By Mento 1 Comments
When it comes to game releases every year has its big headliners and hidden gems, but none were more packed than 2017. As my backlog-related project for this year I'm looking to build a list of a hundred great games that debuted at some point in 2017, making sure to hit all the important stops along the way. For more information and statistics on this project, be sure to check out this Intro blog.
Despite being the shortest month, I made a decent amount of progress in February with five new games to add to the current 2017 rankings. I guess I can chalk this up to a certain degree of enthusiasm for this project while it's still in its salad days that I'm sure will wane in the later months as I consider an ever-dwindling supply of leftovers to boot up. For now, I'm optimistic about how it's going: one of the games below was on the shortlist of must-plays that I drew up after some research, and I've since picked up another one that I'll no doubt be slotting into some future update. This eventual Top 100 is going to look pretty definitive by the time we get to December.
Anyway, enough prognosticating about a year that may yet herald the end of all things - we've got some 2017 games to review.
I still remember the hoopla around Ninja Theory bringing the "mid-tier" back. Development budget, that is, not mid-tier quality. Senua's Sacrifice definitely feels like a callback to some of those ambitiously small (if that's not an oxymoron) games like, I dunno, ICO for PlayStation 2. Games that are packed with top-grade visual and audio excellence that clearly had some conscious artistic choices that it had to make, but gameplay-wise were fairly straightforward, linear, and short in comparison to the sort of bombastic big-budget RPGs and open-world games happening elsewhere. That isn't to say that Hellblade doesn't have nuances - the combat was more involved than I initially gave it credit for - just that for the most part it takes a backseat to the game's narrative and atmosphere.
The other notable goal of Senua's Sacrifice, besides the whole "resurrecting the mid-tier" (Mid-size? Mid-budget?) conceit, is its representation of those with neuroatypical conditions and how such an ailment can be conveyed to the player effectively within a game's toolset while still being accurate and respectful to real-life sufferers of mental disorders. The protagonist, the Celtic warrior Senua, has some sort of psychosis that causes her to hallucinate both visually and aurally: the former is treated as a shamanistic gift of "seeing" that is invoked by many of the game's environmental puzzles, which typically has the player identify rune shapes in their surroundings, while the latter is represented by a ubiquitous Greek chorus of disembodied voices that will often browbeat and disorient Senua but can on occasion offer helpful advice. At certain intervals during the game, especially when stressed, Senua becomes unable to proceed until she's calmed herself down and has regained enough clarity to move on. It can be a harrowing time, deliberately so, when coupled with Senua's grief over her dead lover - the story of the game has her enter the Viking underworld to ask the goddess Hel to return his soul - and flashbacks of her traumatic upbringing at the hands of her overbearing, religious father.
The actual gameplay is roughly split between Senua's investigations of each new area, which involves the visual rune puzzles I mentioned above that will occasionally take on variants (one involves finding the rune and rushing back to the right door before you burn to death in hallucinogenic flames), and regular combat encounters with Hel's draugr minions. Combat is a simple enough dance of light, heavy, and "melee" (punching) attacks, each designed with certain combos and opponents in mind. A dude with a shield, for instance, needs a melee attack to knock that shield away before you can get in a quick sword combo of light and heavy attacks. After a certain point in the story, the player learns to use Senua's focus - her way of calming down her mind - to trigger a brief state where enemies are slowed down or, in some cases, become vulnerable to attack. This focus needs to be recharged between uses with combos and evasive steps, and is one of the few elements to be represented in the game's mostly HUD-less player interface via a little brass mirror that Senua carries on her hip. New enemy types appear further into the game and there's a smattering of boss fights, each with their own gimmicks. The combat is varied and compelling enough but most of the fights tend to be these drawn-out affairs where you're fighting several waves of enemies one after the other before you're mercifully allowed to get back to enjoying the atmosphere.
I particularly enjoyed the game's world-building, most of which is done incidentally by a collection of stone monuments that depict stories of ancient Norse mythology such as the pre-meditated murder of the Aesir Baldur, the travails of the great human warrior Sigmund, or the particulars of Ragnarok. I'd only just played the 2018 God of War game fairly recently so most of these tales were still fresh in the mind, but the dramatic VO delivery made them worth seeking out. The setting looked spectacular, even if most of the locales were burned-out ruins and dark caves and beaches lined with the rotting hulls of Norse longships, and Senua's bouts of psychosis were played with a certain amount of apposite intensity due to the way the camera would frequently fill the screen with Senua's tortured face (provided by Melina Juergens, a video editor who acted as a stand-in for the motion capture tech until the developers realized she was perfect for the role - she ended up winning a BAFTA for her performance). For as much as I appreciate the level of consideration that went into the game's combat mechanics, I'd have to say my favorite part of the game is the long stretch in the middle where you're bereft of blade and don't have to fight anything until you eventually recover the famed sword Gramr (which I then re-dubbed "Killsy Gramr"). Foes tended to drop a lot faster with that blade - which, naturally, meant the game threw that many more waves at you per encounter.
Though I was a little enervated by the constant battles by the end of the game there's no doubt that Hellblade is something very special - more than its The Simpsons parody of a name might suggest - and I think turning a game about chopping Viking zombies apart into a sensitive portrayal of a wounded warrior's mental health issues gave the game an edge and a raison d'être that it perhaps needed to justify its high-budget/short-length approach. After all, I imagine it'd be difficult to pitch a game like this with an expensive presentation and semi-elaborate combat engine saddled with such a brief run-time - however, when you set out with a purpose like Hellblade's, it's easier to sell it as a compact, intimate story rather than some vast open-world affair or an online game or "game as a service." You can't exactly tell a personal story about a troubled young woman going through hell and back (both literally and figuratively) for her lost love only to turn around and give her unlockable Devil May Cry skins or a giant foam hand as a weapon. Well, maybe this industry could.
I've noticed a phenomenon in the past where Indie games might distill the essence of a bigger budget game by only focusing on one or two aspects, intelligently getting around the issue of not being able to compete blow-for-blow by emphasizing only on what they feel is most integral to the player experience, and this seems to occur most commonly with games taking on The Legend of Zelda. Ittle Dew, for example, focused mostly on solving tricky dungeon puzzles, while Oceanhorn felt like a downgraded (in scope, if not quality) The Wind Waker. AER: Memories of Old gave me instant flashbacks of flying around the high-altitude areas of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on my trusty gullwing, set as it is in a world of floating islands where life is barely clinging on.
It's evident from how good it feels that the developers concentrated on getting the overworld traversal right first and foremost: the protagonist is a changeling who can switch between human and bird forms with a button press, allowing her to jump off any cliff, seamlessly transform, and flap and glide her way to the next destination. This traversal aspect, which in most games would simply be the means of getting from one point of interest to the next, is easily the highlight of AER and something I could see a larger and more ambitious game incorporating as-is, no modifications necessary. Conversely, those points of interest are a little more jejune: the game has three dungeons which only require a few environmental puzzles to complete, and you'll need to solve a few more on the overworld to acquire the keys to get into them (recall Link's Awakening, where obtaining dungeon keys was half the struggle), but beyond that the world is mostly empty but for a few stone tablets and chatty animal gods, both of which provide exposition and lore. If you're a fan of incidental world-building, AER's has a fairly intriguing backstory about a massive ideological war that caused the world to break up into its current aerial form and how it's been in slow decline ever since despite the efforts of a nigh-messianic figure in trying to heal the environmental rift the war created, but if you aren't much for reading there's not a whole lot of reason to go out of your way beyond the story-critical dungeon islands - the only other things out there are miscellaneous sites of curiosity that reward achievements/trophies upon their discovery, not unlike the discoveries of Skies of Arcadia (which I'm sure was another influence). Like the overworld, the dungeons first seem vast and filled with interesting sights, but there's only ever a few levers and buttons to press to get to their centers where you receive the traditional piece of McGuffin and can move onto the next.
Circling back around to the lede, it's evident some Indie games try to present a full package but by necessity have to skimp on every aspect, providing what often feels like a microcosm of a full-budget game. Others, like AER, are ambitious enough to have aspects that easily stack up to the most expensive games on the market - I actually can't think of an open-world game that has a traversal system as effective for getting around in a hurry, without just fast-travelling from the map - while de-emphasizing almost everything else to the point of barely being present. There's enough game in AER, don't get me wrong, but it's odd that a game with such a large map could probably take you less than two hours to complete (and that's including the time to smell the roses). Almost has the vibe of a tech demo, even, or a game that perhaps wants you to take a moment to absorb the atmosphere, take in the incidental storytelling and worldbuilding, and just vibe than to always follow the quickest route from point A to B. I have to commend it for that traversal and for its beautiful cel-shaded graphics and ambient music which serve its fantastical setting and serene tone well, though I can't help but be left wanting a little more.
I was (and am, I suppose) a big fan of Humble Hearts's Dust: An Elysian Tail, not just for the laudable level of scope for a one-man project, but in how it took on the emerging Indie explormer tide and chose to make something novel with the concept with a more focused and combo-heavy combat system. Innovation in and of itself is a valuable commodity in the game industry - I shudder to think how much Warner Bros. paid to hang onto the patent for the (possibly literal) million dollar idea that is the Nemesis System - but is served best when the creator has the capability to construct the perfect vessel for it. A combination of creativity and competency is the heart of effective game design, humble or otherwise. This is perhaps why Never Stop Sneakin', the studio's follow up project, is something of a disappointment.
Don't get me wrong, there's many aspects of this game that are great. It's a pitch-perfect parody of the original Metal Gear Solid, not just in its over-serious delivery of very not-serious themes but right down to the early PS1-era polygonal graphics. Sneaking into the enemy's base to thwart their plan of using a time machine to kidnap every president by gaining enough insight into their operation to build your own time machine is inspired insanity that wouldn't go amiss in the MGS universe. More commendable than the presentation, though, is the game's ingenious approach to the stealth mechanics of that age: the game manages to streamline the process of keeping out of vision cones and choking out guards while their backs are turned, and even taking out cameras and turrets with EMP devices, to just the D-pad. Everything but the protagonist's movement is automated: guards are instantly taken out upon touching distance with the protagonist's katana; if a guard spots you, you automatically shoot them if you have any bullets to do so; turrets are destroyed via melee or by EMP at a distance if they spot you; and computers and cabinets are hacked/investigated just by standing near them for a few seconds. It's a supremely elegant system that fosters a speedier gameplay loop, given how little you have to stop and think about nuances with such a minimal control scheme. This expedient simplicity then dovetails nicely with the game's scoring system: you earn more ESP (espionage, a currency used to develop your home base) by maintaining higher combo chains, and while getting further into the base does increase the enemy patrols in both number and intensity you'll also unlock all sorts of perks to make the process of sticking to the shadows that much easier.
The big downside is that the game is a roguelite, and not a particularly varied one. Each mission essentially has you infiltrate the same floors (eventually fifteen) over and over, with one of just five different boss fights at the end of each three-floor block. Needless to say, you've seen almost everything the game has to offer after about an hour, but a full playthrough takes closer to fifteen and requires dozens of these near-identical runs. The only major changes the game ever reveals is extending the size of these loops, unlocking more perks (I wish they'd all been unlocked from the beginning, frankly, since the first few aren't all that exciting), and acquiring some cosmetics for your sneakin' expert and the weapon (a CQC-esque dual-wield gun and sword combo) you take into battle. The base building is entirely perfunctory: each structure takes a certain amount of ESP to build, and occasionally needs you to rescue an NPC or acquire a special object on the next run. These high value targets are really just a way for the game to pad out its time even longer, since you'll often have enough ESP for three or four more buildings at any given moment.
Never Stop Sneakin' is a case where the innovation was front and present - we haven't fully entered the phase of Indie PS1 low-poly pastiches, barring a few RE-inspired horror games here and there, and that streamlined stealth system really is brilliant - but the overall game design wasn't sufficiently up to snuff to accommodate it. Though I realize a roguelite swept all the game awards last year, I'm of the mindset that we really don't need any more games created in the run-based procgen style, for as cheap as that can sometimes make level design for the more cash-strapped Indie studios out there. It also feels like a game fundamentally at odds with itself - taking on the last few floors with all those upgrades can be a great deal of fun, but working your way up the fiftieth iteration of those early floors definitely is not - so I'm not sure what could've been done different either. Half of a great idea, I suppose.
I don't know if playing Simulacra (IGotW #113) made me paranoid for horror hijinks afoot whenever an adventure game invokes a mobile phone interface or what, but I was feeling some small amount of dread booting up A Normal Lost Phone. Like I'd have to figure out where the owner's kidnappers had taken the phone's original owner, or lie to their loved ones to maintain a charade of vitality while I rooted around their private correspondence for clues to their grisly fate. Turns out this game pulled something on a Gone Home on me.
A Normal Lost Phone is a short (like, 90 minutes long) narrative adventure game framed entirely within the smartphone of a person called Sam: a phone which you have just discovered abandoned on a public street late at night. You initially learn a number of things about Sam by checking their recent messages (and already I'm feeling kinda bad about that, though this is a fictional person): they're a student at a local music school, today is their eighteenth birthday, they recently broke up with a long-term girlfriend and it didn't go well, and it's possible they're in some kind of trouble or have chosen to run away from home for reasons as yet unknown. To dig further into Sam's business, you need to intuit some passwords. The first is the local public wi-fi so you can log into Sam's email account. Beyond that there's a dating site they signed up to - twice, for reasons that eventually become clear - and a forum they frequent. I've probably broadcasted the "twist" loud and clear already with the language I've used, but just in case:
Sam is a trans woman, though has only realized this about herself in the past few months. Both her family and her ex appear to be very anti-LGBTQ+ from Sam's accounts, so she's in something of a bind concerning an opportune time to come out, and you learn that half her contact list knows her as a woman ("Samira") rather than a man ("[deadname redacted]") due to her surreptitious attempts to socialize with a different crowd in her new persona - something that isn't clear from the first read of her messages with them but makes more sense in retrospect, especially with some of the more cryptic interactions. The forum in question is a local LGBTQ+ coming out message board with a VIP section - another password to figure out - and from here you eventually learn what happened to Sam and what caused her to lose her phone. This is followed by a conveniently timed email from Sam to her confidante Alice, saying that she's left town and looking to start anew. To assuage Sam's fears that she forgot to lock her old phone before tossing it, Alice makes the point in her reply that whomever finds it will either wipe it immediately to resell it or will take the time to learn about Sam, will realize that discarding her phone was a deliberate step towards cutting ties with her old life, and will wipe it anyway out of kindness. Doing so summons the credits.
It's a subtle approach to telling stories with a particular focus on interpersonal drama, one that encourages you to voyeuristically dig into the particulars of someone's life if only to paint a clearer picture of what happened so you can do the right thing once you come out the other end of your little snoop-a-thon. I'm still a mite uncomfortable with the mobile phone format (though not with the story itself, which was a little rough in spots but ultimately optimistic) but I can appreciate how it's a filter to see the world - especially one's social universe - that many are intimately familiar with, and the generation below mine probably finds an adventure game structure like this far more approachable than an Infocom text parser or SCUMM's wall of verbs. I'll be interested to see where other developers take the concept, now that I've seen two very different stories delivered in this fashion.
Well, it's another HOPA. Unlike the Einstein-smooching adventures of the January HOPA Modern Tales: Age of Invention, there's nothing too distinctive about this one or its story by comparison. Even its puzzles tended to err on the easy side for this genre, though it did involve way too many games of Simon which sucks because my memory is hot garbage.
This one was also about Norse mythology, but then what game isn't these days? One curious parallel - or a case of both being equally accurate to the original source material, perhaps - is that both Endless Fables 2 and Hellblade depict a version of the goddess Hel that is exactly half corpse, split right down the middle. Most other sources just kinda make her look gaunt and pale, taking "half-dead" a little less literally, except I guess for Thor: Ragnarok (also released in 2017) in which she looked like a goth Cate Blanchett with badass antlers. No contest, really.
That's honestly about all there is to say about Endless Fables 2 but for one last observation: it had way too many games of Simon, which sucks because my memory is hot garbage.
With three more C-ranks I think the mid-table is filling out well. As the only B-rank, Hellblade's the best of this bunch and will probably end up in the late 30s or early 40s somewhere which, I have to stress this, is certainly nothing to sneeze at given what a strong year 2017 was. I'm also considering bumping Heat Signature up (it's currently #30) just because it tackles the roguelite-stealth genre in a more palatable way than Never Stop Sneakin' and I have newfound respect for how difficult that must've been to pull off.
I'm going to try to keep this momentum going through March, but I'm gonna have to tackle some of the longer items on the 2017 backlog eventually and that's going to drop the average per month just a skosh. Be sure to check back in this time next month for the next grab-bag of contenders.