worst offender. There are a lot of really great ideas and mechanics in here, and it’s a super well-made and polished “my first tactics” kind of game with a lot of charm. I think the movement mechanics in particular are a lot of fun to engage with. But the campaign and your character progression are stretched way too thin for far too long. By the time I passed the 20 hour mark it had already become a real slog fighting through the same handful of enemies over and over. Which is a real shame, because I think there’s a solid core here, they just needed to tighten it up.

17. Prey. I’m still in the middle of Prey right now, and so far it’s been a mixed bag. On the one had, it presents a very well-designed space station to explore and scrounge for crafting materials. On the other hand, I feel like the pacing and balance (and controls) are all over the place. It feels almost confused at times, desperately trying to recapture the magic of System Shock 2 while introducing some new gimmicks of its own, all with mixed results. Again, there’s a good game in here, but it could really use some cleaning up and/or some more personality of its own. And it could be shorter… I’m hopeful I’ll finish Prey soon, but it’s at the point where every session feels like a chore.

18. SteamWorld Dig 2. I am also still in the middle of SteamWorld Dig 2 at the moment, and so far it is a very streamlined game that hasn’t fully grabbed me. In some ways, it almost feels too streamlined, to the point where I’m going through the motions without much real thought. Still, I can’t deny how polished this game is in pretty much all aspects: the controls, progression, upgrades, level design, and so on are all solid. This one could easily move up or down based on how the second half goes.

Same.
Same.

19. Night in the Woods. There are parts about Night in the Woods that I think are legitimately great. Primarily the writing, and how it effectively portrays a confused young adult trying to find their place in life. A few moments hit me pretty good, but in between those moments I feel like things drag. The light platforming has little merit, and I think all the minigames are pretty bad (yes, that includes the fake Guitar Hero sections). Perhaps most damning to me is the ending stretch. I see what they are going for, and those are topics worth tackling, but I think it’s a jarring transition that is not executed well at all. That kind of soured my final view of the game.

20. Metroid: Samus Returns. Yet another game I’m still in the middle of, but so far I’ve found it kind of boring; and I say that as a Metroid fan. I think it’s a combination of the game being much more linear than other Metroids, and the fact that you can douse the map to locate every single item. That makes it feel like exploration doesn’t really exist, and I don’t feel invested in the world as a result. And while the combat is better than most other Metroids, I don’t think it’s enough so to stand out as a pure action game. I will see this game to the end, and maybe I will come around on it, but so far it’s been one of my least favorite Metroid games. I think AM2R is the better Metroid II remake.

21. Snipperclips: Cut It Out, Together!. This is a very well-made co-op game that successfully rewards players for working together. Unlike a lot of co-op games, you can’t solve most of these puzzles on your own, and it’s pretty creative in its design. It’s also very simple, and very short, and that’s what ultimately holds it back. I enjoyed the very brief time I had playing Snipperclips, but I don’t know how much of it stuck with me in the end.

I guess games really can escape development hell.
I guess games really can escape development hell.

22. Gang Beasts. Wait, Gang Beasts is officially out now!? It seems like this thing has been in development forever, and I’ve barely touched the 1.0 version; most of what I’ve experienced applies to the early access period. But this is a goofy and fun local multiplayer jam. There’s something about the physics and the level design that seem to consistently cause ridiculous things to happen, and while I don’t know that I’d call it a great game, it’s proved a reliable one for producing laughs among friends. That’s worth something.

23. Heat Signature. I really wanted to like this more than I actually did. The general loop of raiding space stations is fun enough, and there’s a lot of cool style touches and fun writing. But like a lot of games with a roguelike structure, I found it to get too repetitive too quickly. I burned out after a couple hours, and when I saw how far I still how left to go, it felt like too big of a grind for me to continue with. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it, but for now Heat Signature is a game I find interesting more than I enjoy playing for long.

24. Tacoma. I loved Gone Home, and while Tacoma is a similar game that is by no means bad, it never hit me anywhere near as hard as Gone Home did. In the previous game, I felt like I could take my time freely exploring a household of four people. In Tacoma, it feels like I’m guided more directly through the stories of six main characters. This means each one gets less depth, and I’m not sure the discovery process is as organic. I didn’t get as invested in the core plot either. Still, there’s some decent beats in there, and I think the rewind mechanic is an interesting way to digest a narrative. I just don’t know that I came away with anything all that meaningful.

25. Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone. As a fan of rhythm games, I’ve been curious about playing a Hatsune Miku game for years. When Future Tone dropped with like a million songs, I figured it was time. I’ve put a few hours into it, and think it’s a decent rhythm game, if also very bare bones; it's a port of an arcade game that's a collection of songs and not much else. Which is totally fine if you like the mechanics and the songs, but I also found those to be very basic. I don’t know that this does anything new or better than I’ve seen in other rhythm games, but if I just want to sit down and jam through a crapton of songs you could certainly do a whole lot worse.

26. Super Rude Bear Resurrection. What a supremely silly game… but there’s something to it that kind of grabbed me. It controls well in a Super Meat Boy kind of way, and I think the whole idea of your previous body remaining in play is pretty interesting. It adds a light puzzle element to proceedings, even if it sometimes allows you to brute force your way through otherwise challenging platforming sections. Also, its style is something else. It’s not the most polished or varied 2D platformer out there, and I ended up not finishing it as a result, but there’s a certain charm to this one.

This game really took over the internet for a bit, didn't it?
This game really took over the internet for a bit, didn't it?

27. Doki Doki Literature Club. A game I respect more than I enjoyed playing. That opening hour or two was a real slog, and if I didn’t know something crazy was going to happen later on I would have never stuck with it (or even played it to begin with). It’s a tough line to walk, as the entire game’s success is based on subverting tropes that a lot of people (myself included) don’t like or want to engage with. And to be its most effective, the player has to understand and engage with those tropes, ideally without knowing they are about to be subverted. That’s a lot to ask. It’s a really interesting game that, in a weird way, I’m glad I saw through. But I can’t say I enjoyed the process that much.

28. Linelight. It tries to sell itself as a video game boiled down to its core essence… but maybe it boiled it down too much. It’s a very slight game, but at least what's there is generally good and well-designed. I had fun with this up to a point, and also enjoyed it’s chill aesthetic and soothing soundtrack; I became kind of zen while playing this. But it also got kind of boring quicker than I had hoped, and I didn’t see it through as a result.

29. We Were Here. This is a neat, free asymmetric co-op game. Each player performs a drastically different role, and your success relies entirely on communicating with your partner. Those kinds of co-op games are rare, and I was happy to have this one to play. Still, it’s very short, very simple, and kind of buggy/janky. And a handful of the puzzles are more frustrating than fun. It’s a “better in theory than in practice” sort of thing, but I still got some enjoyment from it.

30. Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. This one's heart is in the right place, and it has a handful of moments I found genuinely touching. But I also think by and large it’s not executed that well. Being a very straightforward visual novel, it hangs virtually all of its success on its writing, and that’s where I think it stumbles the most… it’s not consistently good writing. I’m admittedly not a big visual novel person, but even I’ve played plenty with better writing, and more interesting stories to boot. Dream Daddy’s comically Utopian society also lost me a bit; I like the positivity, but I had a hard time getting invested in a world that didn’t feel real.

31. Voez. I played Voez mostly as a curiosity, as someone who generally likes weird/quirky Japanese rhythm games. And to be clear, it’s not terrible, and I think the basics are there… but not much more than that. It’s a very no-frills rhythm game, and my main frustration is a lack of feedback. I had a hard time telling when I missed a note or not, and the general act of tapping on the screen was never satisfying to me. As someone who’s favorite rhythm games have been touch-based, that really stuck out, and I didn’t play a ton of it as a result.

I legitimately can't think of a good caption here.
I legitimately can't think of a good caption here.

32. Rivals of Aether. Certainly not a bad game, and I can see why some would like it, but I did not get into it at all. That’s probably in large part due to me not being a big multiplayer guy (it’s rare that one makes me want to spend the time mastering), and also someone who’s never been a fighting game person. I probably should have known better on this one, even though I've been into Smash Bros. before. But I got bored of it way too quickly, and never got much out of it.

33. Shift Happens. This is a game that means well, but is just too broken to deliver on any of it consistently. I think its central co-op mechanic is neat, and I had fun spending time with my friend. But when looking at the game itself, there are big problems. The controls do not feel good at all, the game’s ideas are stretched too thin and repeated too often, and worst of all, it is riddled with technical issues; game-breaking bugs and glitches that forced us to restart levels were a common occurrence. Shift Happens is simply too sloppy for me to consider a good game.

34. Spaceplan. This game is, in a way, a perfect video game: it does everything it sets out to do flawlessly. It’s also the first clicker I’ve ever played to completion (there’s a story there I won’t get into right now), and I can now confidently say that I think clickers are a complete waste of my time. But maybe that’s the point? I don’t know. Either way, every second I spent “playing” this game was a second I could have spent on something, anything more meaningful. I’m sure there exists a clicker out there that has at least some ounce of merit to it, but I don’t know that Spaceplan is it.

8 Comments

My Favorite Video Game Music of 2017

There’s been a lot of praise thrown around about 2017 in gaming (more on that later). But more than the games themselves, I think this has been an amazing year for video game music. Just wall-to-wall fantastic stuff throughout the entire year. I’m a big fan of video game music, and often feel the need to talk about how it's an important aspect to this awesome medium. This year though, I feel like I could just say “Dude, listen to this shit!” and it speaks for itself. But allow me to speak for it a little anyway.

This is, as per personal tradition, a collection of my 10 favorite video game soundtracks among games I played from 2017. I picked a representative song from each game, and they are ordered by original US release date, not by preference. I really like making this list every year, as I get to dig through and highlight lots of great music (shout out to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which barely missed the cut). I hope you enjoy listening as much as I do, and please share your personal favorites too!

Night in the Woods

Featured Track: Possum Springs (by Alex Holowka)

I think this score sets the game’s tone better than any other part of the game. Without it I might not be so invested in the lazy town of Possum Springs, but this puts me right into that place every time. Not to mention it punctuates the game’s climactic moments too well.

Hollow Knight

Featured Track: Dirtmouth (by Christopher Larkin)

Ranging from adventurous to somber to bombastic, this soundtrack does such a great job at defining each of the game’s many varied areas, as well as punctuating its more dramatic moments. It’s often just goddamn beautiful too.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Manaka Kataoka)

I strongly believe that the minimalist approach to this score was the right choice, and paid off incredibly well; there's a power in silence. I was able to just be in this melancholy version of Hyrule, with the sound of nature perfectly punctuated by a couple well-timed piano riffs. That also made the times where it got more bombastic stand out even more.

NieR: Automata

Featured Track: Amusement Park (by Keigo Hoashi)

I… just, wow. I wish my existential journey sounded like this. It’s hard to even describe, but this soundtrack somehow manages to make me feel what the game wants me to feel every step of the way. It’s also bold and daring in some super weird ways that work unbelievably well. Like, having robots chanting “This cannot continue” transition into a song that’s legit good? Come on!

Persona 5

Featured Track: Life Will Change (by Shoji Meguro)

Persona soundtracks have always been amazing, but I think this is the first time they’ve put together so many lyrical songs in English that are this good. I had a different one stuck in my head each week while I was playing this game, and the lyrics and tone are so perfect for the game’s style, and very powerful for its narrative.

Pyre

Featured Track: In the Flame (by Darren Korb)

Supergiant Games has yet to put out a bad soundtrack, and Pyre is easily their biggest and most ambitious one yet. I love how all of the game’s characters have their own theme that plays when they appear on screen. And given the sheer number of characters in this game, that’s a lot of varied, fantastic songs. Some of the lyrical songs hit me pretty hard too.

Nidhogg II

Featured Track: Tiptoes (by Daedelus)

This soundtrack is funky in all the right ways. It makes me bob my head with glee throughout every wacky match I play, and matches the bizarre art style to a tee. I listened to it more than one reasonably should outside of the game too. It’s just fun.

Cuphead

Featured Track: Introduction (by Kristofer Maddigan)

Everyone likes to point out Cuphead’s art (rightfully so), but I think its music is almost as good at selling its aesthetic. It sounds exactly like you’d expect cartoons from that era to sound, and has a super fun jazzy and/or “big band” flavor that I really, really enjoy. I like that each boss has their own theme, that’s a great touch.

Super Mario Odyssey

Featured Track: Jump Up, Super Star! (by Naoto Kubo)

Mario Odyssey’s poster song is pretty freaking incredible, and there’s a lot of variety in the regular level music too. It may not be all that drastically different from the Mario music of recent years, but it's very good nonetheless.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Featured Track: Uberviolence (by Mick Gordon)

I love the characters and tone of Wolfenstein II, and said tone is all over the place. And yet, its score somehow keeps up with it. Surprisingly contemplative moments can turn into insanely gritty ones on a dime, and this score goes all those same places without missing a beat.

10 Comments

Finding the Ups of the Downside

SPOILER WARNING!! This blog contains spoilers for Pyre. I'd consider them minor, but they are definitely spoilers.

What do you do when your life isn’t turning out how you thought it would? Or more importantly, how you wanted it to? When you feel like you’ve been tossed out, like nobody cares about you, that you will never be successful, and have reached rock bottom? You know, when life gives you all those proverbial lemons, how do you go about making lemonade?

For being a wasteland, the Downside is awfully colorful.
For being a wasteland, the Downside is awfully colorful.

The characters of Pyre all face such a situation. Cast out from the “normal” society of the Commonwealth, they find themselves in a prison wasteland called the Downside. The name is not just to sound cool; it is “down,” or below what’s commonly seen as a successful life. The insinuation of course is that those who are exiled are lesser beings, and if they want any chance of having a good life again, they must win the rites and return to the Commonwealth. This outlines a very clear, direct measure of life’s success in the world of Pyre: you either succeed in the Commonwealth, or fail in the Downside. That’s just how life is.

Or is it? Is there really only a single measure of “success?” This is one of the big questions posed by Pyre, both mechanically and narratively. That may seem antithetical to normal video game logic, where there’s often a clearly defined victory state. But Pyre has no “game over” screen, and no designated failure state. It encourages us to embrace our journey, warts and all, and it can play out in different ways; the game continues ever onward, regardless of whether you “win” or “lose” any given rite. And there are plenty of cases where winning a rite isn’t even the ideal outcome for everyone on your team. One of my most profound moments in my playthrough was during a liberation rite against the Essence, aka the tribe of harps. Pamitha was on my team, her sister Tamitha a member of the Essence. Pamitha feels for her sister, who hates living in the downside much more than her. So she prefers to lose the rite so that Tamitha may be freed. It was the moment that made me realize “winning" in the traditional sense isn’t everything for everyone in this world.

What a piece of work.
What a piece of work.

That seemingly small realization blossomed as I continued playing, and it became apparent from then on that each and every character dealt with living in the downside drastically differently. Some, like Tamitha, wanted out no matter what. Others, like Pamitha, were more inclined to accept their life in the Downside and make the best of it. And what I found most interesting is that the characters who were obsessed with being “freed” from the Downside ended up being the more tragic, or even downright insufferable characters. Tamitha was always rude and demanding, and felt her life was worthless unless she could return to the Commonwealth. Oralech, who was once cheated out of his freedom by a team member who tried to steal it from him (she met a grizzly fate herself), clearly has no joy of life; his entire purpose seems to be regaining the freedom he feels he is owed.

And then, of course, there is Manley.

Manley, for lack of better words, is a pompous asshole. He thinks he's entitled to everything, and that it's a huge mistake he wound up in the Downside in the first place. He acts all proper and friendly on the surface, perhaps overly so. But the instant he’s denied what he wants, he gets real prickly, real fast, and reveals himself to be a lying, scheming jerk. Nobody likes Manley, the guy who pretends to be “the nice guy” only to stab you in the back to climb up the proverbial ladder and achieve a high status in society. He’s not fooling anyone, and comes off as an incredibly fake person as a result.

Word, Barker.
Word, Barker.

Manley is an extreme, however. There are others, like Dalbert, who simply feel a religious duty to complete the rites. Or a personal favorite, Barker, a rock and roll dog who simply likes to stir things up. He doesn’t give a damn about “freedom” or the “Commonwealth.” He just wants to kick your ass on the field because that's a good time. But for everyone who wants to win the rites, for whatever reason, there are just as many who find meaning and solace in life in the Downside beyond the rites. This includes many of your own team members, who are often bittersweet if you send them on following a successful liberation rite. After all, many of them were outcasts even while living in the Commonwealth. Life wasn’t so grand there, as they had to play by all sorts of rules they didn’t particularly care for. In the Downside, however, they can make their life into whatever they want it to be.

This is the emotional core of Pyre, and you see it play out in a number of ways. You see Sir Gilman show immense joy in the camaraderie he has with his teammates. Hedwyn and Jodarial similarly find friends in the Downside that they could never have found in the Commonwealth, and become sad when separated. The vagabond (I don’t care what anyone says, her name is Xae!) finds a lot of peace in her religion, which was not accepted up above. Bertrude finds purpose in her alchemy, which she can practice in peace, on her own terms, in the Downside. You get the impression that none of these characters would be happier in the Commonwealth. So why fight to get back there? Why is there such a premium on returning to a place that doesn’t allow you to be who you are?

#deep
#deep

Sandalwood straight up asks you at one point, “What does freedom mean to you?” It may be a little on the nose, but it also serves as a good gut check on what you’re really looking for. Is returning to the Commonwealth all freedom means to you? Or is freedom something at once more grand and more personal? What if everyone is allowed to define their own freedom, rather than follow the freedom defined by the powers that govern a narrow and strict society? Sandalwood obviously has an extreme bent to his motives, as he seeks revolution to dismantle the Commonwealth entirely. But I think his heart is in the right place. He wants everyone to live their life as they see fit, not by the rules set forth by a (possibly corrupt) governing body.

Which brings up back to our original question: What do you do when your life isn’t turning out how you thought it would? The characters of Pyre all found themselves in the Downside, and I would guess that’s not how most of them envisioned their life going. But once there, what do you do? Do you wallow in it, and wish it was different? Or do you embrace your position in life and make the best of it, possibly discovering that it's not that bad after all? As we see through the fates of each of its characters, Pyre clearly suggests the latter, and I think it’s a powerful and positive message. There are times where you may really want, or even feel you need something in your life, but you can’t have it for any number of reasons that may or may not be fully in your control. It’s understandable to get down in these situations, and I’ve certainly been there plenty of times. But Pyre poses the question: what if you find the ups instead? What if you stop wishing for a life you don’t have, but rather grab on to the one you do have and make the best of it?

In other words, don’t be a Manley. Nobody likes a Manley.

5 Comments

A Meta Reading of Mario Odyssey's Song

Like many of you, I came away from E3 2017 extremely excited about Super Mario Odyssey. It's easily one of the coolest games I saw at the show (its only possible rival in my book being Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus), and one of the things I really liked about the new Odyssey trailer was the song. Not only is it a super catchy and fun song, but I think that "swing" style works really well for Mario. If a lot of the soundtrack follows that mold, I'm pretty eager to hear it. It's good stuff.

Needless to say, I've listened to that song a good number of times since it debuted (I said it's catchy!), and once I paid attention to the lyrics... something struck me. It's possible that Nintendo may be more "meta" with this song than it first seems. In fact, this entire song almost feels like one big sales pitch for the game, the Nintendo Switch itself, and perhaps the company's outlook going forward. Of course I could be reading way more into it than anyone ever intended, but I still thought it might be a fun exercise to break down the lyrics and see what Nintendo is actually saying. First, here's the song, and I got the lyrics from the info on this same video. After listening closely, they seem accurate enough.

Catchy, right? Anyway, I'll dissect the lyrics in chunks. Away we go!

Here we go, off the rails,
Don't you know it's time to raise our sails?
It's freedom like you never knew!

Don't need bags, or a pass,
Say the word I'll be there in a flash!
You could say my hat is off to you!

Oh, we can zoom all the way to the moon,
From this great wide wacky world!
Jump with me, grab coins with me,
Oh yeah!

Will I write a blog all year that doesn't reference Zelda? Not looking likely.
Will I write a blog all year that doesn't reference Zelda? Not looking likely.

Right off the bat, in the very first line, we get the crux of Nintendo's entire pitch for Mario Odyssey: we're going "off the rails." They're billing the game as a "sandbox" 3D Mario game, similar to Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, and this line is saying as much. Nintendo's come under fire a number of times over the past few years (and not just for Mario) for making their games more linear and "hand-holdy." The entire pitch for Mario Odyssey feels like a reaction to that criticism, and a deliberate callback to earlier Mario games. Hey, it worked for Breath of the Wild, right? This has become the theme for Nintendo's year, and in some ways the entire Switch platform.

The rest of these first three stanzas continues to echo that promise of freedom and exploration. I mean, you can't get more blunt than that third line: "It's freedom like you never knew." You don't need a "pass" (ie, permission to do things), and you can go "all the way to the moon" (possibly a reference to Super Mario Galaxy, but more likely just continuing to express the level of freedom to expect). Overall, it's a "wacky world" that you're invited to explore how you wish. These three stanzas capture that in a nutshell.

Amusing aside: If you read "sails" as "sales," you could ponder about Nintendo trying to bounce back from the poor sales of the Wii U. But that reading may be a bit of a stretch ;)

It's time to jump up in the air!
Jump up, don't be scared!
Just jump up and your cares will soar away!

And if the dark clouds start to swirl,
Don't fear, don't shed a tear 'cuz,
I'll be your One-Up Girl!

So let's all jump up super high!
High up in the sky!
There's no power-up like dancing!

You know that you're my Super Star,
No one else can take me this far!
I'm flipping the switch,
Get ready for this,
Oh, let's do The Odyssey!

These next four stanzas comprise what I consider the "chorus," as we see this same basic set of lines again later. The first two stanzas here are basically asking us to jump in. This is where the song is at its most sales-pitchy, trying to extend a hand and say "come on, dive in, the water's great!" It's assuring us that things really are good this time: "don't be scared," "your cares will soar away," and "don't fear, don't shed a tear" are all trying to comfort us. The singer then identifies herself as "your One-Up Girl" (which I imagine is the name of the song?), simultaneously making a video game pun and saying "hey, I'm here to help you along!" It's peppy, it's encouraging, and it's really trying to get us to shake off any doubts we may have about giving Mario Odyssey a shot.

Come on in, everything's fiiiiiiiine.
Come on in, everything's fiiiiiiiine.

The next two stanzas follow that same basic premise, but turn slightly from the idea of comforting us, towards empowering us. These lines highlight the fun of jumping "high up in the sky," and make references to power-ups, most directly the Super Star. The Super Star line is not only letting us know that there will be fun power-ups in the game, but doubly calls us the "super stars." These stanzas are trying to convince us that we'll feel powerful and have a great time; we're the people who really matter in this whole thing. Nintendo has us at the forefront of their thoughts when it comes to Mario Odyssey.

The most curious lines to me are the next two: "No one else can take me this far! I'm flipping the switch." I feel like the word "switch" can't be coincidental in the chorus; they're really trying to pump up the Switch as being a fresh and bold new console that's a new leaf for Nintendo. The actual line "flipping the switch" even makes it sounds like they're making a change. At the same time, the previous line alludes to how far Nintendo has come. It's almost like they're trying to remind us how long they've been around, and how they've made tons of great games before. As much as the Switch is the "new" thing, games like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have plenty of clear, deliberate throwbacks to Nintendo's beloved past, and try to go back to what made us fall in love with them in the first place. It's all a smart concoction of taking the things we loved about the past (what's "taken us this far"), and promising a bright new future ("flipping the switch"). It's effective.

Odyssey, yes see (x7)
Odyssey, Odyssey!

Spin the wheel, take a chance,
Every journey starts a new romance,
A new world's calling out to you!

Take a turn, off the path,
Find a new addition to the cast,
You know that any captain needs a crew!

Take it in stride, as you move side-to-side,
They're just different points of view!
Jump with me, grab coins with me,
Oh yeah!

I think Nintendo is very aware how much love this game has.
I think Nintendo is very aware how much love this game has.

After perhaps too much chanting the word "Odyssey," the next three stanzas echo the sentiments of the first three again. It's once again making the pitch that Mario Odyssey is about getting out there, taking a chance, and exploring off the beaten path. They really want us to know that this is a "sandbox" game like some of the older Mario games, particularly Mario 64. The only individual lines that add much new to me are in the third stanza here. It talks about moving side-to-side as "just different points of view." The trailer showed a few instances where you'd basically become a 2D painting on the wall (similar to A Link Between Worlds' central mechanic), turning this predominantly 3D Mario game into a 2D one in spots. I personally think it's a potentially cool idea, as I like both 2D and 3D Mario games, and these lines appear to be trying to promise us that both styles are indeed great. They're just different points of view, and there's room for both. Part of me feels like it's borderline screaming "PLEASE DON'T WORRY THAT THIS THING IS NOT LIKE MARIO 64! YOU'LL STILL GIVE IT A TRY RIGHT!?"

Come on and jump up in the air!
Jump without a care!
Jump up 'cuz you know that I'll be there!

And if you find you're short on joy,
Don't fret, just don't forget that,
You're still our One-Up Boy!

So go on, straighten out your cap,
Let your toes begin to tap,
This rhythm is a Power Shroom!

Don't forget, you're the Super Star,
No one else could make it this far!
Put a comb through that 'stache,
Now you've got panache!
Oh, oh, let's do The Odyssey!

It's time to jump up in the air!
Jump up, don't be scared!
Just jump up and your cares will soar away!

And if the dark clouds start to swirl,
Don't fear, don't shed a tear 'cuz,
I'll be your One-Up Girl!

Now listen all you boys and girls,
All around the world,
Don't be afraid to get up and move!

You know that we're all Super Stars,
We're the ones who made it this far!
Put a smile on that face,
There's no time to waste,
Oh, let's do The Odyssey!

I'm ready! To jump up in the air!
I'm ready! To jump up in the air!

The last eight stanzas are basically that four stanza "chorus" I identified earlier, repeated two more times. There's a few minor tweaks to the lines each time, but many of the lines are the same, and the overall gist is very much the same. This is where the song tries to comfort and empower us, letting us know that Mario Odyssey is a safe and fun game to just jump right on into. I particularly like the lines about combing your "'stache," which will give you "panache" (ie, confidence). I'd like to think whoever wrote that line had the Mario & Luigi games in mind: RPGs where you actually have a 'stache stat to raise. Anyway, these stanzas once again tell us "don't be afraid" and that "we're all Super Stars." It's also got plenty of item references, and likes to remind that we've all "made it this far."

To wrap up, the entire song kind of came across like a big sales pitch once I really dug into the lyrics, though it's almost even more "meta" than that. Parts of it hint at how Nintendo got to this point from the Wii U to the Switch, and is indicative of how they're trying to win fans back over by calling back to games like the original Zelda and Mario 64, while also saying this is very much an exciting new start for the future. And so far it seems to be working; the Switch is selling great, Breath of the Wild was great, and now Mario Odyssey looks great. I for one am looking forward to playing it.

Thanks for reading. I really do like this song, and had a fun time digging into it (and listening to it a lot). I also fully recognize that I may be imagining all of this; this song could just as easily be about nothing more than dancing (which is directly mentioned multiple times, and "The Odyssey" is clearly some slick new dance). I'll stick with my version though ;)

4 Comments

Ranking of Final Fantasies + Introducing ATACS

First we ranked Super Mario. Then we ranked The Legend of Zelda. Now we're back, this time to rank the Final Fantasy games.

This was the trifecta of game series that we always wanted to rank, and ironically enough, Final Fantasy was the original inspiration. My brother set out on a personal quest a few years ago to play through all the main Final Fantasy games. I had completed that same quest a long time ago, so I said offhand that we should compare and rank all the Final Fantasy games once he was done. Once that idea gained some traction, we thought why not do some other franchises too? So we rounded up some like-minded friends, tackled Mario and Zelda while we waited, and when my brother capped off his run with Final Fantasy V earlier this year, we knew it was time. So this afternoon we came together and ranked all the main Final Fantasy games best to worst.

We elected not to rank this gem...
We elected not to rank this gem...

To cover some logistics, we only did the main, numbered, single player games. That is, Final Fantasies 1-15, minus the MMOs (so 13 games in all). Sure, we could have delved into the wild world of spinoffs and sequels and what have you, but that felt unnecessarily convoluted. Plus, not enough of us have played too many spinoffs, just the odd Tactics or Theatrhythm here and there. We decided to keep it pure and simple, which I think was for the best (for time purposes if nothing else). It's worth noting that there are story spoilers abound in this thing (not to mention some detailed gameplay talk). We got a lot deeper into some games than others (I'd say VI, VII, VIII, and X have the heaviest story spoilers), but pretty much every game has something we mentioned that could be considered at least a minor spoiler. While that's likely obvious when debating the Final Fantasy series, it's probably worth clarifying that yes, there be spoilers.

There were 5 of us on the panel, most of which were on our previous rankings: myself (they call me 'Flex' on the podcast... don't ask), my brother Nate, our host Paul, Ryan, and Stephanie (all longtime friends). The result was a roughly 4 hour melee to jockey in favor of the Final Fantasy games we did or did not like relative to the others. In all honestly, this one was relatively civil, despite some clear disagreements and the occasional heated moment. And more importantly, I think we all had fun with it :) I'll post the final ranking below, behind a spoiler tag. Listening to the arguments will make the list make a whole lot more sense, but I also don't begrudge anyone who doesn't have time to listen to a 4 hour podcast! It should also be said that, as with all of these lists, it often becomes a compromise. Nobody gets every game where they want it, but rather our opinions and preferences get melded into some sort of consensus list. As much as I try to fight for the "correct" ordering, it turns out people can be really stubborn about such things ;)

  1. Final Fantasy VI
  2. Final Fantasy VII
  3. Final Fantasy VIII
  4. Final Fantasy X
  5. Final Fantasy V
  6. Final Fantasy IV
  7. Final Fantasy IX
  8. Final Fantasy XII
  9. Final Fantasy
  10. Final Fantasy XV
  11. Final Fantasy III
  12. Final Fantasy II
  13. Final Fantasy XIII

As for said podcast, you can listen to it in 2 ways, and as I explain these methods I also have our broader podcast to plug. Called 'ATACS' (which stands for 'Adults Talk About Cool Stuff'), these friends and I have been podcasting every other week for some months now (plus some other rotating cast members who didn't participate in the Final Fantasy discussion). Given that, we pulled our Ranking of Final Fantasies podcast into the ATACS fold, and it is listed with all the other episodes: regular episodes, our other rankings, and even a GOTY 2016 special we did. If you're interested, all of these (including this Final Fantasy discussion) can be found here:

1. Direct mp3 downloads here

2. YouTube playlist here

All future episodes and specials will go to those same locations as well, if you care to keep up in the future. Podcasting has been a lot of fun, both talking about video games and figuring out the technology to do it. I think we've gotten better at both over time- I think we're more natural talkers now, and I've worked a lot on our audio quality (occasional hiccups aside... we had one person with a poor connection at times in this FF discussion for example). We'll keep doing it too :)

Anyway, enough about that, I think that covers it. Thanks for reading/listening, and I hope you enjoy the list and/or podcast! Feel free to post your own Final Fantasy rankings thoughts, as I'm sure something on that list rubs you the wrong way :) Who knows if we'll do more rankings on the future; that's all we had planned... but I have other ideas I may try to convince people on. We'll see!

7 Comments

Rediscovering Play

I’m climbing to the top of a mountain in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Why am I climbing this mountain, you ask? Did the story dictate I do so? Is there a quest marker pointing me there, or a collectible to help me fill out a checklist? Is it simply in my way, an obstacle to traverse, as I head towards another required objective? There are a lot of reasons I’m climbing this mountain, but none of those are among them. First, according to my map, it appears there is a lake and some ruins on top, and I want to see what those are. Second, as I climb I can look over my shoulder and soak in the gorgeous sunset from a great viewpoint. Third, climbing is fun. Fourth, mountains are tall, and you can see things from them. In the case of Breath of the Wild, you can see lots of things. Things that could be interesting and worth exploring: towers, shrines, villages, bridges, fields, lakes, ruins, and yes, even more mountains. And the more you see and explore, the more you’re able to prepare for your ultimate goal of defeating Ganon.

No Caption Provided

One of the seemingly small, yet brilliant things Breath of the Wild does is give your final, and only, objective right at the start. And then just as critically, it lets you go about tackling that objective in whatever way you see fit. You can try to approach Hyrule Castle from the jump, but that is a Herculean task at best without at least some amount of additional preparation. That’s where the open world comes in, which is littered with seemingly endless, entirely optional, and very interesting things to explore, most of which will help you prepare for your showdown with Ganon. Complete shrine puzzles to increase your health and stamina. Hunt and scavenge to prepare meals that restore health and provide status buffs. Scavenge for korok seeds, rupees, and monster parts to purchase and upgrade your equipment. Fight enemies to practice the combat. Learn about the world and its history to understand what you’re up against, and what may aid you in that fight. Everything you do ultimately feeds into your one goal down the road.

Additionally, everything in this open world is worth engaging with on its own merit. It’s important to emphasize the level of execution here, as exploring Hyrule wouldn’t be fun if the design of this world and its many interacting systems weren’t top-notch. Fortunately in Breath of the Wild, they are. Hyrule is meticulously detailed, unfailingly gorgeous, and full of an impressive variety of highly interesting things to engage with. I could spend thousands of words talking about those interesting things, but for now take my word for it. And more for our purposes, it’s the fact that Breath of the Wild simply lets you dive in and go for it that stands out to me. All of that careful design is engineered to promote our own exploration. Yes, Breath of the Wild gives you one goal to complete, and yes, you can ignore everything else. But that goal creates a purpose, and the rest is simultaneously fun and meaningful with regards to your goal. That’s a potent combination that makes me want to explore; this is neither a frivolous sandbox nor a rote checklist of activities. It’s a highly engaging, dynamic world full of interesting things, and it also makes sense thematically in that you’re preparing for a fight. You have a clear goal up front, but how you go about exploring this world and achieving that goal is entirely up to you. In other words, Breath of the Wild sets the table perfectly for you to play.

I guess I'm following a waypoint to the Duomo then?
I guess I'm following a waypoint to the Duomo then?

That may sounds silly to say out loud; after all, video games are inherently all about “play,” right? It’s what the entire medium is built upon, as “interactive entertainment,” right? In some ways, sure. On a weirdly definitional level, pretty much all video games involve “play.” But I would argue that plenty of video games don’t really let us play. To give some examples, if you’re clicking through dialogue, is that really “play?” What about a quick-time event? Following a waypoint marker? Selling otherwise useless loot? Managing the rest of your loot? Fighting the same encounter for the dozenth time, where the path to victory is the same as every previous time? Think about how many actions you regularly perform in video games that don’t require much thought on your part, and maybe don’t even require much from an input or execution standpoint either. I’m obviously speaking in broad generalizations, but video games have found plenty of ways over the years to circumvent the need for us to interact with them in any meaningful way. They can be easily digestible “rides” as much as anything, and I’ve often wondered what my role is in the games I’m ostensibly playing. Sometimes I can feel like a passive observer as much as anything, which is not what I’m usually looking for in my favorite pastime.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily trying to criticize such things in games. There can be all sorts of reasons to enjoy a video game, and more power to anyone who can, say, watch a twenty minute cutscene and come away satisfied. For me and my preferences, however, I come to video games to play. To actively and meaningfully participate, to make decisions I care about, to explore and engage in interesting mechanics, to discover wondrous things, to learn and hone a skill, and so on. Even better is experiencing new ways to play, even when they’re subtle. Given that, it can be a little tiresome when it feels like games do not push those boundaries, and instead chase more passive experiences. I feel like there was a period within the past decade or two, as we entered the 3D and then HD eras, as graphical technology grew flashier and more powerful, where a lot of games strive to be ever more cinematic, to create something exciting to see, but not always exciting to interact with. Of course there have always been (and likely always will be) games of all kinds, but there was a lot more noise for me to sift through. It was starting to get a little old.

Skyward Sword is the most cinematic Zelda game, but at what cost?
Skyward Sword is the most cinematic Zelda game, but at what cost?

An interesting shift has been happening in recent years, however. I feel like there’s been a resurgence of games that put play first. Going back to Breath of the Wild for a minute, you can more or less see this shift within The Legend of Zelda franchise itself. I would argue that over time, from the original Zelda through Skyward Sword, almost every Zelda game was more passive than the one before it. Skyward Sword came out in 2011, and in many ways represented the culmination of wider design trends from the preceding decade. Like a lot of games of that time, but unlike the early Zelda games, it was a very directed and cinematic experience. Again, that can be fine in ways (Skyward Sword’s other issues aside), but it didn’t leave much room to play. After Skyward Sword though, Nintendo experimented a little with A Link Between Worlds, which released in 2013. Not only did it hearken back to the days of A Link to the Past, which was substantially more active than Skyward Sword, but it also experimented around the periphery even further. It was the most interactive Zelda game in a long time, and set the stage for Breath of the Wild, which is so player-driven that the only Zelda game it bears any possible resemblance to is the 1986 original.

This trend is by no means exclusive to Zelda. Breath of the Wild is simply one of the bigger, more recent, and perhaps more illustrative examples worth elaborating on. But since Skyward Sword came out in 2011, I’ve seen signs of of more “active” games in all sorts of places. Indie games have really taken off over the past so many years, leading to tons of wonderful games that promote play in unique ways. Play-oriented things like rogue-likes and survival games have become almost ubiquitous now, and plenty of games have experimented with ways to incorporate online communities in clever fashion. And of course, there are a chunk of seemingly traditional “big budget” games that have found awesome new ways to promote play. For me, I can look back at my two favorite games from 2016 and see very clear signs that developers are once again embracing play. Just as Breath of the Wild reaches back to rediscover its play-oriented roots, Doom and The Witness hearken back to games from the 1990s that were also very centered around play. The new Doom (almost literally) punches droll exposition to the side whenever it threatens to detract from your play, and The Witness is so hands off it barely gives you direct goals or measures of progress. There's certainly a lot more that goes into both games' successful design, and they ultimately create fun, interesting, and interactive mechanics, scenarios, and spaces, all to say “Just dig in and play.”

Everything in Doom, from its story to its mechanics, is about you killing demons.
Everything in Doom, from its story to its mechanics, is about you killing demons.

Despite how much these particular games embrace the sensibilities of the past, none of them feel like they are meant to be nostalgic throwbacks either. I’m not someone who thinks that the old stuff was always better, and I’ll be the first to admit that games like Breath of the Wild, Doom, and The Witness employ a lot of worthwhile modern conventions. In fact, what’s perhaps most impressive about them is the way they take that spirit of play that seemed more prevalent in gaming’s earlier days, and have adapted them to modern design sensibilities to achieve the best of both worlds. Breath of the Wild’s generous checkpoints and climbing mechanics encourage you to follow your curiosity without great fear of losing progress. Doom’s clever collectibles and upgrades lend it a rewarding sense of progression and customization that its older versions lacked. The Witness, for all its proposed obtuseness, communicates much more clearly how you interact with the world than, say, Myst ever did. The difference is that they never let their modern concessions stand in the way of your own personal interaction. If anything, these concessions empower you to interact more; they all say “yes” way more than they say “no.” By being less punishing, offering more meaningful upgrade choices, or communicating more clearly, these games create more dynamic ways to play while avoiding additional barriers. The result is that when you are playing games like Breath of the Wild, Doom, or The Witness, you really are playing them every step of the way.

In my friend group, I’ve garnered somewhat of a reputation for being “the gameplay guy” (however you’d define that). They perhaps see me as the hard-nosed purist who puts “gameplay” above all else. I can understand how someone would think that, as I obviously value “play” when it comes to video games. But I’d also argue that the idea of “play” is such a broad and fundamental aspect of the medium that everything else is intrinsically tied to it. In other words, being a “gameplay guy” is akin to being an “everything guy.” Valuing “play” doesn’t mean that I don’t value things like thoughtful stories, smooth pacing, bombastic set pieces, or strong audiovisual presentations in games. I only get frustrated when other aspects impose themselves at the cost of play, which usually means they exist separately from the play experience itself in a sloppy way. For example, I’m the first to roll my eyes when told to play a game “for the story,” because that usually means the “story” and the “game” are separate entities, and that the latter is worse for it. And maybe I’m just an overly ambitious idealist, but I don’t believe these things need to be separate. I think you can have, say, a great story in a game that is also part of the play experience in a positive and meaningful way. Video games are an interactive medium, so I don’t think embracing play needs to rule out anything else. Rather, everything can be assimilated into a rich, multi-faceted, yet cohesive whole, bound together by the very thing that defines and separates video games from other media: play.

That’s why it’s been refreshing for me to see so many games lately rediscover how wonderful play can be. I’m over 40 hours into Breath of the Wild, and I’m just as excited to see more of this world as I was when I started. When I finished Doom, I immediately started the campaign over again, which I almost never feel like doing when I finish a game’s campaign. I didn’t put down The Witness until I had opened every laser box, completed the “final” challenge, and then spent more time still looking for even more puzzles. In each of these cases, the drive was never to complete a checklist or see a quest to its end just so I could move on. I simply enjoyed playing each game, and kept playing until I no longer had a strong desire to play. How that manifests may differ from game to game, but each of these examples embraces play to the fullest. I think this has been happening more and more over the past few years, and it’s been a real treat to see this medium I love rediscover the pure joy of play on which it was built. And just as important, see it realize that a focus on play is not a limitation, but a connective tissue that can empower a seemingly endless variety of interactive experiences.

So why am I climbing this mountain in Breath of the Wild again? The same reason I do everything else in Breath of the Wild: because I want to play.

12 Comments

2016: Ranking the Rest

The dust is settling on another year in games, one which I thought to be a pretty good one for our favorite pastime here on Giant Bomb. I, like many others, propped up my own list of my 10 favorite games of the year, which turned out to be a pretty tough exercise this go-around. I ultimately feel very good about that list though, and am confident those are the 10 games I got the most out of in 2016. However, it’s years like that that drive home the fact that there’s well more than 10 games that matter in any given 12 month span. There’s simply a lot of good games out there right now.

Given that fact, along with the fact that I didn’t really do much writing about the other games I played in 2016, I thought I’d have some fun and shake things up with a supplementary list: ranking every single game released in 2016 that I played during the year. I didn’t put quite as much thought into this as my top 10, so I consider it a “rough” ranking. I also touched a whole lot of games from 2016--seriously, way more than I ever expected--and there are still plenty of 2016 games I have yet to get to. So this turned out to be another tough exercise, but I did the best I can with this list as of the time of writing, which is January 5, 2017. I had fun doing it too :) Thanks for reading!

1-10: See my GOTY 2016 list

The toughest of cuts.
The toughest of cuts.

11. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Every year has the “tough” cut. You know, the one game I really want to showcase on my top 10 list, but just can’t fit in. In 2016 that game was SMT4 Apocalypse. This was my first dive into a non-Persona SMT game, and I now see why the series has the clout it does. It’s a very solid dungeon-crawler, my favorite part being the highly tactical (and often tough) battles that demand you consider all your options; this is a JRPG where you can’t blindly mash your way through any encounter, which I appreciate. I also still really like the demon-fusing system, which continues to allow for tons of great customization. The game falls down in two spots for me. First, it’s kind of dry, and the story never grabbed me. Second, it’s simply too long for my tastes, and became a real grind once I passed 40 or 50 hours. Otherwise, I really got into this one.

12. Firewatch. This was also a tough cut for me; Firewatch turned out to have my favorite narrative among every game I played in 2016. Its various themes resonated with me on a personal level substantially more than most games, and the strong writing and voice-work made Henry and Delilah two of my favorite characters of the year. The music is great stuff too. If only there was more to engage with as a game, this would have easily cracked the top 10.

13. Hitman. I’m projecting a little bit here, as I haven’t played but a few measly hours of Hitman so far. But I’m already struck by just how fun it makes engaging with these large, well-crafted clockwork levels. It’s also supremely silly in all the right ways. I’ve never been a fan of stealth games, but I appreciate the way Hitman encourages you to just experiment and play with coming up with your own crazy schemes for taking out your targets. And it also provides enough nudges to get you started if you feel lost. It strikes that smart balance of giving feedback while allowing for creativity, which is something that’s not only critical to a good stealth game, but a useful lesson for games at large. I'm looking forward to playing more.

14. Salt and Sanctuary. Dark Souls is one of my favorite series. It turns out I still like the formula when translated to 2D as well. That’s how Ska Studios described their own Salt and Sanctuary, and that’s more or less what the game is--a positive in my book. I don’t think the level design or combat are always on par with the games that inspired it, and I have my personal gripes with the skill tree and secondary currency. But for the most part, Salt and Sanctuary effectively scratches the same itch as one of my personal favorites, and I had a ton of fun with it.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is only the tip of the iceberg.

15. Inside. What a supremely well-crafted game, and holy cow that final segment is one of the most insane things I’ve seen in a video game in a while. Inside is a game you kind of get sucked into, thanks to some truly amazing atmosphere and pacing. I just wished I liked the puzzles more. As someone who generally likes “puzzle platformers,” the ones in Inside turned out to be very straightforward, and rarely grabbed me. Play this one primarily for the presentation.

16. AM2R. This one may or may not technically “count,” but this is a really impressive fan remake of Metroid II. AM2R gets closer to matching the quality of a Nintendo-made 2D Metroid game than it reasonably should, and it doesn’t hurt that Metroid II is the Metroid game that most needed a remake. Nintendo also hasn’t made a proper Metroid game in a long, long time, meaning AM2R fills a big gap for me. There’s nothing particularly profound about it past being a fan project that turned out very well, but if you like 2D Metroid games, this one is worth it.

17. The Banner Saga 2. When it comes to sequels, it doesn’t get any more “sequel” than The Banner Saga 2. Picking up exactly where the first game left off, including carrying over all your choices, character levels, and items, this one keeps running with everything I liked about part one. Stunning art, effective music, a bleak atmosphere, and interesting tactical battles. There’s nothing new or novel here to speak of, but I’m still invested in this cast of characters, and their fight for survival in this oppressive world.

18. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. After Uncharted 3 presumably sent the series off with a lackluster sense of closure, it was a real nice surprise for me to get a follow-up that did give us a wonderful ending to Nathan Drake’s story. Uncharted 4 is, in most ways, “another Uncharted game.” But it also told the best story the series has told yet, with an ending that stuck (mad props to the game’s writers and actors). That makes it probably the best Uncharted game? Even if the otherwise functional gameplay has kind of run its course.

Rhythm Heaven! (!)
Rhythm Heaven! (!)

19. Rhythm Heaven Megamix. You know what? Rhythm Heaven is rad. Even if half of Megamix’s minigames came from ones previously released in the US, I still had a blast seeing all the new ones I had never seen before. And playing the old ones again too. I like rhythm games a lot, and this series remains a super charming one I pretty much always enjoy.

20. Overwatch. I’ve never been a fan of class-based shooters, or really competitive shooters in general, but Overwatch surprised me with how easy it is to get into and just have a good time. Perhaps that’s no real surprise given Blizzard’s track record of taking existing genres and polishing the hell out of them. While I’m never going to actually play a ton of Overwatch or take it seriously, I had more fun that I thought I would messing with its diverse and entertaining cast of characters.

21. Thumper. Rhythm games don’t get much more violent than this, and I got pretty entranced by Thumper, all things considered. I think it could use a little more variety somewhere, be it in the mechanics, level design, or perhaps just music. Not entirely sure. I would also prefer the beats to match the actual rhythm of the “music” more often than they do. But it has an amazing audiovisual presentation, and there were a handful of times where it all clicked and I got into that “flow” that the best rhythm games are able to induce. I just wish it could have done it for me more consistently.

22. Picross 3D: Round 2. I mean… it’s more Picross. And Picross is awesome. What more do you want? Actually, 3D Round 2 gains bonus points for being only the second 3D game in the series, and adding a neat new wrinkle with a second color. But really, it’s more Picross done well!

23. Fru. What is this you ask? A good Xbox Kinect game in 2016!? Fru turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, and I’m lucky to have a brother who owns a Kinect (because I sure don’t plan on buying one). This is just a really inventive platformer that makes perhaps the best use of Kinect to date, and was a total riot to play. And, uh, it’s a good Xbox Kinect game in 2016!

Obligatory
Obligatory "Aww, come on!"

24. Gears of War 4. It's totally “more Gears.” Take or leave that statement as you will, but it turns out I like Gears enough in the grand scheme of things that I enjoyed this return plenty. The campaign is a fun co-op romp, and the horde mode has some interesting ideas with the different classes. If only it wasn’t so grindy, and full of cards, blind boxes, and microtransactions…

25. Severed. This was a nice little treat on my Vita in 2016. Severed may not be a particularly deep, or a particularly novel game. But it’s a fun dungeon-crawler (a genre I haven’t dabbled in much) that has some good style and interesting touchscreen combat. It kept me happy during some travels over the summer.

26. Owlboy. I didn’t fall in love with Owlboy as much as I had hoped, but this still proved to be a charming and effective tale, one that both looks and sounds great (easily one of my favorite soundtracks of the year). If only the combat and exploration hadn’t been as rote and/or clunky as it often was, this may have even been top 10 material.

27. Stephen's Sausage Roll. I generally consider myself a fan of puzzle games, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll has a lot of extremely well-designed puzzles. They’re also extremely difficult. It doesn’t offer much past its series of puzzles either, which meant I kind of burnt out slamming my head against the wall before I got too far in it. You’ll have to like difficult puzzles to make it in this one, but if you do, it’s a winner. Great name too.

28. Abzu. It may be reductive to call Abzu an “underwater Journey,” but… well, the description works. I enjoyed this melancholy exploration of the ocean, and there’s some wonderful audiovisual splendor on tap here. By following so closely in Journey’s footsteps, it doesn’t feel as impressive or novel as it could, but it's still a neat experience.

Mario Party minigame of the year?
Mario Party minigame of the year?

29. Overcooked. What a silly but entertaining co-op game. Overcooked was a frantic mess every time I played it, and that’s a big part of its charm. It can be a little too chaotic at times, and it end up being fairly one-note. But man, when the mayhem works, it’s some of the best mayhem you can experience with a friend.

30. Quadrilateral Cowboy. I didn’t like Thirty Flights of Loving at all, but I’m glad I still gave Quadrilateral Cowboy a shot. This is a much more engaging game, with some cool programming themed puzzle ideas. Tossing down your laptop wherever you want to hack into things is pretty rad, and the game puts it to decent use. It doesn’t always take it as far as it could, and the back half lost some steam for me, but I enjoyed it overall.

31. Pokemon Moon. I consider myself a Pokemon guy, but for whatever reason, generation 7 isn’t doing it for me so far. Granted, I’m still in the middle of Moon’s campaign, but it feels a bit… dull so far. Maybe I’ve just played too many Pokemon games at this point, or maybe it will pick up in the post-game. But this one feels like going through the motions more than most, and has left me feeling pretty indifferent.

32. Oxenfree. This one has some neat ideas; or rather, a neat idea. Its attempt at a fluid dialogue system is very interesting, even when it kind of broke for me at times. Otherwise this is an OK tale with some decent story beats, if a bit standard in most other ways. So, yeah, Oxenfree managed to be neat without really standing out much for me.

33. Total War: Warhammer. OK, bear with me on this one, as it’s very personal. Total War: Warhammer may be the best Total War game yet. But it’s also the one that made me realize that maybe I just don't like Total War that much. It’s the third one I’ve played (after Rome and Shogun 2), and where I burnt out on the previous ones before reaching the end of their lengthy campaigns, I thought this would be the one to tie it all together. I played Warhammer growing up after all, and consider myself a fan of strategy games. But after finishing a full campaign in this installment, I think I can safely say the series is not for me. The reasons why are probably too nuanced and complicated to try and dissect right now, but it left me feeling kind of bummed.

Final verdict to be determined.
Final verdict to be determined.

34. Final Fantasy XV. The jury’s still mostly out on this one. I’m about 10 hours into Final Fantasy XV at the moment, and so far I’m not sold on it. The world itself is very pretty, and there’s some decent (if generic) music in there, but the rest is a hodgepodge of rote fetch quests, a bare bones plot, and mashy combat that has yet to click with me. I hope it turns around, and of all the games on this list, this is the one where my opinion is most likely to change over the coming weeks/months. I’m just not convinced that it will change for the better...

35. Amplitude. I never played the original Amplitude (or Frequency for that matter), but this reboot seems alright. For whatever reason though, it just didn’t grab me. I think ultimately I may be starting to realize that Harmonix’s brand of rhythm game is not my favorite; I consider myself a fan of rhythm games, but none of theirs rank among my favorites (dissecting why would be a longer tangent). Amplitude joins that tradition.

36. Pocket Card Jockey. Simple, but goofy and kind of fun. You play a version of solitaire while managing your horse-racing career. And… that’s kind of all I have to say about it? Checks the box of a mostly mindless but inoffensive time-filler.

37. Devil Daggers. I’ve never been a “score-chasing” guy, so I didn’t really get into Devil Daggers. But I think it hits what it’s going for pretty well, for those into this sort of thing, and the price tag is on point.

38. That Dragon, Cancer. I really, really appreciate anyone who puts themselves out there, and is willing to share a story as sad and as personal as the one in That Dragon, Cancer. But if I’m being brutally honest, I don't think it's as well-executed as a lot of other story-driven games out there. And seeing as it’s a very short game with virtually nothing to interact with, those story beats need to be completely on point. I’m glad this game exists, but I think it could be much better.

So much potential...
So much potential...

39. Darkest Dungeon. This is easily the game that bummed me out the most in 2016, and that’s not due to its depressing tone and atmosphere; I liked that stuff a lot. It’s because I think there is truly an amazing game hiding in here, but it gets buried under dozens and dozens of hours of repetitive grind. I was initially way into Darkest Dungeon's interesting mechanics, from the cool character classes to the dungeon-crawling to the combat. But after trudging through the meat grinder for 20 hours, only to realize the game was simply going to repeat itself two more times? I couldn't do it. This is one of the best examples I've ever seen of a game wasting its potential through poor structure and pacing. Again, there's an amazing game hiding in here. I just wish it had been realized properly.

40. Furi. I won’t say Furi is a bad game. In fact, I don’t feel like I played a single “bad” game all year if I’m being honest (seriously, it was a strong year). But Furi was one of the very few games I played in 2016 that I did not like, and it was the worst of them. I like the idea of a challenging “boss rush” game as much as anyone, but I also think Furi has some sizable issues. I think the long walking segments in-between boss fights are too dull, and contain poor dialogue, writing, and story beats. I don’t like the structure of the boss fights, in that they require you to play the easy parts over and over when you die to keep trying the hard parts. And I think the control layout (mainly regarding dodging) is problematic. Don’t get me wrong: the soundtrack is great and I had fun with a few boss fights. But the cons far outweighed the pros for me.

6 Comments

My Favorite Video Game Music of 2016

Has it really been a full year already? It feels like just last week I was listening to 2015’s best in effort to assemble a list of my favorite video game music from last year. And yet here I am, doing the same for 2016. Fortunately for me, as a big fan of video game music, it’s a process I greatly enjoy; I don’t need much of an excuse to go re-listen to a lot of video game music. In some ways, I may enjoy making this list more than my actual GOTY list (still working on that one, which is very competitive this year). Not only do I enjoy listening to this music again, but it’s also a chance to highlight an aspect of games that doesn’t always receive proper recognition. Music is an incredibly important part of video games, and can contribute greatly to a game’s overall quality, tone, and impact. This list, then, is my own small way of giving props to some of the wonderful music in games each year.

As for 2016 in video game music, it’s made me realize more than ever how spoiled we’ve been in that department recently. When I first started pondering 2016’s selection of music, I thought it might be a step down compared to the past few years. But now I realize that’s in no way an indictment of 2016’s musical quality, as I first thought it might be. 2016 has seen tons of great video game music, covering an impressive variety of styles, and any step down would only be because the past few years have been truly incredible. We remain in a golden age of sorts for the medium; there’s never been a better time to listen to video game music.

So here are the 10 video game soundtracks that stood out to me most among the games I played in 2016 (keeping in mind that I can’t play everything; Final Fantasy XV is probably the biggest omission in that respect). I picked a representative song from each game, and they are ordered by original US release date, not by preference. Thanks for listening, and share any favorites of yours I overlooked!

Oxenfree

Featured Track: Beacon Beach (by scntfc)

Firewatch

Featured Track: Prologue (by Chris Remo)

Hyper Light Drifter

Featured Track: Panacea (by Disasterpiece)

Dark Souls III

Featured Track: Soul of Cinder (by Yuka Kitamura)

The Banner Saga 2

Featured Track: Our Steps, To the Night (by Austin Wintory)

Doom

Featured Track: BFG Division (by Mick Gordon)

Furi

Featured Track: Make This Right (by The Toxic Avenger)

Abzu

Featured Track: Delphinus Delphis (by Austin Wintory)

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Ryota Kozuka)

Owlboy

Featured Track: Tropos (Day) (by Jonathan Geer)

5 Comments