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2019 Ranked

Thanks to the proliferation of affordable game subscription services like Apple Arcade and Game Pass, I ended up playing a much wider variety of games this year than I ever have before.

2019 was a phenomenal year for indies, but maybe a bit of a drag for AAAs. For me, though, it's always going to be remembered as the year I played Outer Wilds.

Still in progress, to be added later: Hitman 2 2019 Season, PikuNiku, Astrologaster, Eastshade

List items

  • Playing Super Mario 64 is one of my earliest memories. I grew up in a very small apartment in a business district, and being an only child, I rarely had the opportunity to interact with other kids until I was six or seven. My father bought me a Nintendo 64 for my birthday one year, and Mario along with it. Exploring that game’s castle, full of entire worlds hidden in paintings which were always shifting and re-contextualizing themselves, struck a chord with me. Sometimes, you’d find yourself expunging the depths in search of sunken treasure, or inside a literal clockwork world that changed depending on when you’d enter it, or being eaten alive by a piano with teeth. The possibilities seemed endless.

    More than the platforming and the characters, the sense that I could escape and explore somewhere exotic and beautiful – while I was huddled in my little room, alone – had meaning for me beyond even what the game could have hoped to convey. It’s the kind of formative experience you can only have once, before the reality of a piece of media can be made concrete to you; before you understand the marketing, product consumption, game development, office work, design theory, and authorial voices that make the game you're enjoying exist in the first place.

    And then Outer Wilds comes along, and I’m brought right back to where I started. Again, I’m outside myself, filled with optimism, completely in awe of what I’m about to find. Again, I’m approaching a new space that becomes more intricate and dense with character the more I explore it. Again, I’m terrified of a really big fish and need to go take a walk to calm down because the video game got too scary.

    Besides the aesthetic similarities between the two, Outer Wilds has somehow synthesized the imaginary language I had invented for Super Mario 64 into an optimistic statement on the beauty and inherent worth of life, discovery, and trying your best, even when it doesn’t seem worth it.

    Outer Wilds is a game about accruing real-world knowledge. As such, it can only truly be experienced once. There is a gorgeous finality to that, made all the more stunning by all the climactic revelations during the end game. It’s an experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

  • People misinterpret Disco Elysium. I've read so many articles describing Disco Elysium as so broadly nihilistic, so defeatist, that it fails to express an unironic opinion about the world and succumbs to a kind of doomer malaise. I don't think this is true, and I think this understanding of the game misses the point entirely. Disco Elysium is not a roadmap to a better world - Disco Elysium is an eloquent expression of what 'right now' feels like, a cathartic validation for those who advocate for something better in a society which guarantees bad outcomes even under the best of circumstances.

    If someone bonked the memories out of your head and sent you off to survive in the world as it is today, I guarantee you that you would feel like the main character of this game. Imagine it: you wake up out of a coma, saddled with debt (this is your introduction to the economic system: debt). The debt makes you imminently homeless. Every time you ask a question about the world ("why is there a lock on this dumpster? why does this kid have a drug problem? why are so many people languishing on the street?") people respond, annoyed, that it's *supposed* to be that way. Later that day, someone explains the concept of global warming to you, like Joyce Messier describes The Pale to Disco Elysium's protagonist. Bad news! You have become an Apocalypse Cop.

    Put more simply, Disco Elysium is a material analysis of how capitalist society works in the language of an isometric role playing game. It is an expression of a political understanding of the world in the language of interactive fiction. Disco Elysium's decrepit urban setting, Revachol, does not get designed the way it's designed without its developers possessing a Marxist framework for understanding capitalist society and a working knowledge of left-leaning revolutions throughout contemporary history. Ask a Marxist to describe San Francisco in the year 2022, and they'll gesture towards something like Revachol.

    Of course, it's not *just* a ~radical mirror held up to our shitty world~ or whatever. That would be pointless; that would be a cell phone camera pointed at the street while the videographer shakes their head in disappointment at a homeless encampment. No, it's what Disco Elysium uses its material analysis and its rich prose to *do* that makes it special. This game is not only a kind of 'here is what the world really look like' explainer, but it's also personality-tester - a *mean* personality tester maybe, but a good personality-tester. It asks its audience pointed questions which demand real introspection. Disco Elysium is constantly demanding the player to look inward, to reflect on their own rhetoric and aesthetics, and to interrogate that. Why are you Sorry Cop? You have already completed the action which demanded the apology - is that apology actually for the victim of your actions, or is it really just for you? Your self confidence has granted you the title of Superstar, and that has only enabled you to be a worse person because of your outsize power as a police officer. Maybe you're a literal communist, and you believe you can start a movement to make the world a better place - that's great, but having that thought in your head only makes the world more difficult to interface with, now that you know how difficult change is going to be to implement, especially with an anachronistic title like Communist Police Officer.

    Disco Elysium features a Thought Cabinet, in which certain ideas might spring to mind that you can internalize as a part of your personality, either to your betterment or your detriment. If you internalize Marxism as a core trait of your character, the game tells you that "0.000% of Communism has been built" and that possessing a fundamental understanding of Marxism makes you feel like Karl Marx "fucked you over personally with his socioeconomic theories" but that it also "makes you feel like a very, very smart boy with something like a university degree in Truth." I don't read that text and think to myself, wow, Disco Elysium is 'afraid of earnest expression.' I read that text and I laugh my ass off because *that is exactly what reading Karl Marx feels like.* It's mean, intentionally so, but it's also the most earnest expression of an exhausted leftist I have ever heard in my life.

  • (Episodes 2-5)

    Like most of the other people placing Life is Strange 2 on their end of year list, I’m going to go ahead and say it – the lengthy release schedule for LiS 2 murdered it. I’m sure there was a good reason for the wait time between episodes, but it ultimately capsized enthusiasm around the game.

    With that out of the way, HOLY SHIT was this a tremendous game. It’s nowhere near as classic-feeling as LiS 1, the gameplay hook just isn’t quite as catchy, and the ‘I’m just barely able to choke out this sentence!’ voice acting is weirder than ever, but as an interactive story, the Diaz brothers’ odyssey through an America emboldened by hateful ideology and corrupt figures in power felt more immediate, thrilling, and heart wrenching than almost any other game I’ve played. I’ll steer clear of spoilers, but all this is to say: Life is Strange 2 is not to be missed.

    There are many, many moments in Life is Strange 2 in which I felt like my gut had fallen to the floor. There are the big, life-defining decisions, in which its clear any action you do or don’t take will alter the lives of the protagonists forever, but there are also the quiet moments in which Sean has to pick up the pieces of a life gone wrong. And then there are the painful moments in which the people around Sean and Daniel reveal themselves to be the worst kind of monsters; moments where our protagonists have to choose between humiliation at the hands of a racist abuser or to stand their ground at the expense of their own safety.

    Telltale style games have their limitations. So many gameplay moments in LiS 2 have the player character simply wandering around an environment and thinking out loud about its contents, which is not especially compelling. Dontnod at least manage to make these spaces interesting. Besides the dense (and super accurate!) scenery, there really aren’t any characters in LiS 2 write large that aren’t interesting to get to know.

    Sometimes the world design is…quite real! Unlike the fantastic, Twin Peaks escapism of LiS 1, LiS 2 allows the tensions of the real world simmer (and sometimes explode) to the surface of the story. It manages the precarious narrative balance of portraying the racial and political divisions in America – as well as the racists and politicians responsible for creating these tensions in the first place – without shoehorning the player into a foregone conclusion. This is to say, LiS 2 asks us to live in its Latin American protagonists’ shoes; to live in a country where the wrong someone could ruin your life for an arbitrary reason. It’s claustrophobic, infuriating, and cruel.

    Filmmaker Howard Hawks once said that for a movie to be great, it would only need to contain three great scenes, and no bad ones. If we apply this rule of thinking to video game narrative design, this makes Life is Strange 2 a great video game. The first great scene involves a (if the player so chooses) romantic interlude by a campfire, in which every injustice up to that point washes away, if only for a little while. The second great scene involves Sean being penitent in a church during a moment of extreme tension. The third great scene is at the very end, in which the player is given a final choice, where all of their actions up to that point are put in their truest context.

    Life is Strange 2 is a great game. Play it, dorks.

  • As someone who’s been a fan of Remedy since Max Payne, Control was a tremendously exciting game this year. It’s got a certain AA quality to it (the constant spawning of enemies to fill time, the barely-there side quests, the constant re-use of footage in cutscenes), but it’s probably the best game the studio has ever produced from a sheer design perspective.

    From a lore perspective, Control is also best-in-class. It’s maybe a bit *too* X-Files, but when Control wants to get creative with its paranormality, it fucking *goes* some places (that goddamn fridge).

    I’ve read a few reviews complaining about all the reading you need to do to get the most out of Control. Those people are out of their minds. Granted, I was a big Alan Wake fan, but I *loved* the redacted documents in this game. They’re so rich with detail, and grant a mystique to the few objects of power the player actually does end up getting to interact with. They’re like miniature short horror stories. I love them.

    Here’s to hoping we get some more Threshold Kids in the DLC next year.

  • Ape Out is an audio/visual tour de force about a gorilla who loves jazz and needs to kill you. I fucking LOVED Ape Out. I’d dismissed it initially as a Hotline Miami clone, but it’s so much more than that. It’s Hotline Miami set in boiling water and exploding out of the pan, set to The Peter Brotzmann Octet. It’s the visceral, primal release of the self vs. the establishment. It’s the culmination of freeform art and experimental computer programming. It’s a gorilla punching his captor in the chest with such vicious energy that the man’s arms FLY. OFF.

    Ape Out is hard, too, and I guess that can be offputting to people but I don’t care. I had a huge smile on my face for each and every level.

  • Even forgetting that it’s a remake, Resident Evil 2 has the sense, for the first time in a long time for this series, of being a classic. It’s nowhere near as frightening as the more ambitious (and, probably, better) Resident Evil 7, and not as much of a singular experience as the remake of the first Resident Evil, but it’s the perfect combination of high-tech sheen and low-brow shlock. Even if it doesn’t do much as far as scares, it does an excellent job of capturing the imagination.

    I had a blast exploring all the nooks and crannies of the police station, a setting which provides excellent incidental tension thanks to its tight hallways and office rooms busy with desks and equipment. I particularly loved sequences involving lickers, which are these weird, skinless, human-shaped dogs which detect the player by sound instead of sight. Being forced to navigate around these creatures with such limited options made for a few truly excellent moments of tension.

    Aesthetically, Resident Evil 2 is a fuckin’ delight. It brings the bright blue, action-figure look of the PS1 original to current gen hardware. I loved the characters, who veer between genuinely likable and hilariously B-movie in the span of seconds. I even love Mr X’s dope-y trench coat.

    I guess I just love a game that will be as corny and ridiculous as this one with a straight face. Horror tends to be either over-dramatic or self-aware, recently, making Resident Evil 2 a fun, refreshing change of pace.

  • As someone who didn’t particularly love the slow pace and clunky feel of Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, The Outer Worlds was a terrific surprise. It’s a true role-playing game that, thanks to a very Mass Effect-ian cast of characters, has some real emotional stakes to accompany all the big ethical decision making the game demands of you.

    The first half of Outer Worlds is terrific. I love playing stealth characters, but their inclusion in these first person Bethesda-likes always feels stapled on. Imagine my surprise during my first foray into Edgewater's wildlands when I came upon a small gang of anonymous marauders protecting an item I needed to collect, who were alongside a hidden series of boxes and pipes which provided a makeshift staircase directly to the objective. I snuck through patches of tall grass, hid out of site and climbed to the roof, allowing me to complete my first quest without firing a shot. It’s a small thing, but as someone who’s been pining for these games to allow me to make a stealth character, it was an exciting little moment.

    The second half of the game is less compelling. Once you’ve already spent time developing relationships with your crew, you can start to see where their subplots are heading, and their quests feel less like bonding and more like busy-work. The final quests in the game in general, in fact, all feel a little light on content. There’s just not enough in the way of meaningful world building when you finally arrive at the heart of the establishment The Outer Worlds spends so much time mythologizing.

    I’d also be remiss if I didn’t bring up the endgame. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘and heeere’s what happened to everyone!’ slideshow that always kicks in at the end of the Fallout games. The epilogue in The Outer Worlds is probably the worst version of this trope I've seen. It feels more like a report card than it does a reasonable glimpse into a possible future for all the characters. It reduces the otherwise thoughtful conflicts between all the in-game factions to one, perfunctory question: did you sufficiently convince each warring faction to work alongside their enemy, or did you choose a side and therefore fail? If there was any doubt as to Outer Worlds' 'the answer is always somewhere in the middle' thesis, then reach The Outer Worlds' credits and wonder no longer.

    I digress. These qualms aside, The Outer Worlds is a succinct open world game with a ton of heart and flair. I’ll definitely be coming back to this one next year. I just gotta see what happens when you play this game like an asshole.

  • Here’s the pitch, reductive as it may be: Void Bastards is a Doom (circa the ‘90s)-esque rogue-like with a Hellboy art style. How could I possibly say no?

    Easily one of the greatest examples of procedurally generated design I’ve ever seen, Void Bastards casts the player as an unfrozen convict, freed from cryostasis only to enter into indentured servitude. Losing a life as a prisoner allows the player to respawn as a new prisoner with a new unique attribute. Some of the attributes are useful – perhaps your character has the ‘small appetite’ trait, and therefore can survive on less food – others, such as the ‘smoker’ trait, which forces the player to cough up a lung on a random basis, are less useful. But all of them are great.

    Basically, Void Bastards is a series of fetch quests for various McGuffins that takes place over several acts. The player flies from ship to ship in search of each objective, accruing new weapons and tools along the way, while also remaining on the lookout for survival prerequisites like food and fuel.

    Too many roguelike games’ entire points are that they’re roguelikes. What elevates Void Bastards above many of its competitors (besides its unique, old-school FPS design) is its narrative flavor. The game doesn’t have much of a plot, but, like Binding of Isaac, another great roguelike, its disparate pieces form a cohesive thematic whole. As a survival thriller about a comic-book corporate dystopia, Void Bastards can be a genuinely funny satire. It’s singular in a way so few other roguelikes are.

  • The more I play this game the higher up my list it goes. It’s the perfect mix of tactical card play, simple rules that don’t put off a casual player like me, and punishingly difficult to keep you coming back again and again for one more run. It’s also got a fun little narrative, and some outstanding boss fights to spice up all the repetitive action.

    Slay the Spire is one of those games in which your experiences with the mechanics and dice-rolls end up telling a story even more compelling than the game’s actual story. It’s a phenomenally considered rogue-like.

  • Everyone’s favorite break from reality this year, Untitled Goose Game is a delight. I’ve seen quite a few critics point out that the collect-athons in each sequence are time wasters, and that the game ultimately wraps up far too quickly. They’re not wrong, honestly, but I don’t care. Untitled Goose Game nails that sense of an animal just up and deciding to fuck some shit up. I saw a video on Twitter just the other day in which a goose, without any warning or provocation at all, leapt beak-first and full of fury at a non-threatening woman just takin' a walk in the park. Sometimes geese just do that! I will allow House House to waste as much of my time as they want in order to provide me with the satisfaction of just, for one single day, being the ‘y’know what, fuck it’ goose.

  • I can’t express enough how disinterested I am in online multiplayer shooters, yet Apex Legends had a grip on me for months. It’s most obvious sources of inspiration are PUBG and Overwatch, both games I enjoyed quite a bit and then fell off of hard once I felt like I had as wide a variety of experiences as I was likely to have with them. With PUBG, the joy for me was in the tension of play – I wasn’t so much interested in competing as I was interested in surviving (yes, I was a bathtub wiener), and with Overwatch the sheen started to wear off once the spectacle of a dozen superheroes shooting each other with NERF guns lost its novelty.

    My favorite element that differentiates Apex Legends from its forebears – and this is a small thing, but I deeply love it – is the drop, and the music that accompanies the drop. Descending upon the map in Apex Legends grants the player with the visceral sensation of blitkrieging a warzone (a la Battlefield) while simultaneously engendering in the player that they are Superman crashing into the Earth like a comet to dispense justice. Of course, some of the time this experience is punctuated by being instantly murdered, but all that that means is you get one more ride back to Earth.

    It’s a perfect experience, but within the drop lies the key to Apex Legends’ success. Whereas PUBG has you and an anonymous 99 other players fly soundlessly towards the battlefield, and then into a stop and start loop of looting, hiding, shooting, relocating ad nauseum, Apex Legends, even at its slowest and most tactical, has *inertia.*

    The sense that the player must keep moving to survive is inescapable in Apex Legends. Thanks to the open map, ease of access to medium/long range guns and zippy character mobility, staking out some place is rarely a good tactic. Giving each character type a strong personality, and having them quip alongside one another as matches progress, gives the player an even greater sense of urgency. If the player should choose to skate around the edges of play, having their character provide vocal reminders of their relative safety is a smart, effective design decision. It ensures there’s no real way to opt out of the experience.

    Even with the zippy mechanics, the balance between the hardnosed terror of a battle royal and the friendly, accessible nature of a Fortnite is impeccable. Apex Legends gives players ample opportunity to bounce back with its (relatively speaking) generous health and shield balance and respawn capability. It’s somehow more mechanically complex and more friendly to newcomers than any of its competitors. It’s a fantastic battle royal game, and likely the only one I’ll continue to spend my time with for the long haul.

    I mean, I bought the *battle pass* for this thing. I never do that.

  • Descenders is my sleeper hit of the year. The premise sounds ridiculous: it’s a procedurally generated downhill BMX game with a trick system, terrain navigation mechanics, live multiplayer and a rogue-like structure. Reading this descriptor out of context, the obvious question is…why would anyone do this?

    The answer: because it fucking rules. The core loop in Descenders has you BMX down a procedurally generated landscape until you reach the finish line. You’re free to get to the end of each level as you see fit. You don’t even have to participate in the course, if you don’t want, although that probably means you’ll be crashing into a bunch of trees.

    No extreme sports game since the release of Skate 3 has felt this tight to play. You get the exact sense of momentum you want, your bike has an appreciable heft to it, and it’s just unrealistic enough to allow you to make snap decisions at 150 MPH and not immediately break all of your bones.

    Even the roguelike elements feel fresh. You start each campaign out with a set number of health – small crashes cost you less health than large ones – and attempt to reach a certain course at the end of the map, which ends in an enormous ‘final boss’ jump. In between all this, a variety of levels catering towards different playstyles emerge (some are focused on tricks, some on terrain navigation, some on speed), and you earn sponsorships which provide you with gameplay benefits (take the terrain navigation sponsorship to lessen off-course obstacles, or take the speed sponsorship to make bails less likely, etc.).

    I found myself playing Descenders over and over again through the course of the entire year, even in spite of the fact that they haven’t really added any new content. There is no other game released this year that I’ve returned to more. It’s a total blast, and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • A Plague Tale, in short, is the product of adaptation and expansion. It is a spiritual successor to The Last of Us, taking that game's narrative and design premise and doubling down on all of its systems: more crafting, more apocalyptic plague, more gorgeous vistas, more vulnerability between the protagonist and the defenseless youth at the heart of the story. More importantly, it re-contextualizes The Last of Us, taking the basic outline of that story, removing it from its prestige TV genre, and re-framing it as a Young Adult Fiction-esque dystopic coming-of-age story. In so many ways A Plague Tale is the result of adaptation, but because of it's radically different narrative, it is also more hopeful, more expansive, and more nuanced take on a similar narrative.

    This difference of perspective between A Plague Tale and The Last of Us ripples through the entire game experience. Nihilism is The Last of Us' baseline ideological perspective. In either the first or the second The Last of Us, violence is a perpetual, unchangeable element of the game world. It is almost always purposeless. The game tasks you with killing looters, gangs of survivors, whoever, because that's just what you do in the hard scrabble world of The Last of Us. You kill. To hammer the point home, victims of the player's violence in The Last of Us 2 plead for their lives and mourn their fellow NPCs as you slaughter them. The Last of Us doesn't question the Hobbesian premise of 'all against all' whatsoever, but it *does* think you should feel guilty about the violence the game feels is inevitable, so rather than give the player the tools to prevent violence it demands the player *languish* in that violence. The game's perspective is that the characters in its world *must* commit horrific acts of violence, but that they should also feel damned for their violence.

    A Plague Tale also presents the player with a hopeless world of death and pointless slaughter, but being a grim YA narrative, it features one crucial difference between itself and The Last of Us: the characters in its world all care about something. The primary cast believe in a world beyond violence; more poignantly, they regret the violence they commit, in an active and even mournful way. A Plague Tale gives space for its characters to express their individual perspectives, their hopes for a future, and that resolves the potential tension between game mechanics and narrative. In The Last of Us, you're meant to languish in violence, but the violence is also supposed to be fun and engaging. In A Plague Tale, avoiding violence is just as fun, compelling, and meaningful as the combat. There is, always, technically a choice - when characters in A Plague Tale voice their regret after a battle, it's easy to believe them.

    The difference in each game's plague, too, feels important. In The Last of Us, the world is beset by a mycological zombie virus, reducing human beings who get infected with it to mindless animals with mushroom heads. In A Plague Tale, the plague is an ocean of vicious, unkillable, insatiable rats. They're less a hoard of animals so much as they're a liquid, an *ocean* of death which permeates and drowns the game's villages and castles. A Christian cult takes advantage of the plague to seat themselves as the supreme authority of the nation, liberally stealing from the remaining populace and barricading themselves within the safe haven of a massive cathedral. As such, the plague in A Plague Tale is a naturally occuring phenomenon that needs to be navigated via logistics - like The Last of Us, the 'plague' isn't really the primary antagonist of the game. Unlike The Last of Us, in which the final antagonist, as it ends up, was bureaucracy and local government, the primary antagonist of A Plague Tale is religious authoritarianism, and the asocial fear of other engendered by that authoritarianism.

    At the end of the day, A Plague Tale offers a bit more to think over after the credits role than The Last of Us. It's to the game's detriment that its stealth mechanics can't quite match up with the elegance of The Last of Us' manic struggle for survival. While A Plague Tale;' puzzles are ultimately much more satisfying to solve than anything offered in The Last of Us, A Plague Tale relies on trial-and-error gameplay that hamper much of the active combat and stealth sequences. It's a shame, too - a little more fine tuning, a little more flexibility in the game's stealth systems, and A Plague Tale would've come dangerously close to outperforming one of the most unkillable titles in the entire industry.

  • Without question, A Short Hike is my favorite game released this year in terms of aesthetics. It obviously cribs from Animal Crossing with its cute yet clever dialogue and its big-headed animal character designs, but it most specifically seems to be cribbing from the low-res art of Animal Crossing: Wild World for the DS (AKA the best Animal Crossing).

    Most games that make use of lo-fi visuals do so to convey either straightforward nostalgia or, in the case of horror games, to add some unknowable, creepy element to character designs. In this case, A Short Hike seems to be making use of DS-quality aesthetics to suggest warmth, and a disconnect between its urban-dweller protagonist and the natural world around them.

    It’s a short, charming, memorable little adventure. More games like this, please.

  • Easily this year’s best comedy game, What the Golf? is a wacky, WarioWare-esque exercise in video game absurdism. In What the Golf?, sometimes you hit the golf ball, and sometimes the golf ball hits you. And sometimes the golf ball is a Parisian rug. And sometimes it’s an office chair. And sometimes the hole is actually twelve cats.

    Anyway, it’s a bit too dense for my tastes (I mean, is there any way really for a joke this singular to maintain its effect after six to eight hours of play?) but I’m having a great time with it all the same.

  • Here's a bold claim: Fallen Order is the only Star Wars game that captures what the original trilogy suggested being a Jedi would be like. Other games have tried, but not one has captured the tactile, lightning-quick sensation of lightsaber duels the movies evoke. The Dark Forces series depicts lightsaber battles as equivalent to crazed Wiimote waggling, Battlefront hues too close to super heroics, The Force Unleashed is just God of War and the LEGO games - well, they're LEGO games.

    In Fallen Order, like the Souls series which it's so obviously borrowing from, lightsaber combat is about controlling a combat space in as few moves as possible. It's the small moves - the timing on the deflected shot, the split-second decision between striking and forcing distance between yourself and an upcoming blow - that end up deciding a fight.

    I do find myself questioning Fallen Order's quality in total. This game opens with a BANG. There's flavor, unique world design, elegant plotting and energy - then you land on your first big, open space to explore and combat through (via a mash up of Souls combat and Uncharted platforming, with mixed results), and Fallen Order loses its edge. I was disappointed to find I would be spending more time solving block-pushing/pulling Tomb Raider puzzles in some nondescript ruin than I'd be doing - well, Star Wars stuff.

    ***SPOILERS*** The story lacks the joy and mystique of other, better Star Wars plots. In summary: the Jedi have been violently disbanded, a ragtag band of Jedi and Jedi sympathizers pursue a McGuffin that will rebuild the Jedi, Darth Vader tries to nab it back, the heroes escape. Credits. (There's more in the way of character development, obviously, but nothing you can't see coming from a mile away. These characters are still as trope-y as any other Star Wars cast).

  • A step up in virtually every way from the mechanically-sound but overall bland Gears of War 4, Gears 5 is the dense, AAA extravaganza a Gears fan could hope for.

    Well, at least for the most part. The new ‘Escape’ co-op mode doesn’t do much for me – it’s basically a series of hurried shootouts in corridors with two other players, which isn’t exactly compelling. The base multiplayer, as usual, is also a complete waste of time, with its endless barrage of snap-to-cover shotgun deaths.

    Horde feels more like a AAA co-op arcade game than ever. I love what they’ve done to it. All the new features and modes are a bit overcomplicated, which lessens the singular nature of the experience – it used to be ‘holy shit, I just beat horde mode!’ and now it’s more ‘I just beat one of the horde modes, but I guess it was the easy one, and the damage multipliers were on but the health ones weren’t?’ Instead, Horde mode now feels like something you make multiple runs through a la an arcade game; it's like a mash of destiny raids, tower defense, 'just 1 more run!' games, and Gears. It's a blast.

    The story is admittedly a bit dry. I miss all the out of this world explode-athons and depressing asides from past entries, but for the first time ever, Gears 5 really makes you feel like you’re playing a wide-scale adventure game. Gears 5 lacks set pieces, but everywhere you end up is gorgeous and there's never a dull moment. The campaign lacks highs and lows, but it's never not fun.

    Well - mostly, at least. Unfortunately for me, I ran into a game-breaking bug in act 3 that left me locked in a caved-in section of a space development compound forever. Weirdly enough, the doors wouldn't open. It was just me and my squad mates, shooting at the wall, hammering the 'force jack to go through the vent' button over and over. I had to restart from an earlier point, losing most of my collectibles, which was when a second side quest also locked up and disallowed me from completing the act. Making me, again, start from an earlier point.

    That all soured me on the experience, but generally, Gears is in a better spot than its been in years. This is an easy claim to throw out there now that Game Pass is Microsoft's whole shebang, but if Gears continues along this trajectory I'll always make it a point to try the next entry.

  • Hypnospace Outlaw is one of the coolest games released in 2019, no question, but it's also sort of a pain in the ass to play. The entire game takes place within a facsimile of GeoCities sites circa the late '90s, with the player cast as a kind of internet-wide mod, doling out anti-harassment bans, copyright claims and other digital rights infringement stuff. Because the core gameplay consists entirely of web navigation and research, most of the appeal lies in the creativity of the fake webpages and the writing within them, which is thankfully charming throughout.

    So, yes, the aesthetic and the quality of the writing in HypnoSpace Outlaw are extremely high, but the kicker is, this game is ultimately a puzzle game, and not a particularly *great* puzzle game. Puzzles Hypnospace Outlaw consist of a problem the player must solve (say, instances copyright infringement that need removed) and a series of complications that hide that problem from the player (say, a series of hidden links which lead to a password-protected group chat or something). The further into the game you get, the more obscure your directives are and the more circuitous the puzzle solutions become, turning a fun romp through a bygone digital era into an aimless and frustrating part-time job simulator.

    In other words, I like this game a lot! But I also don't like playing it.

  • A thoughtful, ironic, complete-feeling piece of interactive animation. In Kids, the player spends the majority of the game tapping featureless, bathroom gender-indicator people into various abysses. Thematically it’s an obvious analysis of group think, but its tendency towards bizarre humor and eye-catching set-pieces keep it from feeling overwrought.

    There’s an entire sequence in Kids in which you force people through…intestines, I guess, so that they can be pooped back into existence. If that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will.

  • I love what Suppermassive is doing here in concept far better than the Cabin in the Woods-like horror movie uber deconstruction in Until Dawn, but it's the *execution* of Until Dawn that made it so classic. It's got a wide variety of set pieces and personalities (likable and hate-able) that ensure the memorability of each sequence, whereas Man of Medan leans on the promise of its anthology concept like a crutch. No one level, character or set piece stands out on its own.

    Everything I liked about Until Dawn is here somewhere, but never *quite* at the level I'd like. The biggest dropped ball is the cast - I'm sure the possibilities of branching paths are diminished in this 4 hour title vs. Until Dawn's 10 hour faux-movie, so perhaps as a result the group largely feels cohesive. It takes little effort to prevent characters' most acerbic personality traits from emerging; without the unpredictability of the group falling apart at any moment, the otherwise lower stakes of Man of Medan make the whole project feel a bit diminutive.

    But listen, that crutch? It's a great crutch. A choice-driven horror anthology in the style of a David Cage title - that's a fantastic idea! The performances are wonderful too, and prop up characters that otherwise feel like horror fodder. There's a real foundation here - I think a shift in plot/cast in this exact format would be enough to elevate the whole project.

  • This one was a bit difficult for me to grasp at first, being new to the series, but I ended up really digging Ace Combat's approach to storytelling. Like any Ace Combat game, Skies Unknown is about a way between two fictional international superpowers, but all of the information about that way is delivered to the player via regular people who get swept up in it from the outside. This is a smart, even powerful way to deliver a narrative. Political stories are typically centered around characters who can enact sweeping societal change, but only getting to know political actors always places the audience at a remove from the effects of political action. Characters in Skies Unknown have opinions and roles to play in the war, but their access to information is imperfect and the effects of the war on them personally becomes a more important narrative point. Even the player, a silent protagonist who is functionally a pair of hands grasping at a flight stick, is characterized in an effective, if somewhat color-less, way.

  • Let’s get this out of the way up top: Afterparty, a game about partying through Hell so that you might out-drink Satan, is nowhere near as full of drunk-off-your-ass shenanigans as you want it to be. It is, however, a fun, charming story with a lot of clever twists.

    Afterparty plays like a sort of polar opposite accompaniment to the show The Good Place, another story about a group of hapless friends trying to change their afterlife for the better. I wish it was a bit more reckless, but I love the look of this game, and it’s got a couple of really clever hidden mechanics that end up coming into play right at the end of the story. Worth the time for fans of the studio’s previous game, Oxenfree.

  • An intriguing if sometimes schmaltzy visual novel about a cab driver stuck in the surreal doldrums of the Parisian night shift. Each fare features a new character and sub-plot, or even a series of sub-plots for riders that request repeat service, but these can be hit and miss. Sometimes, characters are multi-faceted people whose problems feel genuine and reflective of reality, but too often these characters are used as blunt weapons to complicate popular per-suppositions of certain personalities or social classes. Would you be surprised to learn that the young, smack-talking tough guy in the backseat is carrying around classic literature because he loves reading? Honestly, no, not really! Most of these character reveals are ultimately nice from a progressive point of view, but they all feel like gotcha moments rather than genuine expressions of character.

    Some of the fares are hammier than others, revealing the heavy-handedness of the author: a pregnant woman from England whose partner got deported from the country after they both voted for Brexit twists herself into a knot justifying her politics to the player, whose only available responses are to shame or express disbelief in this person's perspective. Maybe it's the American in me, but I've gotten very, very accustomed to people proudly voting against their own interest over many years and I have never once heard someone both actualize their logical fallacies while also articulating in an unfiltered, cogent way that the neo-lib 'shame the dummies into action' culture of the media class prevented them from voting the right way. This is a fantasy conversation if I've ever heard one - far too many of the characters in Night Call feel like fantasies that way.

    Night Call is also a murder mystery, although a sub-optimal one. You're given exactly a week to gather as much evidence as possible before the game will force you to identify the killer, but you still have to work as a cabbie each day. Clues are hard to get by, as your cab job is already barely profitable and it takes time and resources away from your earnings to pursue the most important leads. No worries, though: the game basically gives you the correct answer at the end of the week if you guess wrong.

  • Virtual pinball tables are always a bore, but Demon's Tilt has the right idea. More Pokemon Pinball than Pinball FX, Demon's Tilt goes far beyond the reality of what's literally possible in a pinball game without ever abandoning the core mechanics of pinball itself. The pinball table features three vertical tiers, each with their own discrete challenges, rewards, and potential 'enemy encounters' (for lack of a better phrase), which makes the gap between success and failure navigable to a novice like me. If I fail at the top of the table, I always know I have the opportunity to climb back up before I lose a life.

  • Mortal Kombat 11 is the closest video games have ever gotten to an Avengers film. I don’t say this because the plot of Mortal Kombat 11 and the plot of Avengers: Endgame are literally the exact same, but instead because the Mortal Kombat 11 campaign commits itself to providing heaps of searing, bright hot fan service to its long-time fans for almost ten full hours. It’s potent, and the pure fun of it is impossible to deny.

    Setting aside the incredible (if ultimately silly) story, Mortal Kombat 11 sees Netherrealm on their surest footing yet. The roster is wide-ranging, yet every character feels unique, and important to the overall flow of competition. The learning curve between the casual accessibility of MK’s pre-set combos and more technically complex fighting game mechanics feels more like a natural transition than a barrier in skillset between players than ever before. Even in spite of the added complications of custom-character moves for the entire character list, nothing in MK11 feels unknowable.

    Mortal Kombat has always been the franchise to try out for the single player, but even with that in mind MK 11’s sheer volume of content is unbelievable. There are what feels like a never-ending series of challenges and rewards, with the content-unlocking Krypt mode now designed as a 3rd person adventure game, the ever-changing series of themed fight in Towers of Time, classic arcade ladders, and the most in-depth tranining and tutorial system yet implemented in a fighting game.

    A significant amount of time can be committed purely to customizing each character. In its own weird way, grinding fights in the Towers of Time for extra cosmetics can be kinda relaxing. Pretty decent podcast game if you ask me.

    With its constant references to past titles and its merging of the disparate timelines between MK 1-8 and MK 9-10, MK 11 feels like a big, self-referential reward for long-time fans.

  • Sayonara Wild Hearts is a blistering psychedelic roller coaster set to hyperspeed in which the final destination is self actualization. But it is a roller coaster; while the glistening pinks, purples and blues speed past the player, Sayonara's shoot 'em up-y mechanics feel restrictive rather than incinerating. Playing Sayonara feels like putting a miniature go-pro inside a kaleidoscope which is then shot out of a gun at 100 miles per hour; I'd rather soar through this space than be shoved through it.

  • It's weird to say that a Metroidvania is...nice? But this one is nice. I mean, honestly, skip the vania - this game is all Metroid if Samus was a cat in a robot suit. It's super compact, too. I sometimes find myself craving the exploratory gameplay of a Metroid but don't have the patience to deal with a whole 15 hours of exploring/mapping a place, but Gato Roboto scratches that itch and with charm all its own. I wish more indies that are gameplay-first like Gato Roboto would be bold enough to make a big first impression and get out once the gettin's good. This game's about 4 hours long total, which is exactly as much time to explore the game's straightforward mechanics.

  • I thought I’d skip this one, but I’m glad I didn’t. Sure, this game is one more absurdist example of hyper-violence from Devolver Digital, but My Friend Pedro manages to go to some truly weird places anyhow.

    Like many other titles from this publisher, you play as an extremely stylish murderer who murders stylishly his murderous murderees. You have the ability to slow time, roll, jump kick, skateboard, swing, and wall jump your way through a series of human obstacles, accruing points as you go. Thanks to a pulsing soundtrack and hyper-colorful visual style, it never manages to be anything other than entertaining.

    There’s some clunky comedy in here. There’s a whole meta bit about gamers, all of whom are portrayed as chubby white men in bad t-shirts, turning into psychopathic murderers because of the violent video games they play, and it sucks. Besides the woefully outdated portrayal of what an average video game player is, it’s just a tired, lazy joke. Who’s laughing at this bit anymore? It’s been done two billion times. It’s 2019, for Christ’s sake.

    However, there’s also a sequence in which you go into banana world, which is…a vaporwave space full of friendly decapitated heads. Vaporwave's also played out at this point, but it’s at least a pretty sizable ‘what the fuck’ moment.

  • A procedurally generated Dark Souls with an apocalyptic western theme. To Remnant’s credit, it’s procedural levels are so expertly done that it wasn’t until I read an article describing the game’s mechanics after the fact that I realized each space I’d been exploring wasn’t handcrafted. Sure, I ran across the occasional empty room and purposeless space but, y’know…it’s the post-apocalypse!

    Remnant is so much better than it has any right to be. It’s definitely not as punishingly difficult as the Souls games its curbing from, but it manages to make its tactical gunplay engaging anyhow. I’m only maybe a third of the way through, and I can see this one potentially jumping up the list if it keeps up the pace.

  • It’s nigh-on impossible to talk about Crackdown 3 without acknowledging what a let-down it must have been for long time fans of the series, but for someone approaching it casually as the new game pass game-du-jour, I had fun.

    I’ll admit there are some bizarre design choices. First, Terry Crews plays the main character, yet there are something like 11 other, non-celebrity characters the player can choose instead. I realize these characters are really more likely there to fill out the game’s multiplayer component, but who in their right mind would choose “army faux-hawk guy” over Terry motherfucking Crews? That’s insane.

    Like the last two entries in the series, Crackdown is a meat-headed open world game in which the player is tasked with eliminating cartoonish villains as a superhero cop. There are a zillion collectibles, the shooting mechanics are loose but satisfying in context, and the best bits all involve you leaping a zillion feet in the air to explode a bunch of guys with a rocket launcher. It’s that kind of game.

    Crackdown 3 is the video game equivalent of bashing action figures together. It’s a good time.

  • Extremely faithful to its ‘90s Genesis inspirations, Blazing Chrome is a worthy (if not entirely captivating) successor to Contra: Hard Corps.

  • A short, free, *very* CreepyPasta game about an empty FPS server that houses a dark secret. I won’t get too descriptive for fear of spoiling the game, but as far as shortform videogame horror goes, No Players Online is slight, but effective.

  • Dr. Mario World got a ton of flak for its micro transactions, but I actually much preferred it to most anything else Nintendo has released for smart phones. The pay to play structure is not entirely dissimilar to the (superior) Pokemon Shuffle, and the multiplayer is actually just completely free.

    Plus, Dr. Mario World gave us Bowser in a lab coat. We have to cherish these things.

  • I have a complicated relationship with Bloober Team’s work. On one hand, they released Observer, a thoughtful, terrifying exploration into man’s psyche, our interdependence on technology, and the culmination of late-stage capitalism. It’s one of my games of the decade.

    On the other hand, they are also the developer behind the piercing, horror-movie violin shriek that is the Layers of Fear games, which trade exclusively in well-worn tropes and clichés.

    Blair Witch, then, is somewhere in the middle. It’s not entirely clever, and occasionally moronic. In one sequence, the protagonist, haunted by PTSD, begins hearing the sounds of bombs dropping, and large, bulbous piles of leaves slowly prowl around the environment like...leafy buzz saws? And then you run from the leaves, which sound like bombs but act like buzz saws?

    It’s more exciting as an interactive dog-care sim than a horror game.

  • This is the busiest video game of all time. Bloodstained is fucking ridiculously all over the place visually, alternating between medieval imagery, irritating anime all-over-the-placedness and some just bat shit weird stuff like giant cat likenesses pawing at you out of portals and flying yorkie terrier heads. It also wants to replicate the baroque aesthetics of Symphony of the Night, but it just can’t seem to stay in one place long enough to do so, especially in the audio effects department, which is as loud a mess as the visuals.

    All this is to say I absolutely did not gel with practically any one element of Bloodstained, but I did, for some godforsaken reason, finish it. I didn’t do enough side stuff and at the end it was impossibly fucking difficult.

    It plays well? Let’s say I did all this because it plays well.

  • This is the first entry I’ve completed in this series, and I have to admit, I found it to be a bit too straightforward in the gameplay department. At first it’s all pop music and insane anime shit, and for just a second I got flashbacks of Bayonetta, but things all level out once you find yourself running through yet another crumbling city street fighting yet another bug-eyed monster.

    For the life of me, I could not get on board with the V stuff. It all seemed so fresh and interesting at first, but by the end of the game I would do anything I could to avoid V and his chatty animal companions.

  • Some really great ideas at the core of Creature in the Well. The basic premise is that you are a robot slowly re-starting an ancient machine that powers an entire town, fighting an enormous creature who wants to stop you along the way.

    The gameplay in Creature in the Well primarily consists of you playing a sort of life-sized variation on pinball. You have a sword which you can use to trap balls and a club you can use like a pinball flipper to launch the ball into a variety of bumpers, traps and enemies.

    It’s neat, but it misses the core tenants of what makes pinball such a fun game in the first place. To me, the joy in pinball comes down to lining up a shot, and watching as it unleashes a torrent of flashing lights and sounds when it hits its target. Creature in the Well has you continually snatching the ball from around the board – erm, room, to keep trapping and relaunching it. It just doesn’t feel good to play.

  • As a diehard TimeSplitters fan, I am honor-bound to purchase any product in which the original TS dev team had a hand. In this case, it’s a few ex-TS devs, who make use of a subtler version of TS’ cartoon-ish style. Just seeing this art style onscreen is enough for me to feel that all is right in the world.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I necessarily recommend American Fugitive. It’s a classic, top-down style GTA clone in which the player is tasked with doing all kinds of petty crimes in a tiny Midwestern American town.

    When I say petty, I mean…really petty. After spending maybe five hours in the game, I stole a couple cars, demolished a car, broke some windows, stole some jewelry, did some breaking and entering…that’s pretty much the extent of it. Side content is miserably low, and traversing from place to place can feel awful. Not only are the crimes the player is able to commit in American Fugitive more gritty and real-world, but so too are the cops, who respond reasonably to basically any action the player has the ability to take to speed up gameplay. Way too frequently I found myself literally walking for five or six minutes at a time just to get to the next objective, because police presence was too severe. Getting from place to place ended up taking longer than actually completing the objectives I was tasked to complete.

    The change in setting is welcome – for as much as I love Rockstar’s best-in-class renderings of Los Angeles and New York City, I’ve always yearned for an open world game set in literally any non-urban real-world-ish locale, and American Fugitive definitely makes good on that. I just wish…any other part of it was compelling.

  • Wargroove made a bit of a splash with Advance Wars and Fire Emblem fans upon release, being a fresh, indie-twist on those age-old franchises – unfortunately, there just happened to be an enormously successful Fire Emblem game released this year, and discussion around Wargroove mostly disappeared.

    I have fallen off literally every tactical strategy game I’ve ever played. Even the decades-long narrative of other Fire Emblem titles have totally failed to grab me. I gave this genre yet another chance to grab me with Wargroove, but barely got anywhere. Maybe the next one, then.

  • I LOVE the conceit to this title: a twentysomething city-dweller whittles life away at the office on a Saturday shift while remembering her carefree youth. What makes it unique is its visual language - the modern day office sequences are all realistically proportioned from a first person perspective, but each playable memory features its own more play-oriented game mechanic and colorful art style. Besides eliciting a visceral response to the metaphor, it also opens Where the Bees Make Honey up to a meta-conversation on how and why we engage with games as children vs. as adults. Really smart design.

    The game can't quite hit all its marks, though - too many sequences succumb to a general rigidity that plagues the entire game. What Remains of Edith Finch, Where the Bees Make Honey's closest gaming relative and one with a similar present day reality v. flashback absurdism dynamic, was celebrated for the variety of tone in both feel and theme in each of its disparate sequences. Where the Bees Make Honey's more fantastic moments instead feel propped up by only one or two gimmicks which lack any meaningful twist or complication, which make even the briefest sojourns into the protagonist's fantasy realm feel too thin. It's hard to feel you're being carried away by a fantasy when the fantasy adheres to strict logic.

  • I didn’t have the same relaxing experience with this game as most critics seemed to. Maybe its just because I’m shit at it, but Lonely Mountains: Downhill was an exercise in frustration for me. I hated the limited view of the side-on camera, and had no fun at all trying to complete each level’s time challenges. Even the little hidden areas in which the player can take a break put me off of it; I’d never find any of those spots in a million years without a guide.

  • This Oympic-themed mini-game collection is actually pretty fun, but there's no question it's more memorable as a relic indicating how blindsided we were to the forthcoming pandemic than as a video game.

  • Observation's got a great premise: a space station A.I. assists a lone astronaut through a series of catastrophes after a mysterious blackout, all the while it is beset by strange commands it cannot interpret. This game is in the mode of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the firm control of a film director it feels sometimes too blandly procedural. And that's where the real problem is: Observation is a *real* slow burn. Hours pass in which the player is fixing routine mechanical errors, with only glimpses at what *might* result in something resembling a mystery. So, uh, long story short (literally), but I quite playing this after a few hours. Maybe the rest of it is great. Who knows?

  • As a Deadpool-hater I thought I’d be the last person to defend Borderlands 3, but this was honestly much better than I’d heard. The story is shit and you couldn’t be blamed for muting the dialogue, but there are a ton of quality of life improvements and the feel of combat is leagues ahead of Borderlands 2. Guns and powers actually feel like they have some weight to them now, and I like that each class has its own fully voice character this time. Even if what they’re saying half the time is dumb as hell.

    Like all other Borderlands games, though, for me, Borderlands 3 never ascends beyond the quality of a time-waster. I don't have a ton of interest in games primarily about shooting people to collect things that help you shoot people who drop more things to collect that help you shoot more people.

  • Maybe it's just my attachment to Machine Games' cast of fascist-murdering maniacs, but I just couldn't take the non-commital, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ tone of Youngblood. While the idea of a co-op open world Wolfenstein is promising on paper, the breakneck pulp storytelling of past games is what made the brutalizing, sometimes chaotically-balanced FPS gameplay work. In Youngblood, the entire plot could be re-told in five sentences or less; and what's there is so thin, there may as well not even BE a plot.

    Most of Youngblood's plot is a passion-less, by-the-number retelling of character arcs and political windfalls we don't even get to see for ourselves. Grace, the black-panther revolutionary who had a child with a Roswell-dwelling alien conspiracy-nut, is now the acting head of the FBI. That's an insane change of circumstances (and presumably political ideology!) that flies past with barely a mention.

    There's also the casual reveal right at the start of the game that the American revoultionary war with the Nazis - aka the ciffhanger ending to the previous game - has been won. At some point they killed Hitler, I guess, too.

    Oh! Alright.

    We instead spend all our time with the Blazkowitz twins Jessie and Sophia, BJ and Anya's psychotically maladjusted children. While there is a LOT of non-reaction to hyper-violence in past Wolfenstein games, these characters are flatout giddy for murder. The entire game is peppered with their bad one-liners and weirdly too-close sibling energy. Past games forced players to sit through unspeakable war atrocities and acts of injustice that gave both context and motivation for the violent mayhem at the heart of the gameplay. Jessie and Sophia, though, simply get to killing a lot of people without compunction. There's a bit early on in which the two bust a gut laughing after one of them accidentally swallows a bit of freshly exploded nazi brain. It's *weird.*

    It's just a bizarre shift for a franchise that otherwise dives deep into colorful characterization and subversive cultural commentary. To play Youngblood after having finished Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus feels like watching A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and then The Force Awakens. Completely unsatisfying way to see where things ended up.

    There's also the gunplay, which is more finicky than ever. All enemies in the game are damage-soaking bullet sponges, and most enemy now have a specific gun they're weak too. Adding to that an RPG grind and a punishingly strict level system, Youngblood is either a bloated, meat-headed RPG, or a difficult to use FPS. Either option is bad.

  • A first-person old-school Zelda-like set within a literal (but not mechanical!) sandbox, Supraland is cool in theory but a bit dry in practice. The player is cast as a generic plastic toy at war within an oppositional set of plastic toys. Occasionally, a child - presumably the owner of all the toys - lumbers above the play area like a colossus. The problem is, it's not particularly fun as an adventure game, so what you're playing for is to see how the Toy Story parts pan out, but it takes a really long time for any of that to factor into the game. Most of Supraland is just run-of-the-mill Minecraft-y swordplay mixed with light puzzle solving.

  • Wanted to enjoy this more than I did. A puzzle game about setting traps and traversing a grid that also doubles as a rom com between a quirky, dance-happy grim reaper and a pin-up supermodel angel. While the initial set up has you arrange matters in the world around you so that a target ends up dying, there are some objectives in this game that mostly involve you getting from one space to another, and without that narrative flavor I really couldn’t keep interested.

  • There are moments in Metro Exodus of visceral brilliance, moments in which the player travels from one doomed objective to the next. Apocalyptic folderal cakes the environment in a picturesque approximation of the end times, and creatures stretch, hunt, heave and sleep in the periphery. The player, in between it all, hunts, sneaks and observes. These spaces veer between 'expansive haunted house' and 'convincing simulation of post-nuclear reality.'

    And then you get where you're going and Metro Exodus' curtain is pulled to reveal the world's worst made-for-TV limited series. Supporting characters stop the player to explain some basic gameplay functions like shooting, reloading, cleaning equipment, or sneaking for minutes which tick on like hours. The player finds survivors who go beyond caricature into parodic levels of over-performance. Levels are designed like rollercoasters, with easily legible twists and predestined turns.

    More than anything, Metro Exodus is boring! I'm endlessly frustrated with this series. Every entry flirts with big ideas that other shooters don't even attempt to explore, but Metro always falls so short of its own ideals that it almost seems it would have been better for there to have been no ambition at all.

  • A voxel-art beat-em-up/platformer with some charming writing.

    I hate to say it, but utilizing voxel art was a mistake. It’s so far from a unique aesthetic, and gives the entire game a ‘oh here’s yet another one of these on Steam’ quality. I can’t say I loved it or spent a lot of time with it, but it’s definitely better than its appearance lets on.

  • I find something about the way the player interacts with the world around them in Astroneer to be totally unpleasant. It’s definitely a game that was designed with PC players in mind, and many very basic actions require the memorization of complex button combinations. The actual movement itself is sluggish and in no way tactile.

    Astroneer is basically a base building game on a procedurally generated alien planet in which you must scavenge and plunder the nearest natural resources to survive and, hopefully, thrive. There’s a frustrating mechanic in which you have to continually place tethers along the ground, both to mark your progress to and from your base, but also to breath oxygen. Without tethers, you can breathe on your own for something like five minutes.

    I don’t have a lot of complex thoughts on this one. I gather that the longer the player spends time in Astroneer, the greater the reward, but I simply don’t find any of this compelling.

  • Supermarket Shriek is basically What the Golf? with an even more insane core premise. In Supermarket Shriek, you play as a man and a goat who fall into a shopping cart and must tactically scream their way through a variety of obstacle courses, most of which are in supermarkets. I, uh, yeah. Sure, I guess.

    Like What the Golf? it features several levels that are referential to other games, including Superhot. Besides the fact that I’m just not onboard with this premise, the core gameplay loop didn't hook me enough for me to stick with it any longer than the first few sections of the game.

  • Pumped BMX Pro has the dubious distinction of being released in the same year as a full-on Trials game, Lonely Mountains: Downhill and Descenders. It is the fourth most talked about limited-budget BMX game released in 2019.

    This game is, more or less, a gentler Trials. It doesn’t have the snappy physics and brutal physical comedy of Trials, but the structure is the same. There are a zillion BMX Trials clones, but…you need some sort of unique hook to compete, and Pumped BMX Pro doesn’t have one.

  • My Time at Portia was fucking SHORT. I’m sure there was some good stuff in this game that I missed, but my lord did I find the character designs in this game off putting. I was NOT trying to spend my summer vacation in creepy James and the Giant Peach-land. No thank you.

  • The dream of Jump Force was for it to be a Smash Bros. style mashup of every Goku and not-Goku in the known universe, but instead it turned out to be closer to a sub-Dragonball Z Budokai. It’s less like staging a fight between a bunch of action figures, and more like mashing those weird off-brand toys with no points of articulation you can get at the dollar general into one another. It’s so off-looking and clunky. I gave up on this one very quickly.

  • A perfect example of a gorgeous game full of expensive-looking visual tricks, impressive tech and some clever combat abilities, that is also a total shitstorm in every other conceivable way.

    I won’t dig too deeply into the story, which begins with an EXTREMELY direct suggestion that all US citizens who do not own guns are vulnerable, which then blossoms into a series of even more direct conservative good-guy-with-a-gun fantasy plot points. It’s like the last game, but worse, and the change of setting to Washington D.C. doesn’t help.

    It’s also, like you’d expect, a content-mill full of repetitive shoot-outs. To the kind of player that is able to complete these tasks over and over, especially if they’re doing it all solo – try to play something weird today instead. Something completely different from this. See what it does for you.

    The Division 2 is one of the most dispiriting games I played this year. I couldn’t stomach to play it even for the length of time I had it for free.