The 2019 Sparky Game Festivus Extravaganza

Hello, and welcome to the Sparky Buzzsaw Blog of Yearly Bullshittery.

It's pretty typical at the start of these things for everyone, myself included, to say, "Ugh, that sure was a year, huh? Well, video games." We don't like to get into the specifics of why the year sucked. We don't want that kind of confrontation. Well, motherfuckers, dig out that tin of popcorn you got for Christmas. Because if you're one of those people out there bending the world over a barrel, I'm not about to go out like some punk without giving you a pair of middle fingers.

2019 sucked.

No, that's not big enough. Let me try again.

2019 sucked shit out of a tin shit can with a shit straw.

Yeah. Yeah, I like that better. Let's print it, boys and girls.

Listen. We are now fully immersed into a slimy reality Jacuzzi full of fear, intolerance, and ignorance. On every possible side, be it political, religious, philosphical, or moral, we aren't just shouting at the other side. We're warming up the barbeque next to that Jacuzzi and preparing to roast the flesh of those who disagree with us. And that isn't just the people on the opposite side of whatever made-up aisle we believe we're on, because social media or a news corporation tells us we are. We're going after our friends, our allies, anyone who doesn't slide easily into the same beliefs and values that we hold.

We can't live like that. We aren't living like that.

We are consumed now by anger, by apathy, by fear that if we speak out we're just going to be shouted down by an amorphous, constantly shifting "them." All this fire, all this shouting, all this anger is creating wild pendulum swings driven by fearmongers and sycophants who will say or do anything to feed upon the prejudices of their audience or their followers. We are now living in a world where paranoia has begun to build a hateful symbol of oppression and greed in the wall between the United States and Mexico. It has allowed for the entrenchment of values that will lead to one of the most ill-planned, ill-reasoned political and economic shifts in Brexit. It has led to the left, right, and center all feeling hopeless and enraged, two of the most dangerous feelings to have. It has led to fervent racism disguised as patriotism. It has led to idealists chopping off their fingers for the supposed sake of the hand. All this, and more.

And another election cycle is at our U.S. doorsteps. 2020 does not look to be a pleasant year.

But as individuals, we can try.

We can try to engage in discourse, not shouting. We can try to educate ourselves. We can try to work through the emotions that have derailed the world for the last four years. We can lead by example. We can open our doors, welcome neighbors, give not just money, but our time and hearts to those who need. We can try to raise all ships, not just our own leaky vessels. Is it going to suck? Yeah. Extremes are always going to be extremes. There will be no changing some people. But you also cannot stop a fire by feeding it logs and gasoline. Well... unless you're getting out in front and doing a prescribed burn, but that just completely wrecks the metaphor. Look, you get the point. The answer to everything cannot be us lashing out, or shouting at someone. Put simply, quit feeding the trolls, and they'll eventually starve.

Just... aim to be better. That's all. That's what I want to try to do in 2020.

Anyways. You're not here for a morality lesson. You're here to discuss the travesty and censorship of Tifa's boobs in 2020. You're here to listen to me talk a good game about hot sauce. You're here for mothafuckin' video games. So let's have some of that, huh? DJ! Play me some goddamn 2019 bangers!

EDIT - Uh... I seem to have broken the blog by inserting videos, so pretend I've got some great music going on in the background. Wheels on the bus go round and round! Round and round!

Buzzsaw is ready... to discuss his game of the year.

It's Assassin's Creed: Odyssey.

"But Sparky," you say with a sneer, puffing on your pipe and flicking a bit of lint off your shoulder, "that's not a game from 2019."

Well... duh, Mr. Snootypants. I very rarely play enough games from a current year to fill out these lists, so I generally make it fair game to include games from previous years. After all, they're not any worse for being older, and hey, it might inspire someone to go back and play something.

Odyssey consumed my free time for nearly a month and a half. Sure, I played a few little things in that time, but by and large, I was stuck in Kassandra's universe, stabbing the everloving poo out of some equally stabby mercenaries and cult leaders. This is a huge game, and while saying it's full of stuff to see and do would be a lie - a great big portion of the land feels empty and unnecessary - it's full of enough to have kept me happily occupied for the largest chunk of this year. I love the new RPG mechanics, equipment, and the combat systems. This refresh of the series has made me extraordinarily happy, and I've been thinking about revisiting it since I played it, a bit of a rare feeling from AAA games for me these days.

But what about my favorite game from this year?

Life is Strange 2 came awfully damn close to being my GOTY this year. I'm a huge fan of the previous Life is Strange games, and will regularly feature them on my top games not just from this generation, but of all time. Life is Strange 2 doesn't quite hit their highs, but it's still a phenomenal story-driven adventure game. And with its theme of brotherhood, survival, and enduring racism, it’s both poignant and timely.

If you're the sort who maybe lays in bed with a bottle of Jurgens thinking about the border wall while humming America the Beautiful, this might not be the game for you. It deals with racists in several chapters, and it's never coy about the horrors of these cankerous butthole blisters. The Diaz brothers' escape to Mexico is filled with tense, ugly moments reflecting on our current political clime, and those are among the game's best scenes, aside from the touching personal one-on-one conversations between the Diaz brothers and a couple other individuals.

The game does have some serious faults. The entire third episode is a huge misfire, and the game as a whole often sacrifices its best relationships in favor of telling much broader stories. Life is Strange has always been at its best when it boils down to personal moments. Life is Strange 2 has a few of these scenes, and they're generally excellent. But it often tries to ensconce its characters in scenarios that they frankly don't need. It could have been a brilliant story of two sons of an immigrant runaways on the run trying to look out for each other and the dangers that entails, and instead devolves frequently into cartoonish moments painting redundant pictures of a sickened America.

It's also unfortunately not helped by a lead actor deadset on one whiny voice for the whole of the game. Considering the voice acting of the leads in the previous games was one of its best draws due to its breathless overeagerness and hamminess, this misses the mark by a mile.

All that said, it's still a remarkably good game, and head and shoulders above most of what else is out there, save for its own predecessors. It's a must for fans of the series and anyone looking for a better-than-average story in games.

The return of the hot sauce of the year award because no one asked for it

I'm a gentleman of refined taste, and by "refined taste," I mean I like everything I eat to taste like fire and death. But this year's favored hot sauce isn't actually a super hot one - it's Cholula's Sweet Habanero. I've only just started trying it over the last month or so, and I'm a big fan. Sweeter hot sauces can be kind of hit or miss, especially if they don't blend with the hotter elements well, but this is a nice blend of both, and tastes great on chicken and pork in particular.

The tablet game of the year

Believe the hype on Grindstone. It's the most addictive puzzler I've played for a long time, and it's made with such a general high quality that it's hard not to fall in love. That it doesn't have any microtransactions is a bonus. You're basically chaining like-colored pieces on a grid to kill enough mobs to open a door. It's a simple format made slowly more complex by introducing gameplay elements at a drip, giving the player plenty of levels to work through. It does have some technical issues - the game frequently crashed on me when I left the game's hub bar where you buy health and new skills. But that's a very minor quibble, and the game is damn near perfect otherwise.

Big shout-out to Neo Cab too, which puts a fun twist on the "fighting future corporate overlords" trope by telling a simple story of a woman trying to make ends meet in a world set on leaving her behind... or so it seems. It's a neat game, and I like the emotion meter in theory, even if it sometimes feels a bit like babysitting. It's a game I definitely want to revisit and finish at some point. I love a game based around conversations, and that's almost entirely what this is.

The "I watched very little relevant to 2019" award

I find myself watching less and less TV and movies these days, but I did get a chance to watch the first season of Daybreak and didn't hate it. It's a show I sometimes have conflicting feelings about, often all within the space of just a few minutes. It intersperses moments of great fun and smart writing - the RZA-narrated episode is a highlight - with really dumb moment to moment choices. For example, it does that winking thing where it says, "Oh gee, don't you just hate it when a story ends on a cliffhanger?" and then ends on a cliffhanger. Listen, creators, being self-aware doesn't excuse you from making shitty plot decisions.

That said, it's generally a blast. I love that it's so willing to play with its own premise in order to tell a better story, and generally completely ignores logistical problems of a post-apocalyptic world in favor of its goofy characters and premises. I am looking forward to seeing more of this world.

2019's biggest disappointment that will somehow still wind up being in my GOTY list

Boy. Borderlands 3. I'm not sure where to begin with this one. Randy Pitchford seemed determined the entire year to down bottle after bottle of prune juice and just keep shitting down his pants legs, but with the announcement of Borderlands 3, I still hoped this game could be the sequel I wanted to one of my favorite games of all time.

It came out. I played it. And I deleted it.

That's kind of a big deal to me. I must have put over 200 hours into various versions of BL2. Borderlands 3, with its fantasatic gameplay and plethora of guns, should have been a lock for me to play well into 2020, at least. But at every turn, Gearbox seemed intent on wasting every bit of creative ingenuity that Tales from the Borderlands set up. Entire characters have just disappeared from the game's lore. The ending of Tales has vanished (though the death of a character is still canon, a choice I didn't think they'd actually go with). Someone at Gearbox sure seems intent on making sure Handsome Jack's name is in everything Borderlands from here until eternity. One of the best characters in the series, Rhys, has become a joke whose big plotline is that he's... obsessed with his mustache. No joke.

I'm not going to get into specific spoiler territory, but the game follows the beats of 2 almost slavishly, a decision no doubt made after the failure of Battleborn. There's a wild lack of creativity, of heart, and it makes playing the game actively dull. Ice-T's character is the sole standout in a sea of blandness, and the new teenage character is unforgivably awful and cliched in every possible way.

Bad decisions now also extend to the UI, which is so tiny it's impossible for me to read. The new guns and skill trees are okay, but Gearbox has already gotten out there and said they don't plan on DLC characters, which means Fiona and Sasha's absence isn't going to be remedied, a decision that fucking sucks, as they were among my top choices of characters of this generation. There was a lot of anger over the voice actor situation, but honestly from a fan perspective, I didn't mind the new voice actors.

Borderlands 3 doesn't suck. If it did, it would be easy to write off. But as it stands, the best-in-class gameplay is mired in such yawn-inducing shit that it's hard to recommend. As it stands, it's my firm chocie for my most disappointing game of the year.

Best surprise of the year

Horace is one hell of an unassuming game. On the surface, this appears to be another hellish platformer with the tried and true "spin a room upside down" mechanic. And really, that is what the gameplay entails, so if that turns you off, you might want to avoid it. But stick with me here, because Horace is also a terrific story of a robot and his beloved human family, full of loving references, clever jokes, and bizarre plot shifts I absolutely love. This would have been a top game of the generation if it was a simple, pure adventure game. I'm almost certain of that. The gameplay isn't terrible by any means, just overly difficult at launch (but has since been patched to be easier). And that difficulty gated the best part of the game - the vibrant story.

Give Horace a go. Please. It deserves more love and praise, and I promise you, there's a beating heart here unlike anything else that came out this year.

Best book I read this year

Alma Katsu's The Hunger takes the Donner Party expedition and turns it into a supernatural tale of horror I wasn't expecting to affect me as much as it did. It's also a pleasant head-hopper of a horror novel, something I've been itching for. There's a fine grit hidden underneath the unassuming early conversations between the party members, and waiting for the powder keg to eventually go off is just as much fun as the horror elements. Give it a read if you like horror or alternate history blended with genre fiction.

And that's going to do it for me!

Thanks for reading. Hope your 2020 is full of peace and prosperity. Don't let the world beat you down. Find a bit of happiness day to day. Have as many pina coladas as you can. High fives, cool person.

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