Indie Game of the Week 154: Stasis

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Space inspires an equal amount of wonder and terror alike, as an endless inky void that permeates and surrounds us all in every direction, and so there's no shortage of sci-fi space-faring horror fiction out there. However, I'd argue that The Brotherhood's Stasis is less about the abyss of space but the abyss of the human soul, given several generations to let the march of technology bring us to a science-gone-awry scenario several magnitudes worse than what we've already seen. The repercussions of this mad science is the nightmare scenario that migrant John Maracheck awakes to, after his stasis pod unexpectedly ejects him into the bowels of the Cayne Corporation's medical research vessel The Groomlake. All that surrounds him are ominous echoes and human viscera; John's immediate questions are "where is the crew?" and "what happened to them?" and "where is the nearest escape pod?". That is, after he becomes determined to find out where his wife and daughter have gone, who were back on the transport ship with him.

The game has the immediate rhythm of something like Visceral's Dead Space, where your only companionship besides the terrors that lurk just beyond your sight is a systems operator you communicate with remotely (whom provides the necessary direction), and you make your way through various ship decks that operate as discrete "levels" of the game. You can't backtrack to earlier areas, and this helps reduce the number of variables in the adventure game puzzles that the gameplay is built around. After all, Stasis isn't so much survival horror - there are certainly ways to die, but these deaths happen in pre-determined locations and require solving puzzles to surpass - as it is a traditional point-and-click adventure game that uses a fixed, axonometric, third-person perspective with pre-rendered backgrounds that recalls the classic Infinity Engine era of RPGs. This also allows the game to create highly detailed (and highly disturbing) environments without causing any problems for weaker PC systems.

Something I like about the game's UI: you don't have to click something to get a visual description - you only have to mouseover a hotspot to get a descriptive caption. (The game also comes up with a lot of well-worded variations on
Something I like about the game's UI: you don't have to click something to get a visual description - you only have to mouseover a hotspot to get a descriptive caption. (The game also comes up with a lot of well-worded variations on "it's a pool of something gross".)

While I liked Stasis's grim and gruesome storytelling and world-building, there's no denying it has quite a few bugbears beyond those actively trying to eat you. The first and most apparent is the quality of the voice-acting: the game was created in South Africa, where English is the lingua franca but far from the most widely spoken language. Some actors have an Afrikaans-accented English that is perfectly understandable, but others seem to struggle with the right intonations and phonemes, which is especially evident early on where John has a flashback of him and his wife singing his daughter to sleep before all three enter stasis. This might also be the case of voice actors unused to the medium more than it is due to regional differences, but either way the poor VA can be distracting for such a narrative-driven game. At least the voice actor for the protagonist - who spends almost the whole game alone commenting to himself - does fine. Another issue is connected to the puzzles: while the game does keep things relatively compact with how it separates itself into these discrete chapters/decks, there are an awful lot of what I generally consider "moon logic" puzzles. Puzzles that have a solution which isn't immediately apparent because they're completely insane in terms of being able to suss them out intuitively, if not perhaps in the context of a scared and desperate man jerry-rigging or brute-forcing a means forward.

A strong example of this would be when you need to do extremely painful surgery on yourself (another Dead Space riff) and must set up the operation by collecting some resources: pressurized oxygen, cryostasis fluid, human organic material, and anaesthesia. The anaesthetic is a freebie but obtaining the other three requires solving the following puzzles: with the oxygen you have to find an oxygen tank in the EVA suits in the adjacent room but for whatever reason the tank alone isn't compatible with the collector next to the operating table - instead, you have to wrap a loose cable around it that you get a bit earlier in the chapter to make it fit (???); the cryostasis fluid you collect by solving a game of Mastermind (which is partly trial and error) with the nearby stasis pod room, accidentally killing a stasis pod occupant, and mopping up the loose fluid that flows out along with them, despite being pre-used and currently spilled across a filthy floor (?????); and then for the organic material you need to collect a clump of viscera from a nearby bloodbath, but the machine won't accept it because it's not "refined" - in order to refine it, you have to stick it on a convenient surface and then hit it with an empty revolver until it's less lumpy before the machine is OK with it (???????). These puzzles continue to increase in obtuseness as the game progresses, possibly as some warped idea of a difficulty curve in perhaps the single genre that doesn't benefit from having one.

Administering an automated operation on your own spine is bad enough, but I'd argue just getting to this point was more painful.
Administering an automated operation on your own spine is bad enough, but I'd argue just getting to this point was more painful.

Despite these major problems, Stasis does get right what it perhaps feels is the most important aspects: a constant state of tension and dread as you bumble your way through one near-death scenario to the next, keeping its monsters just out of sight or with brief jumpscare flashes before you find out what they actually are, and the discovery of the depths of depravity that the senior staff of this medical research vessel has sunk to in the name of science hits like a sledgehammer. There is some very messed up imagery in this game even before you get to the "birthing pool" laboratories, and the developers clearly have fun revelling in the setting's grotesqueries. That The Groomlake is situated in a decaying orbit above Neptune - presently about to engulf the ship in a powerful atmospheric storm - only lends itself to the Gothic foreboding of the ship's dark and imposing architecture. My favorite aspect, as it usually is with this genre of game, is reading the journal PDAs of the doomed crewmembers and getting the gist of what happened by piecing it together from the multiple perspectives involved. For as much as I wanted to kick the game's puzzle designer out of an airlock towards the end, I can't help but commend the game for the way it develops its atmosphere, and for its grisly visual and narrative choices.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Grief Encounter: The Importance of Encounter Design

A cornerstone of any good RPG, oriental or occidental, is a strong sense of encounter design. Sometimes an RPG will relegate its clever encounters to boss fights, and leave you to cleave through mobs to get there. Others will take the time to carefully consider every combat scenario in the game, ensuring that there's always some new wrinkle or enemy type you've yet to meet before, or at least a new combination of the familiar. And, of course, an "encounter" isn't necessarily limited to combat: it might include tense situations which you can defuse without bloodshed, or might not involve conflict at all.

I was thinking about this as I was playing Avadon 2: The Corrupted, the middle chapter of Spiderweb Software's axonometric turn-based Avadon RPG series: while a lot of the game's encounters are with crowds of common foes - undead, brigands, spiders, wolves, etc. - there's enough times where the player is forced to think on their feet due to some unforeseen snag, or one or more special conditions to the fight that changes your usual strategies. It's a game that is somewhat minimalist with its approach - there's not enough time for a small studio to test every combination of character and ability to ensure the balance is correct, and Avadon 2's heavy emphasis on turrets and tinkermages (a new class capable of building turrets on the fly) suggests that a lot of what they tested when adjusting the class ended up in the game. However, there are certainly some big ideas in what is otherwise a very conventional tactical RPG.

I spoke about a few of my favorite battles in Divinity: Original Sin 2, and I want to do so again here. I don't intend to get into quite as much detail - no play-by-play commentary this time - but I wanted to highlight a few times when the game surprised and delighted me; the game's designers managing to finagle the RPG engine's limited features to create some imaginative battles. I'll be providing some amount of context and follow-up too, so consider these rundowns spoiler-heavy. (It's a seven year old game at this point, but I still don't want to deprive old-school RPG fans of the same fun I had discovering these fights.)

(Oh, and you'll probably want to check out the Indie Game of the Week review and a plot synopsis for the backstory. Gonna be throwing a lot of proper nouns out there.)

Fightin' Words

The Lord of Wind

The Context: Avadon 2 sorta has three concurrent plots, based on the three biggest threats to the peace of The Pact (a name for the five-nation alliance that is the player's home) - The Tawon Empire, a lapsed sovereignty who is looking to gear up and retake their old territory; The Wyldrylm Rebels, a group of Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving freedom fighters operating against The Pact; and The Corruption, an unpredictably dangerous and barren region given over to chaotic magic and demonic invaders. It's on a mission to the Corruption that you meet Krymhylas, The Lord of Wind, who has taken up residence in one of the old Monitor Bases (observation posts in the Corruption that are regularly absorbed by it). He's been in talks with Miranda, a former "Heart" of Avadon (basically, one of the higher-ups), who is looking for some magical means of destroying The Pact and Avadon in the Corruption.

The Fight: Krymhylas doesn't attack you directly, but instead decides to test you by having you and Miranda fight it out for his favor. He's depicted as something of a blowhard, fittingly enough, but his powers over wind are legit: the battle starts by huffing you, your two companions, Miranda, and a few of his minions into a random room and closing the doors behind you.

However, it doesn't stop there. Every couple of rounds you get whisked off into another room connected to the previous in a circuit: what this does is shuffle where everyone is standing and toss in some new enemies, such as demons and hostile turrets. Miranda is there too and is almost impossible to defeat, but the constant motion will often stun her for a round making her less of a problem than the new wave of foes.

The rooms are all this size or smaller, and it's never a good time for ranged dudes unless they're lucky enough to be deposited in a corner somewhere.
The rooms are all this size or smaller, and it's never a good time for ranged dudes unless they're lucky enough to be deposited in a corner somewhere.

What I love about this fight is the unpredictability: it is what the Corruption chapters of the game are best at, as the capricious whims of the apparently sapient region will often put you in unforeseeable situations. The goal here is more to survive than to defeat everyone, as you'll inevitably run out of chambers to fight in and Miranda will be separated from you (she's a recurring villain, so she'll be back). Having a tinkermage or a shaman - the two units capable of making NPC allies appear - can help mitigate the crowd control, though you're always in close-quarters for the most part as the rooms aren't terribly huge.

The Aftermath: Simply surviving is enough to succeed this mission, though you do have to sheepishly report the loss of the base (since Krymhylas ain't budgin') and Miranda (who vanishes after you get separated) alike. Both Miranda and Krymhylas can be fought again towards the end of the game, though the latter is optional. His second boss fight plays similarly to the first, except now he is fighting you directly and the regular gusts push you to a different corner of the same larger room. For some reason, this also generates new minions every time. He's considered one of the game's four superbosses, another of which we'll talk about a little further below.

The Three Statues

The Context: A recurring side-quest - which is to say, it opens up in stages as you get further through the game - involves investigating an abandoned tinkermage workshop just outside the allied town of Troezen. It's only when you get to the center that things really start to pop off with the site's automatic defenses...

The Fight: The fight is against, essentially, three tinkermages and a whole lot of hostile security magic. The three tinkermages are actually statues: they operate independently and are normally immune to attacks, and each is capable of producing two turrets each. There's also a central ring that creates a new inert construct every two rounds: once it produces four, the next thing it does is activate them all, and they will quickly demolish the party once "alive". The one weakness with the tinkermage statues is a wisp that hops between them: whichever statue has the wisp can be damaged, but the statues don't all share a health bar.

This is naturally a very challenging battle and a slow one of attrition, as you whittle down each statue's health while stemming the flow of inert constructs in the center of the room. The turrets the statues create are random: some, like the crossbow turrets, aren't really strong enough to worry about but there are those like the flamethrower/icethrower turrets which hit hard enough to be an issue. Worse are the buff and debuff turrets: the former can increase the speed of every enemy unit within range, while the latter can cause your team to miss turns. Worst of all are the healing turrets: these are capable of repairing the damage you've done to any tinkermage statues as well as healing themselves, the other turrets, and the central constructs. It's a lot to keep track of, but it's largely a case of situational awareness and prioritization: identify the biggest threats and remove them quickly. If there's nothing that demands your immediate attention in any given round of combat, it's ideal to chip away at the currently-active tinkermage statue (if you can remember which one it is: the only clue is a slight visual effect that lasts a few seconds after the wisp moves).

For as much difficulty as I had with this one, it's a really intriuging fight that had me draw from all the resources at my command. AoE attacks are essential, as are summoned units/turrets, as they can busy themselves with the small fry while identifying the correct statue target. I built a few AoE turrets in the middle of the room to help me keep track of the true target while splitting my team between doing damage to it and keeping the central construct numbers down. It's definitely the kind of puzzle fight a smartypants mage would set up.

The Aftermath: The completion of the side-quest, which didn't reward much but gave my protagonist (a tinkermage) a decent piece of class-based equipment and a trophy/achievement for my troubles. Fortunately, the owners of the workshop didn't come looking for me afterwards.

Kitchen Nightmares

The Context: The Corruption plays a little trick on the party by creating a perfect facsimile of a farmhouse in the middle of the dry wastes. The party investigates despite the risks.

The Fight: You can tell the developers had a lot of fun writing encounters for the Corruption, which as stated above has a sort of godlike being with a malevolent sense of humor controlling it. The farmhouse is empty but for a single woman cooking something on the stove; the woman has no eyes, only black voids, and screams bats at you when you interrupt her cooking a stew (which has a human skull bobbing around in it). When I say "screams bats," I mean in the same way as that hypothetical guard dog in The Simpsons that shoots bees at you when it barks: the fight is against whatever creature this woman actually is and the small army of bats she brings to her side.

It's not much of a fight to be honest. I do appreciate that killing the woman-shaped horror causes her to melt into a puddle which summons more bats. Can't have too many bats.

There's always that distinct feeling that a game is deliberately screwing with you. The Corruption makes that paranoia real.
There's always that distinct feeling that a game is deliberately screwing with you. The Corruption makes that paranoia real.

The Aftermath: None, it's just a fun little side-encounter as you trek across the least hospitable region known to mankind.

The Wrath of Vardegras

The Context: After Krymhylas, the next Corruption resident that Miranda tries to negotiate with is an ornery old dragon named Vardegras. The dragon's also skeptical about whether Miranda's leader, the shadowy Tawon underworld figure Dheless who is busy mounting a continent-wide invasion, is capable of defeating Avadon and is vacillating on lending any support despite his evident dislike of the current status quo. When the player gets there, they're forced to leave their companions behind and negotiate with the dragon on behalf of Avadon alone. This leads to the player being put in a cell while Vardegras and Miranda hash out an opening bid for his vassalage, and you don't care to hang around long enough to hear what they decide.

The Fight: This is one of those times where fighting is not recommended. Vardegras is an incredibly powerful opponent (as dragons regularly are) and the player is by themselves for this chapter. Instead, what the player does is quietly move around the lair of Vardegras to find an escape route. As soon as Vardegras finds out you've left the cell and started poking around his territory and killing his "pets" (mostly spiders, some skeletons and demons), he's determined to end you. However, there's only so many places in his lair a big dragon like him can squeeze into.

In a sense, this is like the game's little homage to The Hobbit. By keeping to the passageways and rooms the dragon can't enter, you're safe from his wrath. However, these rooms and passageways regularly cross through the larger cave network that he can move around in, and he can detect you from a mile away. You can just about handle the pets at least, though this area does give you a few challenging optional fights if you're that confident as a solo warrior.

The Aftermath: You eventually escape the lair and send Miranda packing again, and the dragon wisely decides to let bygones and bygones and go back to pretending to be on Avadon's side. He's another of the game's superbosses: you can come back later with a full party and kick his ass if desired, but it's not an easy fight. In addition to a lot of strong breath attacks, Vardegras can summon golems that, whether they're destroyed or allowed to come close to the dragon, will power up his next move. He'll eventually allow the Corruption to take hold of him when desperate enough, which leads to more summoned horrors and additional powers to deal with. Best bet is to end the fight quickly by focusing on him and surrounding him so his breath attacks can't hit multiple members at once.

Siege of the Raider Stronghold

The Context: The first of the game's three game-wide arcs involves the Wyldrylm rebels, who you eventually corner with the help of the nearby Rockridge Fort and their spies. The player can decide to ally with the rebels or stick with the fort soldiers, but either way a massive fight breaks out at the rebel headquarters.

The Fight: My favorite part of any strategy CRPG is when the screen is filled with NPCs, both allied and hostile, and you get to watch them all duke it out while helping out whenever your turn eventually comes along. It's a fairly passive experience all-told, but you get attached to watching certain NPCs try to survive the fracas even if they're nameless fodder like "Fort Soldier" or "Rebel Archer". Avadon 2 doesn't have too many of these fights unfortunately, but the massive battle royale at the rebel HQ is a lot of fun. Reminds me of Mount & Blade, or those sieges in Skyrim, only way less hectic because of the turn-based format. Makes me wonder if I shouldn't get into more Total War games (or a turn-based equivalent).

Commander Odil definitely has that cantankerous police chief kinda vibe. You can choose to turn against him if you want, but I didn't want to listen to his last words about how he was only three days from retirement.
Commander Odil definitely has that cantankerous police chief kinda vibe. You can choose to turn against him if you want, but I didn't want to listen to his last words about how he was only three days from retirement.

The game does a smart thing by having the first stage of the rebel assault be against a group of titan enemies waiting just in front of the rebel base. Titans are blue giants that live in the Farlands - the external regions hostile to The Pact - and are presented early on as some of the most dangerous creatures in the game. The small troop of them here are absolutely no joke: if you were by yourself (and I'm talking about the usual three-person party set-up) they'd annihilate you quickly. The reason they're here is to stop you running too far ahead of your allied NPCs, who are needed to soak up the damage/attention long enough to defeat them all. After that, you can approach the fort as a massive raiding party and let loose.

The Aftermath: The rebels are destroyed by the Rockridge Fort soldiers (or the inverse if you decide to join them) but not without a whole lot of extra fighting underneath the HQ, after you break off from your NPC friends. It also concludes this particular thread of the game's story.

Anyway, these are just five of the most memorable battles from Avadon 2: The Corruption, an otherwise modest throwback RPG that generally doesn't go out of its way with regards to fancy battle-specific features or showiness. It's just packed with good writing and engaging encounter design, and I'm always happy to highlight both whenever I see them.

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Indie Game of the Week 153: Avadon 2: The Corruption

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Sometimes, when faced with a scary new decade, we look to the familiar comforts of the old. Avadon 2: The Corruption was originally released in 2013, but it looks and plays like a game released thirty years ago, not seven. That's by design, of course, and I'm not using the observation as a pejorative: for genre veteran Jeff Vogel (who has been making these specific types of turn-based CRPGs since the mid-90s) every one his projects is consciously big on mechanics and storytelling and light on presentation. Each game to come out of his studio Spiderweb Software looks more or less identical: axonometric or top-down level design that has small parties with limited skill trees take on carefully considered quests and enemy group encounters in settings with a significant amount of worldbuilding behind them.

The Avadon series concerns a continent named Lynaeus which has a powerful five-nation alliance in its center colloquially known as "The Pact." The peace of The Pact has been fragile at the best of times, but the nation states and the hostile "Farlander" countries that occupy the surrounding coastal regions have always been kept in check by the administration of Hanvar's Council and the might of the Black Fortress of Avadon. Avadon acts as an independent entity where agents, assassins, and spies - bolstered with the best magic and equipment that not even money can buy - are sent out to maintain the peace of The Pact at any cost: an imposing manifestation of the idea that the end (peace) justifies the means (death and oppression). The authority of Avadon is absolute, which makes it as many enemies as allies (probably far more so the former, honestly), and it inspires a degree of fear in all but the insane when Avadon's Eyes are upon them. As the player invariably becomes a "Hand" of this organization (the aforementioned field agents/assassins, sent out to "solve problems" that threaten the stability of The Pact) internal questions are always raised about the methods Avadon employs, and those you might personally employ, in order to achieve your goals. With the first game, that discontent eventually lead to an open attack against the Black Fortress where the player could either choose to help the raiders or help defend Avadon. When Avadon 2 begins and a new player character is conscripted as a Hand (which can be voluntary or involuntary to the player's role-playing choosing), the Black Fortress is still recovering from this attack; not just in the literal sense of rebuilding its fortifications, but in re-establishing its reputation as this invulnerable arbiter of justice despite being given a fresh black eye. It's evident quick that this siege has emboldened a lot of enemies outside The Pact, and engendered some distrust and concern within. (I reviewed the first Avadon all the way back in 2012, for those curious.)

A quick trip back to Avadon is often advised, as there's gear here you can't get anywhere else. Plus it gives you a chance to talk to your party members while they're inactive.
A quick trip back to Avadon is often advised, as there's gear here you can't get anywhere else. Plus it gives you a chance to talk to your party members while they're inactive.

Avadon 2's structure is similar to the first: teleportation pylons can warp the player's party to and from Avadon itself, which acts as a hub and a means to keep everyone stocked and equipped with the gear they need, before being sent to disparate parts of Lynaeus to resolve issues involving rebel attacks, monster encroachments, Farlander sabotage and subterfuge, dissatisfaction within The Pact member states on how Avadon is handling things, or a combination of the above. Like Baldur's Gate, each region of the game is a loose combination of separate "maps," each of which comprise a roughly square-shaped area of terrain with encounters, hazards, traps, internal areas to explore like caves and homesteads, and treasure to find off the beaten path. Some areas might open up later as part of a quest, and some might prove to be too challenging if you're going there early to reconnoiter. Combat is turn-based with turn order decided by each combatant's speed, and uses an action-point system similar to Fallout: however, one big difference is that using a regular attack or a special ability always instantly ends that character's turn, so movement and other minor actions (like using an item) should be done first before committing to an attack - as long as the player retains at least one action point for the attack itself, that is. The sequel increases its number of player classes from four to five: as well as the returning Blademaster (tank), Shadowwalker (rogue/ranger), Shamans (summoners/buffers), and Sorcerers/Sorceresses (magic offense) there's also the new Tinkermage class, who uses mechanical traps and turrets as their chief means of offense and defense. Turrets can fire shuriken, spit ice and flames, ensnare the enemy, or even buff the party; and a powerful Tinkermage can maintain several turrets at once, addressing a common disadvantage in these games of being overwhelmed by a much larger enemy force. As before, there's at least one of every class within the player's companion pool, and parties are always limited to three members while in the field.

The appeal of Avadon 2 and its brethren isn't immediately apparent from screenshots alone, but the combination of tight and frequently-challenging combat, the methodical exploration of these regions, the micromanagement of your party and their gear, and the weaving of a deeper story and your role in same where there never seems to be a morally correct answer to any dilemma, are all compelling reasons to keep playing and display a keen confidence from the developers in what players want from their retro CRPGs. There are still plenty of modern quality-of-life features to accommodate those who didn't grow up on Ultima and the Infinity Engine series and are inured to their nonsense: as well as being able to save at any time (besides in battle), health always auto-regenerates to full once a battle is over, including those members who were knocked out when their HP hit zero. It's only the vitality stat, that drains slightly with every special ability usage, that doesn't refill until you've either revisited Avadon or come into contact with one of its teleport pylons (or used a relatively rare consumable item). Likewise, the only encumbrance factor is for equipped gear (mostly to stop you giving full plate to the less physically imposing party members); the party can carry a huge amount of gear and items in their backpacks, and an infinite amount in the "junk bag" (the entire contents of which can be sold at a store with a single click). Spiderweb's oeuvre is specifically built to deliver what appeals most about the CRPGs of the 1980s/1990s without also burdening the player with the concomitant obfuscated or obsolete mechanics of those older games, and Avadon 2 is no exception.

Turrets are only useful if you build them within range of enemies, but they're excellent for crowd control.
Turrets are only useful if you build them within range of enemies, but they're excellent for crowd control.

With where I'm at in the story, it's beginning to look like I may have to take a trek into The Corruption: the titular region of experimental magic gone awry which has created no end of twisted monstrosities and toxic environmental hazards. I'm looking forward to the horrors that await, and glad I opted for a Tinkermage PC who never has to deal with anything up close.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Games That Would Be King (2010s Edition - Part One)

There's a bunch of "most influential" articles and videos out there right now pertaining to the last ten years of game development (one I'd recommend is Jim Sterling's recent Jimquistion on the subject, as scathing as it is) but I wanted to write something that not only looked at games that irrefutably lit a fire under the game industry, inspiring trends and new genres and directions for many subsequent releases, but also those that quietly innovated without making quite so many ripples. I could've also titled this blog "The Games That Could've Been King," as a lot of the following may have motivated trends and variants had the game industry paid a little more attention. On the plus side, the lack of scores of spiritual successors has allowed those games to retain their uniqueness.

I've tried to pick for each year of the last decade a small handful of games that I'd consider either highly influential or may have been so had things shaken out differently (or could still yet, if they're later rediscovered or end up inspiring the next generation of indie developers). Be sure to post in the comments with your own examples of what games had (and should have had) the most influence on those going forward.

[This first part focuses on the years 2010-2014.]

2010

2010 had the unenviable job of setting the pace for the decade, and honestly it's probably the year that had the most interesting one-offs out of the whole ten year period. Even 2017 with its prolific output largely involved sequels and franchise entries. While 2010 had no shortage of bangers, they would either stand alone - Red Dead Redemption, despite its high praise, did not manifest a whole lot of cowboy games as its destiny - or be iterative steps in a long process of a franchise finding its legs - Mass Effect 2 and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, while arguably the respective peaks of both franchises, were built largely from the blueprints laid down by their predecessors and would really only go on to influence their next successive entries.

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The most influential games of 2010 were, in my view, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Super Meat Boy. The Indie sphere was still in its nascence in comparison to where it is today, and the sheer number of imitators that these two games - a "masocore" platformer built around being extremely challenging but also designed to mitigate the frustration that accompanies its endless parade of death, the second a very passive breed of first-person horror that encouraged you to run and hide and not even look at the monsters skulking in the shadows - would engender cannot be understated. In fact, one could argue that Amnesia would even later inspire a Resident Evil sequel, as well as one of the most singularly striking horror experiences with P.T..

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Also, in a slightly more low-key way, Xenoblade Chronicles came along for Wii and gave the ailing sprawling open-world JRPG the kick in the pants it sorely needed, introducing dozens of QoL features that fans of western Bethesda-style RPGs had been enjoying for years and many more besides. It's also one of the most impressively constructed open-world games of the decade from its unlikely setting of two continent-sized colossi to its aesthetic chops and incredible soundtrack, even compared to where we left off in 2019, and I can't help but feel its emphasis on worldbuilding and mechanics built for greater accessibility have found their way into multiple games, not least of which being Nintendo's own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (which shared a few developers).

However, if we're talking about games that should've been more influential, there's a massive list to draw from:

Ghost Trick (Capcom/Jupiter, 2010)
Ghost Trick (Capcom/Jupiter, 2010)
  • Vanquish did away with the tedium common to TPS games of hiding behind waist-high walls waiting to take your shot by introducing the means to outmaneuver your opponents with so much speed that they wouldn't be able to hit you, your own Looney Tunes dust cloud being all the "cover" you needed. The goofy, vaguely Metal Gear story was fun too, but building a TPS around alacrity was a masterstroke that wouldn't really be repeated until something like Control came along and made a similar case that taking cover was redundant when all that was required was to stay in constant motion.
  • Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (originally released in Japan in 2010) might've been the major franchise Ace Attorney was for creator Shu Takumi, but for whatever reason it's the only game that does its particular thing: having a spectral protagonist influence the surrounding world through poltergeist powers as they work within a short time loop to produce the ideal result. Add to this Takumi's eye for eccentric characters and some marvellous animation work and it becomes one of the most stylish games of the decade. Maybe it was such a lofty concept that you could only feasibly get one whole game out of it, but I'm sad we never saw a follow-up or anything biting its ghostly style besides a few outliers like Haunt the House: Terrortown.
  • Speaking of time-loop games, something that's only just come back into vogue with Outer Wilds, 2010 also had Singularity (which uses the rapid passage of time as a mechanic to fix/break the environment), Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (which used a form of telepathic time travel sparingly but also magnificently), and Radiant Historia (an RPG that brilliantly utilized time travel mechanics to present many branching paths of possibilities, resulting in a game that felt half an RPG and half a Steins;Gate-style visual novel).
  • Finally, there's NieR. While it did eventually see a sequel which managed to contain the brilliant idiosyncrasy of Yoko Taro in a more palatable gameplay model, NieR left audiences divided with two huge columns of "pros" and "cons": the incessant grinding cancelled out the intelligent storytelling of its multiple game loops, the ugly graphics cancelled out the soulful soundtrack, Kaine's constant invective and stripper costume cancelled out the appeal of the sympathetic damaged character at the core and the arc she goes through. NieR was neither popular or critically acclaimed enough to see any copycats (its sequel might prove to be a different story) but it's certainly the most unique game of 2010.
  • (Oh, except for maybe Deadly Premonition. But that's getting a sequel too, so it all worked out.)

2011

2011 was kind of a so-so year, in my view. While it was a strong outing for RPGs - the following paragraphs will attest to that - most of its games were reboots or sequels that had as many faults as praiseworthy attributes: Human Revolution successfully rebooted the Deus Ex franchise, though diehards say it didn't do nearly enough to honor the ingenuity of the original; Portal 2 was beloved but also found that the original's mind-bending teleportation puzzles didn't fare as well in a more protracted format; Super Mario 3D Land found middle-ground between the linear 2D "Bros." classics and the more exploratory 3D worlds of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, universally liked but not fully appealing to fans in either camp; Dragon Age II was a lemon with an annoying tendency to reuse dungeons and spawn waves of combatants from nowhere, though some series fans swear by its more personal story arcs; Dead Space 2 was a bigger and better sequel but also recycled a lot of the best scares and tense atmosphere from the first Dead Space, and started getting way too attached to its "Unitology" allusions to certain real-world cults rather than the far more intriguing alien-borne corpse monsters; and for every person who liked Batman: Arkham City's expansion of Gotham locales to explore, there would be someone decrying the lack of Arkham Asylum's more cohesively compact level design.

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There really isn't any game from 2011 as influential as Dark Souls. Though not the first of FromSoftware's brutal and grim gothic RPGs in which all progress is painstakingly earned, Dark Souls was the first to see wide mainstream success and a level of fanaticism and meme-ry carried into its sequels and pretenders. Even excepting From's own follow-ups like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there's been no shortage of games aping its mechanics or its oppressively dark atmosphere or both: Nioh, Hollow Knight, The Surge, Salt and Sanctuary, Blasphemous, Death's Gambit, Ashen, Code Vein, and the list goes on (and will continue to go on long into the 2020s, I suspect).

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One could make a strong case for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim too, but honestly Skyrim didn't so much inspire sequels and evolutions more than it decided to just hang around for the entire decade, re-emerging on every new platform that the 2010s produced: the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and the Switch. It was more popular than Dark Souls and certainly more accessible for a wider audience who didn't want to deal with Hidetaka Miyazaki's morbid sense of humor, but to argue it made any sort of impression that its predecessor Oblivion (or, going even further back, Morrowind) didn't already leave behind on a wave of modern CRPGs would be disingenuous. All it really did was assert Bethesda's own brand of expansive (and frequently broken) RPG as the dominant form of the genre for another ten years.

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I'd also say the same thing for Minecraft, which was far and away the year's biggest and far-reaching game. That its official 2011 release was also met with what would become its more superior inspiration, Terraria, meant 2011 was definitely the year for construction sims with an RPG bent. However, I would also argue that Minecraft's blocky look and emphasis on making your own fun wasn't as impactful as the "Soulslike" boom; the only games persisting with the former tend to be immaterial and badly formed knock-offs exclusive to Steam and its lack of quality control, or high-budget rarities like Dragon Quest Builders, and equally Terraria inspired only one half-decent follow-up with Starbound. There's an argument to be made for Minecraft leading the charge for the massive multiplayer "survival sim" genre, but it doesn't embody that gameplay philosophy as much as some others like Rust or ARK.

Some 2011 games I wish we'd seen iterated upon:

Pandora's Tower (Ganbarion/Nintendo, 2011)
Pandora's Tower (Ganbarion/Nintendo, 2011)
  • Rayman Origins approached 2D platforming with a mix of speed and exploration, finding an ideal middle ground between Sonic and Mario that no amount of crossover Olympics games or Super Smash Bros. cameos would manage. Whether it inspired you musically by staying on the beat or through collectibles that only retained their higher values for a very limited amount of time, the player was always encouraged to speed through each of Origins's beautifully hand-drawn levels while also keeping a side-eye out for hidden areas and other bonuses. Origins saw exactly one sequel - 2013's Rayman Legends - but few 2D platformers since have really matched its flow.
  • While I didn't adore Sideway: New York as much as Rayman Origins, its gimmick of being a 3D platformer that allowed you to enter 2D planes that wrapped around 3D environments wouldn't be something seen again until A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario Odyssey. Sideway's platforming wasn't exceptional, but I feel like it deserved to have been at least popular enough to fund its proposed sequel - Sideway: Tokyo - to see the light of day, which it has yet to do. A shame, because there's a lot a more confident sequel could've done with those amazing plane-hopping mechanics.
  • Both The Last Story and Pandora's Tower failed to make the impact Xenoblade Chronicles did when the Operation Rainfall campaign bought all three to Europe (and later the US), but both are also innovative RPGs that - had events transpired differently - we'd be seeing more games with their ideas. The Last Story melded third-person shooter combat with stealth and AI party management for a package that took some getting used to but offered a challenge that relied on spatial awareness and employing triage on a series of hectic scenarios. Pandora's Tower, meanwhile, was a proto-Soulsian dungeon crawler with a hard time limit on individual outings that made opening shortcuts and making incremental progress the keys to success, using a combat system similar to God of War by combining a versatile whip weapon (that could also pull down fixtures or used to swing across gaps) with the regular swords and shields. Sadly, neither made enough of an impression to spawn imitators.

2012

2012 was a year without any major highlights, at least personally, though was still marked by an uptick of intriguing games without much in the way of precedent, largely coming from the ever-expanding Indie sector. Dust: An Elysian Tail was a highly competent explormer made by a single person; Dishonored was a new niche perfect for Arkane Studios using the environmental storytelling (a.k.a. putting skulls next to toilets) they'd experimented with in BioShock 2 and Arx Fatalis; Binary Domain, though a dead-end for the TPS genre and for the Yakuza developers, still delivered some viscerally-pleasing action; and we see a few of the future heavy-hitters of the indie scene launch their debuts, including Mike Bithell's minimalist but disarming Thomas Was Alone and Giant Sparrow's The Unfinished Swan. It was also a good year for loot RPGs, between Borderlands 2, Darksiders II, and Diablo III.

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2012's most influential game, as much as I'd rather not admit it, was Telltale's The Walking Dead. Neither its story route-determinant decision matrix or the episodic structure were new, but the combination thereof and the personalized cliffhangers it produced turned out to be a compelling equivalent to serialized TV drama. Telltale would use the success of this game as a launching point for a narrative-driven gaming empire that eventually collapsed under its own weight, producing dozens of episodic series with the same framework (my personal favorites were Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us). Its focus on choices and an episodic structure also in some part inspired the King's Quest reboot, DONTNOD's melancholy Life is Strange, and The Longest Journey finale Dreamfall Chapters.

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I would happily countenance arugments that the crown should go to Spelunky (the "HD" version that debuted on XBLA in 2012) instead, because as well as being a game I much prefer it also helped kick off a trend of what we tentatively call "roguelites": games that adopt the permadeath run-based sessions of those old ASCII dungeon-crawlers into various new formats and genres. Spelunky's sense of progress was as ethereal as the unkillable spirit that pursued those who dithered too long in Spelunky's mines and caves of death, but at the same time your continued improvement could be measured by how more adept you were at its platforming and a finely-honed paranoia about what awaited beyond the edge of the next screen or beneath your feet. Spelunky directly inspired other run-based side-scrolling platformers like Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells, and to a lesser extent top-down dual-sticks like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon. I think it also tapped into the same crowd (developers and players alike) invigorated by Dark Souls; those who missed the days when a game could kick your ass until you eventually became strong enough to fight back.

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Other worthy cases include the XCOM: Enemy Unknown reboot and its resurrection of the original's harsh but fair strategizing, which continues to capture the imagination with spiritual successors like Xenonauts, Mutant Year Zero, Shadowrun Returns, Phoenix Point, and the unlikely chimera that is Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle; Hotline Miami's psychedelic style and brutally efficient "do it until you get it right" gameplay loop inspired its own menagerie of top-down action games, many soulless knock-offs set in other parts of the world; and Journey opened the hieroglyphic temple door for a lot of contemplative action-adventure games that worked hard to establish their tone and atmosphere, though few of its progeny (like Abzu or Bound) chose to also copy Journey's anonymous but empathetic utilization of multiplayer.

2012 games I wish made more of a lasting impact:

Fez (Polytron, 2012)
Fez (Polytron, 2012)
  • Sleeping Dogs and the evolutionary steps it brought to open-world crime games, only for its strides to be reset by the studio's collapse and another brainless Rockstar sequel, is one of the greatest bummers of the past few years. Creating a visually and narratively slick detective adventure through the mean (and reflectively wet) streets of Hong Kong, the travails of Wei Shen ably mixed driving, gunplay, and brutally efficient martial arts in a manner where all three could've stood alone as the core component of its own game, rather than the GTA feeling of several half-baked and inaccurate systems in a composite that was just about stronger than the sum of its parts. More than anything else, Sleeping Dogs was stylish and had a strong aesthetic identity as well as a few Yakuza aspirations for its array of side-content - a game series that western developers could do well to imitate more often.
  • Legend of Grimrock created an opportunity to reboot a very specific older RPG format of the real-time first-person party-based real-time dungeon crawler (often affectionately referred to as "blobbers" by the retro CRPG community) and while the game did see some moderate mainstream success, the only games that resulted from it was a half-hearted Might and Magic reboot (Might & Magic X), some spirited but underwhelming Indie competitors like Heroes of the Monkey Tavern, and Grimrock's own superior sequel Legend of Grimrock II. Dungeon Master, the grandfather of this specific sub-genre, was also my first ever computer game so I have a certain amount of attachment to games of this sort, but it doesn't look like it's going to come back again any time soon. Fans will have to make do with Wizardry-derived first-person turn-based dungeon-crawlers games like Etrian Odyssey (and yes, there's a strong distinction between the two, dang it).
  • And then there's Fez. Remember when we thought there'd be many more puzzle games from the indie circuit that would necessitate a notebook to track observations and clues? Fez stirred an old muscle many of us had allowed to atrophy, presenting not only a servicable 2D platformer with a world-spinning gimmick but one with many deeper mysteries that took some communal digging to uncover. We've since entered an era of "wiki gaming"; games with backstories and mechanics so dense and esoetric that people have gone to the trouble of creating online databases and videos to keep track of it all, with scores of players scrutinizing each new piece of lore and update as it is discovered. With these online communities ready to discuss and disseminate their findings, I'm not sure another game will ever strike a chord the same way Fez did, but I would've liked to have seen more try.

2013

The first year for which I played well over fifty releases, which probably says as much about my proclivities as it does for 2013's output. However, it was a year not so much known for its games but for its new consoles: both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One debuted in 2013, though I can't really say anything in their respective launch libraries were particularly explosive. For most, 2013's GOTY was The Last of Us, the moribund stealth action game from Uncharted developers Naughty Dog, though I'd hesitate to call it all that influential: while it did help to inspire mechanics in other zombie games, like Days Gone, the zombie shooter genre was already doing just fine before TLOU came along. You could argue that it set a new high bar, bouncing between loud gunfight action with creeping (or clicking) horror where the best recourse was to stay as quiet as possible, but to this day the only other scary franchise with mushroom people in it is Luigi's Mansion.

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Gone Home by Fullbright seems like a powerful (or maybe powerfully troll-y) choice for most influential, because while it wasn't the original first-person exploration game to be dismissed as a "walking simulator," it seemed to draw the most ire from game prescriptivists who were adamant that a lack of game mechanics precluded it from the medium. (These tend to be the same anime avatars who have zero problems with visual novels, incidentally, but that's maybe neither here nor there.) Gone Home has some precedents with the likes of 2012's Dear Esther, which truly was pointless, and 2011's To The Moon, which treated both the protagonists and the player alike as onlookers in another character's life story. Still, Gone Home was where the idea of the walking simulator solidified into the kind of gentle, heartfelt and empathetic journey through someone's belongings and journals that nonetheless managed to anger a lot of Steam reviewers. Dozens more would follow, like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch and Fullbright's own Tacoma, almost all of which would go on to grow the divide between those looking to games as pure entertainment and those looking to games as artistic self-expression.

Nothing else is really jumping out at me as being super influential. Papers, Please was certainly something we'd never seen before, but also something we've yet to see since (creator Lucas Pope's next game, Return of the Obra Dinn, was also decidedly singular). BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V inspired almost as much derision as adulation, especially later once they'd had time to be properly analyzed, and we've seen nothing from either franchise since let alone any external aping. Also unfortunately true for Pikmin 3 and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time: two of my favorite sixth-gen franchises that briefly returned in 2013 only to vanish forever once again (and no, I don't count Hey! Pikmin). That my three favorite games of 2013 were a Zelda, a Saints Row, and a Tales suggests that I had a "comfort zone" kind of year.

A few 2013 games I hoped would encourage similar projects:

Antichamber (Demruth, 2013)
Antichamber (Demruth, 2013)
  • NES Remix was a fun idea that perhaps didn't go far enough with its mash-ups. It, along with Super Mario Maker, felt like Nintendo took a side glance at what the internet was doing with its original assets, and before they hit the "send in the lawyers" button they had the thought of "hey, there's something to all this." Created by IndiesZero, who had risen to prominence with the fake but familiar 8-bit games of the Retro Game Challenge DS series (based on the GameCenter CX TV show), NES Remix wasn't just predicated on "man, how crazy would it be if Link showed up in Super Mario Bros.?" ponderings, but worked as a Cliff's Notes of how these games worked - the notable mechanics and moments - and combined all these little lessons together in a fast-paced procession that was not dissimilar to the WarioWare microgames. I'd always hoped for a "SNES Remix" follow-up, but beyond an iterative sequel that brought in a handful more first-party NES titles it doesn't seem like we'll see its kind again.
  • I'm not sure if you could replicate the magic of Antichamber. Manifold Garden took a crack at something similar recently, and obviously The Stanley Parable put its disorienting wizardry towards more comedic purposes, but the non-Euclidean madness and stark minimalism of Antichamber made it feel like a fever dream; the sort of place where logical and spatial consistency puts up a "Gone Fishin'" sign and calls it a day. I'd love to get challenged by a first-person puzzle game in that specific manner again, but most I've seen are happier trying to riff on Portal instead by way of magnets (Magrunner), cubes (QUBE), laser beam refractors (The Talos Principle), or sticking balls in holes (The Turing Test). I'm hoping the non-Euclidean dream isn't dead; just hiding somewhere we can't find it.
  • I'm honestly kind of surprised Platinum Games hasn't been allowed to make another Metal Gear Rising. Giving it its own brand separate from Metal Gear Solid suggested that either PG or Konami intended for it to be a series, and now that Kojima's not allowed anywhere near his own baby it seems like Konami could use someone with Platinum's skills to keep the IP alive, in as much as they want to keep any of their big earners active given the bizarre, fume-huffing form of mismanagement the company has been employing of late. MGR was a gloriously stupid and highly entertaining character action game that was almost (though I'm not convinced that it wasn't) a MGS parody in its earnest portrayal of corrupt superhuman US Senators, cyberwolves, mariachi disguises, and a ninja robot man who was part Cuisinart and part an teenager's edgy textbook sketches. I'd love for there to be another one, especially if it kept escalating the ludicrousness. (Though, if I'm being honest? I also kinda want to see what a Platinum Games Death Stranding would look like.)

2014

I think 2014 was the last of the truly mediocre years, as I look over my list of completions and realize I don't have strong feelings about really any of them. 2014 was a very unpleasant year for gaming in general due to certain controversies raging on and the weirdly apoplectic backlash here over the hirings of Dan and Jason (figures this was also the year I became a Giant Bomb mod).

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Though I didn't play either, I think the sensible candidate for 2014's most influential game would either be Destiny or Hearthstone. The former, the new sci-fi franchise from Halo creators Bungie, would begin in earnest a succession of modern "shlooters" with a more overtly MMORPG-inspired framework involving looking for parties and taking on "instances" and "raids", including BioWare's Anthem (you could also make the case that 2013's Warframe also helped push this format of co-operative online multiplayer shooter). The latter, a one-vs.-one competitive card game based on Blizzard's Warcraft universe, isn't a million miles away from what a dozen Magic: The Gathering adaptations had already done, but couching it in a fantasy setting so familiar to so many helped to establish its enormous presence and stack the deck for a great number of subsequent card-based RPGs, from doomed Valve imitator Artifact to run-based single-player titles like Slay the Spire. I'm not sure Gwent would've been quite as much of a thing without it either, but that's conjecture.

Just looking at the rest of my meager top-ten of that year, and we have: Dragon Age Inquisition, an expansive open-world RPG of nodes to uncover where the only true spirtual follow-up was BioWare's disastrous Mass Effect: Andromeda; Divinity: Original Sin, the first of a duo of tactical RPGs that really stand alone with the amount of complexity and versatility they offer, especially with environmental variables; The Talos Principle, a game heavily inspired by Portal and not subtle about it; Shovel Knight, though a strong retro throwback platformer with an impressive legacy of free content updates, it wasn't exactly distinctive either; Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, an enhanced remake of a rhythm game series that only got as far as a Japan-only Dragon Quest sequel; Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a delightful puzzle-platformer based on a Super Mario 3D World bonus stage that Nintendo has no plans to follow up on; Steins;Gate, a visual novel which only technically qualifies as a 2014 game; Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a series that went downhill fast despite its potentially (open-)world-changing innovations; and Legend of Grimrock 2, which we've already established was the last hurrah for the brief resurgence of an archaic model of dungeon-crawler. Many fine games in there, but very few that A) offered anything new or B) had their new things adapted or evolved by future video games.

Even if 2014 was the equivalent of a filler episode, I've got a few games in mind when I think about how the game industry could've looked very different five years later:

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Nintendo EAD, 2014)
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Nintendo EAD, 2014)
  • The most obvious is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and specifically its Nemesis system. Randomized enemies that organically grew to become major thorns in the player's side, adapting themselves after every loss to be more of a hassle, and mocking you when they finally got one over on you. Shadow of Mordor used a network of these AI orcs to create their chains of command for you to demolish or manipulate, giving what was on average a standard open-world action game some political upheaval mechanics that might be better served in a different context. That new context never arrived, unless you count the deeper "grand strategy" games from Paradox, and so the Nemesis system stands alone as a Middle-earth original despite all our then-predictions for the contrary.
  • Sure, let's put Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker in here too. It's perhaps too early to say that there'll never be another one - I've no idea how well the Switch remaster did for Nintendo, but I didn't hear a whole lot of discussion around it - but I don't imagine we'll have a "Year of Toad" to celebrate in the near future. It's a shame, because Captain Toad is one of those games that has this really remarkable aesthetic where it looks like one of those wonderfully detailed 3D diarama models you'd maybe buy as a centerpiece for your coffee table or bookcase. Nerd-bougie interior decoration tips aside, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was also compelling as a puzzle box you had to solve step by step, figuring out how to get Toad from points A to B to C to D as you make little detours for collectibles along the way, often manipulating the level's layout with button clicks to move pillars and platforms or increase/decrease the water level. I'd love for Nintendo to take their world-class level design to that puzzle format again.
  • This might be a dark horse choice, but I'd love to see more JRPGs in the future get as weird as Lightning Returns: FFXIII-3. Just not in the sense that it's thematically and narratively bizarre, but that it takes on a franchise (or a franchise within a franchise) that was running on fumes and choosing to transform it into something unrecognizably insane. Without getting into the specifics of how and why Lightning Returns is unusual even for a Final Fantasy game (let's say it involves combining Melancholia, Zardoz, and the New Testament's Book of Revelation), it's still grounded by some decent action-RPG combat and a heavy dose of personalized self-contained stories related to saving the individual souls of important NPCs and FFXIII's previous party members, with an apocalyptic ticking clock to prompt you to consider the best use of your time. The one strength JRPGs had over their occidental brethren was the confidence to go extremely "off-Broadway" with their worldbuilding and storytelling, and with the eccentric likes of Tides of Numenera and Disco Elysium it feels like Japan's now losing that advantage (though you could argue NieR: Automata addressed it somewhat).

(Next time: 2015, perhaps the best year for RPGs until 2017 knocked it off the top spot; 2016, a year I mostly wasted playing an Indie farming game; 2017, arguably the greatest year of releases of all time; 2018, a year that would've been one for the history books had it not immediately followed 2017; and 2019, a year where any long-reaching influence has yet to be ascertained.)

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Indie Game of the Week 152: The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game

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Another year of challenging myself with the most mechanically demanding Indies around resumes with a game I beat in forty minutes. Frog Detective is looking to be a longer series of bite-sized adventures featuring an amphibious investigator who always does his best in what I imagine is a series directed towards the young and young at heart. I dunno what it is about this latest spate of mine to play games of a certain juvenility (between this, GNOG, and Pikuniku over the past 40 days) but perhaps I've been subconsciously drawn to these guileless games as being the tonic my stressed soul needs.

The Haunted Island, the first Frog Detective game (I'm imagining it'll get renamed to "Frog Detective 1" at some point, now that a sequel's already out with more to come), naturally has your protagonist solving a mystery about a ghost haunting an island. Ghost scientists have been called in but are equally stumped, though it's clear most of them aren't quite sure what they're doing. The tiny island's owner, a sloth with sleep deprivation, is at his wit's end. Worst of all is that this phantasmal visitor could threaten the big dancing contest that's due to start the following day. The game's first and only puzzle involves solving the simple problems of the nearby NPCs to gain ingredients for dynamite (using the standard recipe of wool, pasta, toothpaste, and a chunk of gold) to investigate a cave where the ghostly noises are originating from. The player is given a magnifying glass to help, but it's not required; its only purpose is to let you look at things with a fish-eye lens filter.

He may get results, but Frog Detective is humble enough to know when he's outclassed.
He may get results, but Frog Detective is humble enough to know when he's outclassed.

The game's writing - I'd say it was its strong point but it's really the only point - has some strong Homestar Runner energy where it feels directed towards small kids but covers topics that could be amusing to anyone. Lots of conversations prompt responses that are little more than "gross" or "cool" or a deadpan "OK" as the recipient immediately accepts the new information given. Even with the childlike patois, the game manages to address proper oral hygiene, how strange it is for sheep that we make clothes out of their hair, social awkwardness, visualization exercises, the coolness of secret agents, very small shells, the uselessness of books compared to the internet (though this is followed by a fourth-wall breaking clarification to say that some books can be useful and some internet sites can be less so), and that being in the sea during a thunderstorm is probably safer than being on an island with a ghost. Important lessons that children can internalize and adults can marvel at the wisdom thereof. To summarize the writing with a little more value as a critique: this game has a very specific sense of humor that either gels with you or doesn't, and given the size and price of this introductory chapter it's an easy enough train to hop off if the journey is not to your liking.

It's another Indie Game of the Week where, though The Haunted Island wasn't really what I was looking for in an adventure game (or even a comic detective adventure game, since it's been done better and more elaborately with the likes of Detective Grimoire or Puzzle Agent or Ace Attorney), I can't in good conscience bash it given how wholesome and unpretentious its silliness can be. The detecting is mostly incidental, I realize as much, so it strikes me more that this and future frog detective games are vehicles for goofy and chill conversations with other talking animals about not a whole lot in general, and maybe at the end you get spooked by a ghost or bust some moves on the dance floor with all your new friends. If something this light and frothy sounds like the kind of game you need in these troubled times, by all means take on the modest asking price for admission and see if the cute adventures of a Frog Detective are for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Mento's Month: December

Last month of the year. We all made it to the end somehow (and if you didn't, should I even ask how you're reading this...?) and while 2020 isn't exactly off to a great start there's no point losing hope just yet. For one, there's a new generation of video game consoles arriving soon and we'll getting a steady drip-feed of news throughout the year of what to expect from these new consoles games-wise. My current diet is mostly years-old AAA games and Indies of all vintages, so these big sweeping changes won't mean much to me for a while, but it should make the site more interesting as it does what it does best: provide an enlightened commentary on the industry as it takes the next big step into the future.

Speaking of which, I guess Dan Ryckert's gone to the big wrestling ring in the sky, huh? And by sky I mean Connecticut. Probably should've phrased that better. It's going to leave a big energetic hole behind at Giant Bomb East, and I'm infinitely curious who Vinny and Jeff will bring in to fill it. I'll abstain from any suggestions or fantasy bookings, given that the site has (wisely) cautioned people against it to make the process easier for everyone involved, but it's going to be a big topic around these parts for the foreseeable future that I hope folks can be chill about. I wish Ryckert well in what sounds like a dream job of his and a chance to do something new after 15 years in the games reporting industry, and hope he can pop by for some Bomb/Beastcast guesting whenever the WWE caravan rolls into NYC or San Francisco for some PPV event or what have you.

Anyway, this is really all January news. December's come and gone, and with it another GOTY season. Besides a few "GOTY (Adjusted)" lists this'll be the last I'll write about my 2019, and honestly good riddance to it.

Indie Games of the Month

December comprised the 149-150 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:

Even if this month's two Indie Games of the Week were a bit on the shallow side, they still looked amazing.
Even if this month's two Indie Games of the Week were a bit on the shallow side, they still looked amazing.

Seasons After Fall (IGotW 149) is one of just two Indies for December, following my plan of 50 IGotWs per year. It's another explormer, though it's a rare pacfist one; there are no enemies or combat in the game, and the closest thing to conflict are pits and spikes which both have generous respawn checkpoints. In fact, most of the game doesn't even have those, they only exist in the vaguely nightmare dream worlds. If you can imagine Ori and the Blind Forest with a similar beautiful arboreal art direction and smooth animations, but without the challenge or the evolving jumping mechanics. You also tend to visit the same four areas a lot, as new objectives open in each world for each of the game's "acts". I found it a little shallow both mechanically and challenge-wise, though perhaps that suits different audiences better. Not every explormer can (or should need to) be Bloodstained, after all.

GNOG (IGotW 150) is another very light game, though one I found endlessly charming in a way that almost felt deeply nostalgic. I know I would've adored this game's little procession of interactive puzzle boxes and expressive cartoonish graphics at a much younger age. As it is, it's delightful but a little bit empty, its presentation doing a lot of the heavy lifting. A single puzzle box won't take more than five to ten minutes to figure out, and in the non-VR mode there's limitations on how much you can move the box around. You can't spin it around to see the top or bottom, for example, which could've been used for all sorts of additional modifiers (I'm only assuming the VR version gives you full camera control). If you're looking for something bouncy and light and/or have kids to entertain, GNOG's not going to disappoint. However, anyone looking for a slightly sillier The Room (not the movie; that's plenty silly already) might be left with a completed file an hour later wondering where the meat was.

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Welcome to Go! Go! GOTY!

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game One: Baba is You

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Two: Horace

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Three: Pikuniku

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Four: Odysseus Kosmos and his Robot Quest

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Five: Shovel Knight: King of Cards

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Six: Electronic Super Joy II

Go! Go! GOTY! 2019: Game Zero: Outer Wilds

Didn't expect one of my favorites this year would be a free sequel to a 2013 game with orgasmic checkpoints.
Didn't expect one of my favorites this year would be a free sequel to a 2013 game with orgasmic checkpoints.

It's not a regular yearly feature, but the Black Friday sales and post-birthday voucher expenditure can often find me in a position where I have access to a lot of current-year gaming to squeeze in before the GOTY period of judgement. When that happens, I dedicate the entire first half of December to getting through all the most likely contenders for my season of awards. Go! Go! GOTY this year covered six games (technically seven, though there's a big asterisk on that seventh) and through it I managed to bump up my top five to a top ten again this year, albeit a top ten I can't imagine will stay that way once I've caught up with the rest of the year's most acclaimed releases.

A quick rundown of the above (read the blogs for more details): Baba is You is a fiendishly clever and challenging puzzle game that I admired for its unpredictable nature and encouragement of trial and error that doesn't feel arbitrary in the slightest; Horace has a huge beating heart and an incredibly twisty and absurd story that's enough to carry players through the kinda rough gravity-switching platforming; Pikuniku is charm personified and looks like a lost Keita Takahashi game but is an otherwise overly simple and straightforward puzzle-platformer; Odysseus Kosmos and His Robot Quest is an uneven but well-written contemplative episodic space adventure game more akin to a The Dig or Solaris than Aliens; Shovel Knight: King of Cards excels with its platforming but falters with an unappealing card game, sending out the complete Shovel Knight set on a bumpy note; Electronic Super Joy II is every bit the wildly entertaining, visually striking, and utterly ridiculous EDM nightmare masocore platformer its forebear is, though with a little more ambition and an inexplicable price tag of "free"; and Outer Wilds was a mysterious and highly engrossing game with an infectious sense of exploration... until it ate my save file and I quit in disgust (I hear that issue's been patched as of 6/1/2020, so I might take another crack at it eventually).

The Mento Game Awards 2019

GOTY 2019 (list)

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As sure as sunrise follows sunset, the GOTY season follows Go! Go! GOTY! like an expectant customer behind it in a line at the deli (did I paraphrase this analogy from Seinfeld? Who can say). My GOTY is always a double-pronged affair; the GOTY list itself, where I try to discuss ten games I've already talked about to death elsewhere, and the Mento Game Awards blog which - if this year's lack of interest and my lack of playing anything new is any indication - could probably use some major retooling or excising it entirely.

The MGAs are also currently the only place to see my prestigious MS Paint comic creations, which were unexpectedly popular many moons ago for reasons I am entirely unable to fathom. (I don't think anyone still recalls why JC Denton is my go-to guy for all this award host punishment; I know I barely do.) These are my big takeaways for this year regardless, and I always enjoy joining the community and staff to ring in the winter holidays with some capricious ranking and a whole lot of salty discourse about our year's gaming highlights.

Bucketlog December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: #FE

TMS is visually a lot, but that's what makes it such a blast to play too.
TMS is visually a lot, but that's what makes it such a blast to play too.

The last Bucketlog of 2019 looked at the Wii U exclusive (though only for another ten days) MegaTen/Fire Emblem hybrid Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE, which found a novel outlet for the meeting of these two JRPG titans via the Japanese entertainment industry based out of and around Shibuya town. The above review digs deep into the mechanics, but I neglected to talk about just how committed the game is to its idol/actor/singer/model show business aesthetic: on the menus, instead of "characters" it's "artists"; instead of "party" it's "casting"; instead of "equipment" it's "wardrobe". The showbiz aspirations are endless, but it also gives the game an energy and visual pizzazz that is infectiously charming. That a character, in the middle of a tense battle with phantasmal enemy creatures from another world, can suddenly bust out a few lines of their number one J-Pop ballad as a powerful special alternative attack is all the evidence you need that it doesn't take itself quite as seriously as either of its inspirations.

Even if it is a gloriously silly game with cutscenes and characters to match - my latest party acquisition is such a perfectionist method actor that he forgot to eat for several days and collapsed outside a cafe, and the gossip mags still made it sound like he was the coolest guy in all the land - it has some really smart QoL and dungeon design that easily matches (and surpasses in the case of the dungeons) Persona 5, and its session system where everyone seizes on an enemy weakness with massive chain combos ensures that most battles tend to fly by quickly and gives you all the enemy drops you'll need to synthesis plenty of new weapons and "radiant" (passive) skills. It's easily the most accommodating and enjoyable MegaTen game I've played, and though the Fire Emblem connection is mostly superficial I think fans of that series would find SMT's deeply tactical elemental-superiority flowchart combat system well within their wheelhouse. It'll be fun seeing everyone's reactions to the new Switch remake as it discovers a wider audience that left the Wii U for dead and the game an underappreciated obscurity. What is an artist without an audience to perform to, after all?

Other Distractions

I didn't catch a whole lot of movies this year, but I have been catching up on my stories. The following are the ten seasons of TV I was most enamoured with in 2019:

This year's TV was a treat, if you were able to figure out which streaming service had what.
This year's TV was a treat, if you were able to figure out which streaming service had what.
  1. Mr. Robot (Season 4): Mr. Robot's final season was nothing short of transcendental; not only the perfect way to tie up years of twisty cyberhacking neo-noir plotting and the journeys of individual characters, but another high mark for the show's endlessly inventive cinematography and (maybe slightly gimmicky) ideas, rendering one of the most emotionally intense episodes of the entire run as a black box theater production punctuated with separate act cards and another episode involving a heist that was almost entirely dialogue-free (the only two lines, one at the start and one at the end, were "we don’t have to talk" and "it's about time we talked"). I also think this was where Sam Esmail really took advantage of the gift that is Rami Malek as his lead, giving him plenty of dramatic scenes to chew on as his whole existence almost literally collapses around him, and the rest of the phenomenal cast - Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, BD Wong, Michael Cristofer, and Grace Gummer - are just about able to keep up. Such a wonderful show that I'll miss terribly, and to think that I only started watching because I felt like trying out a cool edgy hacker show.
  2. Mob Psycho 100 (Season 2): Anyone who has yet to be sold on the strength of anime as a storytelling medium really owe it to themselves to watch Mob Psycho 100. It's not only one of the most emotionally wholesome anime airing right now but also one of the most visually impressive and dynamically animated. The psychic battles between the withdrawn middle-schooler Kageyama - the titular "Mob," so called for his nondescript appearance (as in, "just another face in the mob") - and the various "Claw" antagonists are nothing short of breathtaking in their spectacle, but in-between the show finds plenty of time for some really funny and poignant character work exploring the connections between people, especially that between Mob and his "psychic mentor" Reigen, the latter of whom is quickly becoming my favorite anime character of all time. The art style (especially character designs) takes some getting used to initially, but I highly recommend watching both seasons of this back to back. I won't be the only otaku extolling its virtues around these parts I'm sure.
  3. Barry (Season 2): I binged the first season of Barry a few episodes in and quickly followed with its successor, as I noticed it was drawing a lot of the conversation away from the last season of Game of Thrones (which was fairly disappointing from the obfuscating pitch-dark battle at Winterfall onwards). It wasn't long before I was in love with all these characters, from the surprisingly sinister lead played by the usually not sinister at all Bill Hader to Harry Winkler's self-obsessed but empathetic acting coach to Anthony Carrigan's wonderfully accommodating Chechen mobster NoHo Hank. However, what cinched the second season as one to watch was a star turn by Barry's slimy handler Fuches (played by Stephen Root, who so often gets stuck with broad eccentrics rather than great, underhanded villains like Fuches) and an episode in particular where one assassination - that Barry tries to bail on and turn into a merciful act - instead becomes, in rapid succession, a martial arts movie, a horror movie, and a thriller movie. And for as dark as that episode gets, it's absolutely hilarious throughout. It feels like the show has ascended beyond its "let's see if audiences take to this idea of a hitman wanting to become an actor" pitch and is gleefully charging into an undiscovered territory of rough chuckles and absurdism.
  4. Doom Patrol (Season 1): I generally don't watch a lot of superhero shows (the Marvel movies, sure, they're fine popcorn flicks but as a non-comics guy that's usually the extent of it) but recent years have seen a bounty of slightly off-kilter and obscure comic book series coming to the screen for a slice of those MCU billions, and more specifically the unprecedented success of perennial goofballs (and, prior to their movies, relatively unheard of) the Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney and its few remaining rivals alike have been throwing money at every unusual superhero group going as a result, and DC gambled with the Doom Patrol as the big draw for its new online streaming service. In some ways it paid off though, as Doom Patrol is both brilliantly and aggressively weird and it feels like the writers were given carte blanche to be as faithful as they wanted when adapting Grant Morrison's bizarre, unfilmable material. As I said, I'm not much of a comics nerd so I can't speak to the show's accuracy in that regard, but if you needed me to tell you a show that starred Brendan Fraser as a robot man, Alan Tudyk as an insane godlike supervillain fond of screwing around with people like an even less scrupulous Q, and episodes revolving around nazi puppets, an ocular elder god that slowly unmakes the world, a crazy old man named Mento (!), a megalomaniacal cockroach voiced by Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, and a sapient genderqueer street who communicates through store signs is worth checking out, then I don't know what to tell you. Check it out?
  5. Watchmen (Season 1): Watchmen definitely had the most to say of any superhero show this year, tying the heady themes of Moore's and Gibbons' influential comic to the struggles of African-Americans as far back as the 1920s Tulsa Riots and the unrest of the occupied Vietnamese in an alternate 2010s where at least one superhero exists, and many other vigilantes take up the mask as a matter of course. Regina King radiates as the masked cop badass Sister Night, and the show makes excellent use of the original Watchmen characters and a group of new ones. Tim Blake Nelson's Looking Glass is a fantastic new addition that I wished the show spent more time with, with a combination of dry wit and a lifetime of paranoia making him adept at ferreting out lies. I also loved that it continues from the end of the original comic book rather than the movie adaptation, giving us an impression of what the world would be like several decades after a catastrophic (apparent) psychic alien squid attack as the terrified populace of the world try to maintain their sanity given what's out there. I'm not sure this show needs another season, but I'm so glad Lindelof didn't mess it up with layers of rudderless enigmata.
  6. The Expanse (Season 4): The most recent season of The Expanse, now part of the Amazon Prime family, showed up right at the end of the year and proved to be just as compelling and rich as the previous seasons despite the change in management. The show smartly weaves in major world events - the most recent being a nexus built with ancient alien tech that has opened up gates to hundreds of unexplored star systems - with personal stories of those in the thick of them, giving us lots of drama and action and fairly realistic space travel science, and it's probably the best sci-fi show on TV (well, streaming TV) right now. Though the cast was separated into three discrete storylines, it felt like one of the more focused seasons of the show, with the Rocinante and its crew supervising the colonization efforts of a new exoplanet that might have a connection with the destructive alien protomolecule, while UN Chairperson (basically the Chief of Earth) Chrisjen Avasarala deals with a challenge to her position over Earth's indecision to send more colonists out into these new worlds despite the risk, and tough but bereft ex-marine Bobby Draper uncovers a Martian smuggling ring that might only be a symptom of "fixer-upper" Mars's lessened impact as a potential new home for humanity now that a whole host of habitable planets have just become accessible. At some point I'm definitely going to have to read the books it's based on, if only to find out what happens next months before the next season comes along.
  7. The Boys (Season 1): Like Doom Patrol, The Boys comes from an irreverent place within the comics industry that deals so much with the moral infallibility of superheroes, presenting a world where being a godlike entity also comes with a god complex. The superheroes of The Boys are arrogant, cruel, entitled showboats who care little for the collateral damage they wreak as long as the corporation that sponsors them is able to cover it up, or at least let them get away with a public apology. Some turn out to be actual psychopaths. It's no wonder that there's a small cabal of CIA agents and vigilantes figuring out any way possible of revealing to the world the depth of their monstrosity or, in extreme cases, how to kill the nigh-unkillable. It's a bleak and violent show with few people to root for - even the bereaved protagonist, Hughie, ends up murdering a "supe" early on in the series out of sheer antipathy - but it's an entertaining enough look at an alternate universe where the Justice League are all psychos, jerks, or cynical burnouts.
  8. Stranger Things (Season 3): Season 2 of Stranger Things definitely raised some red flags about how much longer this show could could sustain itself on references to 1980s horror and "boys' adventure" movies like Firestarter, It, and The Goonies, but Season 3 course-corrected a little with some better characterization around the slightly older teen cast and their new predilection for dating over D&D, and the focal point of the local mall and a sinister research base that lies beneath it. It's a lot of the same beats for the most part, including pairing off David Harbour's world-weary Sheriff Hopper and Winona Ryder's skittish Joyce Byers as well as the kids on separate detective adventures, though the welcome addition of Maya Hawke's Robin Buckley and her semi-adversarial relationship with reformed smarmy jock Steve Harrington creates a lot of the show's best hang out moments. It feels like Stranger Things is growing beyond being a cipher for a series of elaborate movie references and is now spending more time developing its characters and the mythology of its distinct "Upside Down" dimension, and I think it's better off for it.
  9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 4): It happened very early in the year, but Tina Fey's most recent sitcom came to an end with a final season that - like 30 Rock and Amy Poehler/Michael Schur's Parks and Rec before it - took a small time jump towards the end to see everyone part ways and find their own perfect happy endings. A little rote, perhaps, but UKS was a show that started from a dark place and never stopped searching for a silver lining, especially for its eternally upbeat if somewhat oblivious protagonist. If you wondered where all the snappy joke writing went after 30 Rock, it was all right here. Or, at least it was until it ended. Curious to find out what Fey does next and if she'll continue this streak of exceptionally witty situation comedy.
  10. Archer (Season 10): It's bottom of this particular list, but I still enjoy spending time with Sterling Archer and his former spy organization buddies regardless of whatever wild new paradigm the show inserts them all into (if you haven't been keeping up with the show, the real Archer is in a coma and has dreamt the last several seasons, hence why it hops to a new thematic genre every time). Season 10 was all about an The Expanse-style ragtag crew of spaceship explorers, trying to make their way across the galaxy without incurring the wrath of a dozen different factions or some entirely unknown alien threat. In spite of the increased stakes, it's mostly just the same sharply written sniping back-and-forth as ever. I actually think the dialogue is a little weaker here than it has been previously, largely due to the show's creator Adam Reed taking more of a backseat (and has since left the show), but it made up for it with the new setting (I love space shit) and some great guest voicework.

Looking Ahead

Let's leave you all with what to expect from January 2020's release schedule, which is to say "not much." Things will get a lot busier come February/March as almost all the deferred 2019 releases find their way to the ass-end of the fiscal year, but no-one's dumb enough to launch anything of note during January. It's "Fuck You, It's January!" season after all.

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Let's see here... well there's the PC port of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne (Jan 8th). I know some holdouts who are happy about that finally showing up. There's the aforementioned Switch remaster of the excellent Tokyo Mirage Sessions: #FE Encore (Jan 17th), the original Wii U version of which I'll be getting back to very shortly. Same day is Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot (Jan 17th) which, I mean, I guess I'm glad DBZ is something people like again but it's not really for me. Uh, what else... a Warcraft III remake (Jan 28th)? I mean, if you still feel like giving Blizzard money for rehashing old shit given their behavior last year, that's cool. Speaking of, the undervalued Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (Jan 28th) is coming to consoles at last, so hopefully it finds a second life on there despite being a very mouse-and-keyboard type of CRPG. Journey to the Savage Planet (Jan 28th) might be the first genuinely new game of 2020 that I'm interested in seeing, though I hope the survival aspects aren't too pronounced and it's more about solving puzzles and exploring. That appears to be it, unless some new Indie comes out of nowhere and crushes it. Let's hope, eh? (If you're Japanese or can speak the language, however, you could also get Yakuza 7 on the 16th. After its newest trailer, I kinda can't wait to hear more about it.)

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Wiki Project: Awesome Games Wiki'd Quick 2020

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The first highlight of any brand new year is the annual Awesome Games Done Quick event: a week-long speedrunning charity drive where over a hundred of the world's best, worst, weirdest, rarest, and most broken games are played through as quickly and efficiently as possible by talented and dedicated speedrunners the world over to raise money for Doctors Without Borders and the Prevent Cancer Foundation. It's always a humbling and exciting time watching these events every six months, either live or via the quickly uploaded archives, and each event always introduces a mix of the familiar and some fresh new faces - both in terms of the runners featured and the games they run.

That also means that, because Twitch uses our wiki as a basis, there's the occasional game that isn't as well represented by our wiki as much as I would like. I take it upon myself (mostly because it's January and there's not much else happening) to ensure we have pages for all the games featured in the event besides those prohibited by the wiki (fan games mostly) and for existing pages to be in a semi-informative and legible state for anyone who clicks through to our wiki to get the 411 on the obscurity currently being played. These wiki projects rarely take more than a few hours total, so I'm really just blowing a whole lot of smoke up my own ass with these rundowns.

Still! I like to think I can do more than just complain about self-inflicted workloads, so I've bifurcated this blog into two lists of twenty, it being 2020 and all: the first list has the top twenty scheduled speedruns I'm most looking forward to watching over the next week, while the second list has the top twenty pages that took the most elbow grease to fix up. Peruse one or both or neither at your leisure, and I hope you all have a great time watching AGDQ again this year (and remember to donate!).

The Twenty Most Anticipated Runs

The theme of this GDQ? Races and randomizers! For real, I love watching runners adjust their strategies on the fly due to some unfortunate RNG or because their opponent has pulled ahead and they need to try a risky strat to catch up. I've never seen a run that wasn't enhanced by having multiple people competing with each other for the brass ring. Likewise, the randomizers are exciting to watch because a lot of runners have such keenly honed minds from so much practice that they've seemingly prepared for every possible permutation a randomizer might throw at them. The solo runs can be fun too, especially for games I've never seen run before and/or those with runners who can provide some great commentary, but the races are what I'll tune in to see live.

The following are in chronological order, with an attached start time/date (in GMT) and approximate length:

Super Mario Bros. 3 (race) - Sun 5th / 11:50pm / 1h15

A nice, straightforward three-way race for a beloved NES classic. However, it feels like a game as widely deconstructed and analyzed as SMB3 has a hundred single-frame and risky strategies and techniques available, giving each race participant all the dilemmata they could handle if they happen to be a little behind or ahead. I imagine it'll either be a super close thing, or one of those situations where the guy(s) in last place makes the gap worse by fumbling a Hail Mary or two. Always a lot of drama, and that's what makes them so compelling.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (co-op) - Mon 6th / 9:50am / 2h50

I wasn't even aware this game had a co-op mode, but it was something available to those who had the GBA/GameCube cable adaptors that came with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. It's still an RPG with turn-based combat so I can't imagine it'll be a whole lot faster with two unless they can split up on the overworld for separate objectives, but co-op is a great opportunity to watch two runners appear to play with a single brain.

ActRaiser ("Professional" race) - Mon 6th / 2:25pm / 30m

I love me some ActRaiser, so I'll be tuning in for this race that plays on the highest (and secret) difficulty that eliminates magic and makes all the bosses twice as sturdy. This game's platformer sections were honestly hard enough already, though I suppose speedrunners have trained enough that they can glide through these games without even getting hit.

Terraria - Wed 8th / 12:05am / 1h

Intensely curious about this run for what might be my favorite Indie games of the past decade. It involves fighting all the way up to the Moon Lord, a boss added in one of the later updates, and so will also involve fighting through most of the other bosses as well as a few major world events. I'd love to see how quickly they can dig down to hell and get the high-level gear necessary to survive while also on the clock.

The Legend of Zelda (series relay) - Wed 8th / 1:30am / 3h30)

I don't know how many Zeldas are in this relay, but given there are nine participants I imagine it'll be the first three games. Relays are extremely tense because you're relying on your partners to perform well, so if you're first you have the stress of setting a good pace and if you're last you're either responsible for pulling your team's ass out of the fire or making sure you don't squander their hard-fought lead. I realize these tense races aren't everyone's cup of tea - with all that happened this week, we could use some relaxation - but it's what I live for in speedrunning, especially in a live format.

Final Fantasy VIII (co-op relay) - Wed 8th / 5:05am / 8h55(!)

Fellow mods @thatpinguino (Gino) and @zombiepie (Chris) had something of a FF8 speedrun contest last year for Extra Life, so I'm curious to see the professionals take a crack at it. Not so curious that I'll likely watch this nine hour marathon in one go (and certainly not live, if you noticed that GMT start time) but it might be something to leave on in the background throughout Wednesday morning.

Ghouls 'n Ghosts (race) - Wed 8th / 4:10pm / 25m

One of the hardest classic platformers and another challenging race. I'm less familiar with the Mega Drive Ghouls 'n Ghosts, which is pretty much a direct arcade port, but I imagine this will be the best education into its nuances I'm likely to find. Who'd volunteer for this?

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (European Extreme Foxhound) - Wed 8th / 9:22pm / 1h20

Speaking of high difficulty, this MGS3 run is going for the hardest setting and the hardest post-game rank to earn. A lot of that rank involves never slowing down and never getting caught, two things paramount to a good speedrun regardless, so maybe it's not quite the nightmare I'm picturing. Then again, it's not like I'd ever put myself through this. I just hope the Foxhound rank doesn't involve shooting all those frog toys.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (100% NSR) - Wed 8th / 10:50pm / 3h05

Ocarina of Time is definitely no stranger to GDQ events, but I'd not seen this category before. It's 100% items but with "No Source Required" (NSR) rules, which means that some or most of the necessary items for a 100% run can be glitched into Link's inventory by any means at the runner's disposal: you don't need to go to their source to obtain them, which would take way too long with, say, the wallet upgrades from the Gold Skulltulas quest or all those heart pieces. Three hours is about right for a good Zelda run, so I'm looking forward to seeing all the many ways the runner can magically summon the items they need.

Mega Man 4-6 (relay race) - Thurs 9th / 3:15am / 2h05

Another relay race, going through the three lesser NES Mega Man titles. The boss orders are probably set in stone at this point, but I wonder if some alternative paths might provide shortcuts at greater risks, and whether any of the runners will be desperate enough to take them.

Wild Animal Sports Day (relay) - Thurs 9th / 9:30am / 10m

Wild Animal Sports Day is here to represent the entire Awful Games Done Quick block, something I probably won't be awake to watch in whole. This relay race is somehow less than ten minutes long, so I assume it'll be chaotic.

Fatal Frame - Thurs 9th / 2:40pm / 1h20

There's a horror game block midway through the fifth day of the event, and although you could argue that the two games this run is sandwiched between - Resident Evil 4 and NightCry - are possibly more interesting to watch, I've always loved the Fatal Frame series, its dread-filled suspense, and its carefully-timed shutter release combat. I imagine the runner can't afford to wait around for the most effective ghost-killing pictures and I'm itching to see what the alternative strategy is.

Jak II (race) - Thurs 9th / 6:20pm / 1h05

More races. I haven't seen Jak 2 for decades and barely remember much beyond all its GTA hoverbike nonsense. An hour seems extremely quick for that game, given how much there was to do, so I'm anticipating the two runners to duke it out with all the glitches in their repertoires.

Earth Defense Force 5 (one-handed) - Thurs 9th / 8:40pm / 55m

Halfcoordinated is one of the more compelling speedrunners to watch due to his limitations: he can only use one hand to speedrun these games, and even though EDF isn't the most sophisticated game franchise you still need fast reflexes and accuracy to beat those missions quickly, especially on the hard difficulty that this run uses.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - Fri 10th / 11:00am / 45m

Forty-five minutes is ridiculous for an RPG like Bloodlines even for as notoriously broken as the vanilla version was, so there's going to be a lot of using arcane vampire powers (both intended and otherwise) to fast-track a path through the game's many "action" zones and dialogue trees. Actually, given the runner is using a Nosferatu build, lengthy dialogue scenes might not be an issue (though moving around the surface world will be).

Mega Man X (race) - Fri 10th / 11:20pm / 40m

Heck yeah, another race, a four-way one this time. Forty minutes is incredibly tight so this will definitely be more of a sprint than a marathon. If I had to guess (and I do) it'll come down to pure skill in the end, and less strategizing.

Super Mario 64 Randomizer (race) - Sat 11th / 3:35am / 1h10

Time for the randomizers! The Super Mario 64 randomizer is a trip. I initially thought it might be just that paintings go to different levels and maybe the red coins/stars have switched places, but it turns out they shuffle around almost everything and put them in random new locations: every enemy, every loose coin and star, every ? box, every secret, even where Mario spawns into the level - it's just utter chaos. The doors to different areas of the castle also have randomized star milestones, which might for example force you to go to the second floor before the basement. They're fun watches, and even more fun when you have three people racing each other and having to roll with the changes.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Randomizer (race) - Sat 11th / 7:10pm / 3h30

The gold standard for randomizers is A Link to the Past, however, and in this year's race there are two variables in play: Open Mode, which eliminates the Castle Hyrule prologue and lets you begin the dungeons in any order; and Crowd Control, which from what I understand involves the Twitch chat gifting the players items through bits and subs. AGDQ is going to have a lot of Twitch chatters to wring cash out of, so this two-person race might prove to be a big charity earner.

Super Mario Maker 2 (4x4 relay) - Sat 11th / 11:35pm / 1h15

A semi-traditional sight now, the GDQ gets close to the end with a big four-person team relay race where several of the world's best Mario players take on some of the most diabolical user-created levels sight-unseen. As fun to watch for the sheer malevolent level design as it is for the race itself, I always try to find the time to catch it live.

Super Metroid Impossible - Sun 12th / 2:45am / 2h30

Super Metroid and its ubiquitous incentive goal of "save or kill the animals" is usually the ultimate or penultimate run of any GDQ event. This time, though, the solo runner is playing through a ROM hack which greatly increases the difficulty. I've seen plenty of SM runs but none involving this particular hack, so it'll be intriguing to see what's changed. I'm sure also that the runner will be taking some big risks going into those enhanced boss fights understocked.

The Twenty Pages That Were Most in Need of Work

I've rounded up the following twenty wiki pages into five groups that best represent the challenges I most often face with this thankless (and possibly fruitless) process year after year. Then again, it's thanks to the following that I had something to do while listening to leftover GOTY podcasts.

"Where'd They Go?"

Culprits:

Simply put, these wiki pages didn't exist until I came along. My chief goal with this wiki push is to ensure that every GDQ submission exists for the sake of Twitch's "now playing" doohickey so the event organizers aren't hit with some missing data when they're already stressed about a dozen other technical issues. No surprises that the three missing pages this year are all fairly recent and two are godawful joke games someone found on Steam and figured it'd be funny to speedrun (the last, Super Cat Bros., is an Android/iOS game lost in a huge marketplace).

"It's All 'You, You, You'"

Culprits:

The bane of any GB wiki power user is scrubbing all the prohibited second-person usage - "you," "your," "you're" - from a page and it's an especially enormous problem with pages of a certain vintage and mainstream popularity. The staff and wiki mods here appreciate anyone who takes time out of their day to fill in some several thousand lines of info on their favorite games, and in their defense we didn't have a style guide or anything close to same until fairly recently to give them necessary direction. Still, when you have pages like Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (100+ 2nd-person uses), Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (130+ 2nd-person uses) and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (230+ 2nd-person uses) to clean up it can slow things down a smidge.

"The Indie-Anonymous 5000"

Culprits:

Indie games don't have as many champions as the big-budget games, so even semi-popular ones like the above can have empty or next-to-empty pages. That was the case with the four above, and although I've not done too much there's a little more meat on their bones now. I mean, this neglect is partly on me too: I played Gato Roboto last year and didn't think to update the page then, and I'd be happy trying any of those others for a future "Indie Game of the Week" entry.

"Cobwebs and Tumbleweeds"

Culprits:

Some older/retro games deserve to be placed on a pedestal and admired for eternity for their innovations to the game industry or for the joy they inspired in their time. Others tend to be lost to history; little more than footnotes, if they're remembered at all. A game wiki can abate a game's slow consignment to oblivion, at least to some degree, but I can't really blame anyone for not caring enough about the five games above to fill out their bare pages. We have: a thematically disjointed sci-fi dinosaur licensed PC platformer; another PC action game considered one of the worst of all time; an objectifying bargain basement Genesis side-scroller; a NES port that butchered an already mediocre arcade hack-and-slasher; and a Genesis sequel that showed up in late 1996 long after the system's decline. A motley crew, but one that seems to have found a new lease of life from the speedrunning community.

"A Waning Wiki"

Culprits:

Sometimes it's evident that the Giant Bomb Wiki isn't the priority for site users that it once was. This could be due to a number of factors, but whatever the reason the four games above - all front-runners for GOTY in 2018 and 2019 - had no body text on their pages, though the rest of the data (images, releases, a header) was present. Descriptors and overviews are always a bit intimidating to write - where do you start with a game with the mechanics or history of Manifold Garden or Marvel's Spider-Man? - but it's always dispiriting to see that default "no description" placeholder, especially given how many visitors those pages must see.

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Indie Game of the Week 151: Smoke and Sacrifice

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It's a new year, and a new spate of Indie Game of the Week blogs on some not-so-new Indie games. Smoke and Sacrifice is a middling introduction to the year, as I didn't anticipate how much survival mechanics played a factor in its action-RPG gameplay framework. The game's set in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where one of the few surface areas not affected by an endless winter is kept lit and arable by various ancient machines that provide sunlight to the vicinity and allows for crops to grow and a humble agrarian community to flourish. However, this boon comes with a price: every citizen must sacrifice their firstborn to the "Sun Tree" to keep the lights on, and the latest chosen is protagonist Sachi's infant son Lio. This religious ritual is not quite as it seems, however, and seven years after her heartbreaking loss Sachi is finally in a position to figure out the dark secrets literally lying beneath her feet and uncover the conspiracy behind all these "sacrificial" children. It starts with a teleporter that takes her deep underground, filled with toxic smoke and hostile creatures...

The game is loosely a Diablo-like action-RPG with real-time combat in that sort of slanted overhead perspective. Sachi acquires weapons and armor as she explores, and must make judgments about whether or not a nearby opponent is something she is capable of taking on, depending on her gear and current condition. What sets the game apart from most action-RPGs is a very heavy emphasis on crafting and maintenance, making it more akin to a Don't Starve in practice: almost everything needs to be constructed from parts found from all over and several of those items, including all the weapons and the essential lanterns, have endurance that ticks down with their constant use. Many consumable items have limited shelf lives also, especially parts dropped by dead enemies. Items can be mended on the fly and many can be crafted then and there, but the more sophisticated items - meals, equipment, certain key items - can only be made at special crafting stations dotted infrequently around the landscape. The world is separated into "biomes" which have their own assortment of naturally occurring resources, enemies, traps, and hazards - a polar region, for example, needs special shoes to stop Sachi from slipping and is the only place to find ice fungus and bone piles. Though the game has a somewhat open structure, there's always a main questline and several side-quests that the game tracks on your behalf, and will always provide you with some rough idea of a destination to head towards next with its handy map system.

My stash of rapidly decaying junk. Meal recipes ensure that food can be turned into something less perishable, and mending weapons/gear is far easier (and cheaper) than building new ones.
My stash of rapidly decaying junk. Meal recipes ensure that food can be turned into something less perishable, and mending weapons/gear is far easier (and cheaper) than building new ones.

For as survival-heavy as some aspects of the game might be, it's not actually quite as much of a headache as I usually find with others of this genre. For instance, there's no hunger or thirst gauges: every consumable item instead regenerates health and possibly provides a temporary boost to speed, offense, or defense. Many items, like shoes, keys, meals, and inorganic resources, won't decay at all and will safely sit in your inventory in reasonably large stacks until you need them. Others that can go off can be stored in chests to preserve them, and the game is filled with "travel tubes" that allow for instantaneous travel to places you've visited (and, when the story necessitates it, sometimes a place you've yet been), many of which are also strategically next to one or more of the aforementioned storage containers. The quest structure eliminates the usual meandering common to survival games, where it's not clear what you should be doing besides building ever better equipment and shelters, and although the combat is rough going initially by taking the time to explore and finding recipes and ingredients in remote locations you start building up a decent arsenal of tools and weaponry. A useful early find is the formula for smoke grenades, which can be used to slow and weaken groups of smaller enemies that might otherwise swarm you. One persistent annoyance is the game's equivalent of a day/night cycle: being underground, you don't so much worry about darkness than the onset of a thick, venomous fog that rolls in from the toxic sludge that surrounds the subterranean landmass and acts as a hard barrier. When this smoke is active, the player must use some manner of lighting device to keep it away or suffer a steady health loss - there are the lanterns, one of the earliest recipes you find, and eventually you become capable of producing your own light at a mana cost - and stronger enemies start roaming around when the smoke is at its densest. This cycle can change enemy drops and environmental details as well, so even though you could theoretically wait out the smog in a safe haven there are times when you'll need to brave it for specific resources.

One of the game's toughest foes are these enormous
One of the game's toughest foes are these enormous "pugbears". I doubt even Rorie could love these things (but who am I trying to kid?)

I'm finding the game fascinating, even if my progress is only coming in fits and starts. There's a lot of ways you can be killed quickly, either because you wandered into the domain of a foe far too difficult for you right now or because you aren't able to effectively manage your health/light or because of some new trap that you weren't prepared to deal with, but these challenges all provide reasons to press on so you might one day surpass them and see what lies beyond. Wandering off the beaten path can be a death sentence or a shortcut to riches, frequently both depending on how cautiously you approach it, and the vaguely steampunk environments of the underworld are always wonderfully curious places to explore and beautifully rendered by the game's painterly and detailed 2D graphics (they remind me a lot of Broken Age, especially with how "paper doll" the character movements are). It is a game that asks a lot of the player, ultimately, and I don't know for sure if my intrigue about the game and where it's going will necessarily win out over my increasing apathy with each progress-scrubbing game over or tedious cycle of maintenance work. Still, I can appreciate any survival game that uses those mechanics sparingly in the service of more compelling story- and RPG-based goals, rather than the be-all and end-all of the entire game's progression.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Bucketlog December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE (Wii U)

December

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Well, we made it to the end of the year and I'm happy (?) to say that I've yet to kick the proverbial bucket after which this feature is named, so we might see more long-awaited (by me at least) playthroughs in the years to come. The last entry for 2019 is also where I finally say goodbye to a much-maligned console - the Nintendo Wii U - as this was the last system exclusive I was interested in. I still some affection for its Fisher Price tablet and teal game boxes, but it did have a relatively weak showing in terms of a library, which is really the worst quality a console can have. It doesn't help that almost all its best games have since emigrated to the Switch (a superior platform in more than just technological metrics) with this month's entry, Atlus's odd hybrid between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem set in the entirely-separate-from-both universe of the Japanese entertainment industry, soon joining them with its Encore remaster. Still, that remaster's not out yet (as of writing), and that gives me an opportunity to take the original out of mothballs and give it a spin just a little bit of ahead of its rediscovery by the gaming world zeitgeist.

Talking of ghosts with Germanic names, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is about a successful a merging of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei as you're likely to find. Well, if you don't include games like Devil Survivor with its SRPG grids; TMS is wholly a turn-based RPG closer to the classic SMT games (and Persona in particular) that largely only uses Fire Emblem iconography and characters as supernatural flourishes. It helps that, despite their different genre structures, the two games already share a lot in common, most particularly a heavy emphasis on elemental types: a Fire Emblem campaign lives and dies (literally, with permadeath) on the player's understanding of type dominance (keep Pegasus Knights away from Archers, for instance), while every SMT game has you exploiting the elemental weaknesses of enemies while covering your own. Most of TMS's best mechanics, however, are entirely unique to the game: they weren't so much inspired by SMT/Persona or Fire Emblem at all, but part of its own identity. Most overt of which is the story: set in various famous parts of Tokyo, Shibuya most prominently, the entire cast are rising stars of the entertainment industry - singers, models, actors, TV show presenters, and idols which are a combination thereof - brought together by their Persona-like ability to see another world full of hostile "Mirages": creatures from another universe capable of draining a human's creative energy for their sustenance. It's a familiar framework to Persona fans; you're often having to save someone with the potential to become a Mirage Master, as they're called, who then subsequently joins the team and becomes your next playable character. However, this particular setting and the value of "Performa" - the name of this aforementioned creative energy, and a cute little localization joke - means there's a few more avenues that have opened up for the game's mechanics to explore.

Sessions are the best. See below for why. Also Ellie is Franziska von Karma with a bow and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.
Sessions are the best. See below for why. Also Ellie is Franziska von Karma with a bow and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.

All right, so here I go gushing over smart JRPG mechanics. I honestly live for this shit though, so this is where my creative energies are going. First, Performa can crystallize into various forms based on a person's determination, and can be found after the death of an enemy Mirage or borne from the protagonists directly. These two Performa types, respectively, are then used to create new weapons and "Radiant" skills: the latter of these are passive boosts that might be as quotidian as a fixed percentage HP boost or as game-changing as the ability to use "sessions" from outside the active party. Sessions, perhaps the game's best invention, are how the game exploits weaknesses; instead of having an enemy knocked down and the active PC gain another turn like in regular SMT, a weakness will cause every other PC to get a free attack on the same enemy, provided they have a compatible session skill. So for example if Itsuki's best bud Touma has a "sword-to-spear" session skill, that means if Itsuki's sword skill hits an enemy weak to swords it will prompt Touma to follow it up with a spear attack, which then might trigger others following that. My characters are at the point now where a six-person session is possible, and I have the skill that allows a session chain to bounce from enemy to enemy if they should die in the process, so they're very powerful. Better yet, as session chains increase, so too do the rewards: you get way more Performa and consumable drops by using this feature to its fullest. Third, and this isn't unique to this game but is a progression mechanic I always like to see, is the Skill Inheritance system: by wielding weapons with attached skills often enough, you eventually acquire those skills permanently even after you've changed equipment - this is combined with SMT/Persona's stringent limits on acquired skills, meaning you have to carefully consider which skills to keep and which to discard based on your party's composition - making Itsuki a back-up healer is wise, but you'd also be forgiven for making him a pure damage-dealer. (Also, if you acquire the same skill twice, it powers it up which is rad.) Finally, one of the few Fire Emblem mechanics to carry over is a class change system: every class has two superior classes they can progress up to, though you need a rare and valuable resource to enact the switch. These new classes have access to unique weapons and skills, as well as higher stats in general, so they're instrumental for the late-game.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions can be alternatively too easy and too difficult with all these character building mechanics. Too easy because most encounters can be defeated with one or two sessions-heavy skills, but too tough because of the Savage Enemies. The bane of Etrian Odyssey players, Savage Enemy encounters can occur randomly and invariably drop you into a fight with enemies several levels ahead of you. This applies to going back to early dungeons full of weak enemies: a Savage Enemy will always kick your ass unless you go all out offensive early enough to clear some of their number, or turtle up with Rakukaja/Tarunda type skills. If your party is iced by one of these encounters, that's it; you're back to whenever you last remembered to save. Fortunately, the game isn't picky about save points: you can save whenever you want, besides battles and cutscenes. You can also bounce from dungeons whenever you want - there's no calendar system that causes time to move forward after leaving a dungeon like there is in Persona - and restoring the party and getting some crafting business done with the synthesis vendor (who is also a vocaloid, because Japan) before hopping back in is a cinch. Warp points in dungeons make it easy to continue where you left off, though I usually try to tough it out until I've activated a new one to minimize backtracking. It's a very accommodating game, all told, and that's something I always appreciate in JRPGs that are already asking for a major time investment; a fifty-hour long campaign is fine if it doesn't also involve an additional ten hours repeating large swathes of a dungeon because of a tactical miscalculation or two.

So the deal with this TV dungeon is that these ten monitors represent ten rooms in the large maze-like area through a door that Itsuki's buttsuki is obscuring. That
So the deal with this TV dungeon is that these ten monitors represent ten rooms in the large maze-like area through a door that Itsuki's buttsuki is obscuring. That "Episode 1" on monitor two is where I'm supposed to head next, but the "sponsored by Treasure Stash" on monitor one leads to a secret area full of loot.

Another point in the game's favor is how much it commits to its pop star aesthetic. Dungeons have specific themes that determine not only their look but the puzzle "gimmick" of that dungeon: an early case involves chasing after a possessed photographer that uses his camera to literally capture models, and the dungeon's walls are plastered with glamor shots of those he has taken. (On revisits, after you've saved the models, these photos have all been replaced with landscapes, which is a nice touch.) Likewise, the dungeon is littered with cameras that you send you back to the last checkpoint if you cross their line of sight: the goal is to weave between them, or pick alternative routes if the way forward passes directly beneath their watchful eyes. The dungeons are designed like those in Persona 5 (or maybe it'd be more accurate to say Persona 5's dungeons are based on TMS's, given the order the games came out) in that the geography is fixed and so are the enemy encounters for the most part; if you're coming back to look for a certain enemy's drops, it's not hard to zero in on where they're most commonly found.

I'm not kidding when I say TMS is probably the MegaTen-adjacent game I've enjoyed the most in terms of pure mechanics. However, the plot and characters are a little more rote and beholden to standard anime conventions than the more nuanced story beats and personalities of the Persona games, though the localization does its best to rise the clichéd material up, and the less said about the dry, milquetoast protagonist and the harem of beautiful starlets who inevitably find themselves in his orbit the better. The game lacks any social links and romance options which further distances the player from this cast, though you still have three "side-stories" which each major character through which to get to know them better. The story might still appeal to those way into the "A Star is Born" narrative with all its concomitant tropes, maybe via the likes of Idolm@ster or Love Live!, but despite a few highlights I didn't really find myself as attached to this group as I was with, say, the Inaba Investigation Team or the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. It does mean we get a few animated musical numbers though, and they're generally well done - and even factor into the combat in some clever ways (i.e. an "ad-lib" performance, which infrequently replaces a normal skill with a much more powerful variant, is accompanied by a small sample of the active character's singing/acting ability).

Stop me if you've heard this one: the moody emo singer has a soft spot for cute things and she hates it. Also, poor Touma?
Stop me if you've heard this one: the moody emo singer has a soft spot for cute things and she hates it. Also, poor Touma?

On the whole I think Tokyo Mirage Sessions is spectacular, and it's not so much the showbiz flashiness which draws my attention than it is all the intelligent features and systems under the hood. An SMT game isn't shy when it comes to elaborate character building and tough combat that draws on all the player's resourcefulness, and while the Fire Emblem contribution is somewhat muted by comparison - the player's allied Mirages are modeled on famous Fire Emblem characters, and the aforementioned class change system - there's enough small references and allusions to Intelligent Systems's massive SRPG franchise to appease its fanbase. I'm presently partway through Chapter 4, which I think is just past the midway point of the game, and it's still introducing new characters and systems. I've only just accessed the class change system, for instance, and now I can strengthen older weapons by essentially recrafting them if I wanted to spend the time farming the resources to do so. It'll keep me busy for a week or two more at least, I suspect.

That's going to do it for the 2019 Bucketlog, and for this year's blogging content from yours truly. My thanks as always for anyone who spent moments of precious gaming and/or Giant Bomb video watching time perusing my stream of consciousness ramblings, and I hope to produce many more insights in 2020. (You know, "2020," "in-sight," perfect vision, etc.? Yeah, get to used to seeing that wordplay for a while.)

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Indie Game of the Week 150: GNOG

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While we're still just about in the festive season, I figured I'd pick something Christmassy and what's more Christmas than (EG)GNOG? This diorama style point-and-click belongs to a certain subgenre evolved from the Windows 3.1/95 salad says of interactive screensavers and experimentation-based clickery. There are a number of Indie games doing this, and I think the intended age is probably several decades lower than my own, but I can't help but to be impressed with the level of intricacy involved with their design and the childlike glee of sliding levers across and pressing buttons to see what happens. It's the type of toy meant to keep a toddler amused for hours, sure, but there's also something universally appealing about feeling your way around a small puzzle box containing an unknown number of surprises.

So, with GNOG the idea is that you have a series of these interactive boxes all based around specific themes (space, frogs, deep sea diving, candy stores, apartment buildings), with a robotic face on one side and a backplate that - when removed - has a little scene inside including people and furniture. The goal of each box - there's nine total - is to figure out how to "activate" it, which usually involves solving all its puzzles and hitting a nose-like button on the front, at which point the box sings to you and does a little dance and you're brought back to the hub area with more boxes unlocked to check out. Each box won't take you more than ten to fifteen minutes total, in part because the puzzles are simple and in part because there's never a whole lot to interact with thus making it hard to get too lost, so it's not a lengthy game by any stretch. The controls boil down to simply the two main mouse buttons: left to activate whatever the cursor's pointing at (with maybe some dragging motions, which - like The Room series - works better with a touch control equivalent for Switch or iOS), and the right button to flip the box over from front to back (there's no elaborate camera controls to look at the box from every angle like there would be in, say, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes).

One of my favorite puzzles was directing this stream of birdbarf to hatchlings to grow them up. The cutesy aesthetic had to do a lot of heavy lifting to make all this avian emesis look endearing.
One of my favorite puzzles was directing this stream of birdbarf to hatchlings to grow them up. The cutesy aesthetic had to do a lot of heavy lifting to make all this avian emesis look endearing.

As a kid of the early '90s who grew up with Mighty Max - the adventuresome "tough kids for boys" equivalent to the domestic Polly Pocket - this type of set-up already punches me square in the nostalgia plexus, but of course this being a video game there's a lot more the developers can do to on the periphery to make this little diorama feel even more alive: the NPCs move and emote, there's stuff moving around in the background, there's solid feedback for buttons and sliders with how things light up or make noises, many stages have mild musical components and the game has a "reactive" soundtrack of the sort that adds instrument tracks based on which elements of the level are presently "active," and several other sensory connections between the player and these boxes. The whole game's also couched in this cute, colorful, but simple aesthetic I lack the visual design savvy to accurately describe. Maybe like an animated Sesame Street skit if it was commissioned by IKEA? It definitely feels like something you'd use to introduce your kid to adventure games, and to mouse or touch controls specifically.

It's an appealing package and I liked some of the puzzles, but writing this review does feel like being in 7th grade and doing a book report on Clifford the Big Red Dog. It feels like a game that wasn't intended for me, and so writing subjectively about it as a gaming experience with the same amount of scrutiny as something way more complex like Subnautica or Return of the Obra Dinn (both released on Steam around the same time as GNOG) feels both incongruous and unnecessary. If you're a kid or an adult who likes toys, GNOG is some simple charming fun to wile away a couple of hours but not a whole lot more than that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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