StarvingGamers Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2020

The police have killed over 1000 people in the US in 2020. Approximately 1 in 1000 Americans has died of COVID-19. The 2020 election is somehow still happening despite voting being months ago. I'm almost 40 (yikes) and this has been, without a doubt, the most harrowing year of my life thus far.

But I'm also caught in this weird place where it's hard to complain. I may be considered "at-risk," with a slew of chronic respiratory issues and a history of multiple collapsed lungs, but my spouse has a career that allowed her to transition to work-from-home early in the pandemic. My kids' school district quickly adopted a remote learning curriculum and they took to it with relative ease. No one in my family or close friend groups has contracted the disease or experienced any significant financial hardship because of it. If I'm suffering it's only out of compassion for the world around me, and the occasional spike of existential dread when shopping around people too obstinate to pull their masks up over their nose.

So as I look back on this year with its common refrain of, "everything sucks, but at least I'll have time to catch up on some video games," I can't help but chuckle at the fact that this was one of the most difficult years for me to keep up with the games that interested me.

Full-time parenting and homemaking can be very busy, but when you have kids going to school and a spouse with a regular commute, there's a lot of flexibility in how your time is budgeted. You can set aside the window from 9 to noon to really dig into the narrative indie game that lacks good checkpointing. It becomes a harder ask when, at any given moment, you might need to step away to lend your spouse or kids a hand. It's why I was so quick to bounce off games like Kentucky Route Zero, Paradise Killer, Umurangi Generation, and Tell Me Why, games that any other year would have been likely contenders for a spot on my top 10. It's why I ended up sticking with Ghost of Tsushima, a game that had very little to say but did contain a very long list of tasks that each only took a handful of minutes to complete.

Maybe next year, when the vaccine has been distributed and our family life is able to get back to where it was in 2019, I'll revisit the things that passed me by this year. For now, let me tell you about my 2020 in games.

Best Old Game


I ended at 55th NA overall, not bad for a Tier 3 deck
I ended at 55th NA overall, not bad for a Tier 3 deck

Last year I wrote about about how fun it was to be a part of the discussion surrounding a competitive game from its inception, and this has held true for 2020. Every day I'm checking in periodically with the Teppen community Discord server to discuss balance, decklists, and the metagame; to offer advice to new players; to gripe about bad strings of luck or share my unlikely victories. Between Teppen and GiantBomb FGC server, I actually managed to burn parts of the Discord app into my phone screen. I also manage to play the game every now and then too, usually a handful of matches every day. Now that the kids are stuck at home, I've been taking them with me to walk the dog, making sure they get enough sunshine and exercise, leading to longer walks which are perfect for playing more Teppen.

Unfortunately, the year hasn't been very kind to the game itself. Between pandemic-related development delays and a continuous string of more and more baffling balance decisions, the game has been shedding players since January. Even the dedicated folks who have stuck around spend half their time decrying the state of the game and dreading the next heavy-handed balance update. For me, a player who has been going their own way playing odd decks that look unlike anything that is considered "good," it's been more fascinating than frustrating observing the cluster that competitive Teppen has become.

I'm still hopeful that in 2021 GungHo will be able to turn the game around. But even if this is the beginning of Teppen's death knell, I'm happy to have been along for the ride.

Runners-up: War of the Visions: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, Spring Falls

Best Surprise


I'm not the biggest fan of Roguelike games, games that are built around the idea of starting over every time you die. This has a lot to do with the fact that, in the modern era, most Roguelikes are actions games built around the same gameplay expectations. The goal is to play reactively. Play with precision. Get a little bit farther with every run not because of some level-up mechanic, but because you are gradually honing your hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity. This poses a bit of an obstacle for me, as lightning reflexes and precise timings are beyond my capabilities. I have years of practicing piano and guitar and decades spent trying to get good at fighting games to attest to that.

So when Hades hit full release this year and literally everyone was talking about it, I had to keep reminding myself that playing the latest Roguelike in the zeigeist has never worked out in the past. I always would put in a handful of hours then bounce off. Not only that, but it was developed by Supergiant Games, a studio I had nothing but respect for but whose past output had always been a miss for me. For as inventive and enchanting as their worlds were, the actual gameplay never felt right in my hands.

I bought it anyways; fear of missing out is real; and I'm glad I did.

Beyond the story and the progression system and the characters and the worldbuilding, at its core Hades does something other action Roguelikes don't do. It opens up the gameplay to allow for a wider variety of approaches and skillsets. You can still play it with precise reactions, and there are modifiers you can toggle to give you bonuses for playing that way, but you also can play Hades proactively, more akin to an action roleplaying game like Diablo. I may not be able to press buttons suddenly within a very tight timing window, but I can press a lot of buttons very quickly and in Hades you can do that and still find success.

Runners-up: Final Fantasy VII Remake, Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children

Biggest Disappointment

Umurangi Generation

There's a somewhat frustrating trend where the need to be a game with gameplay comes in direct conflict with a game's desire to reach an audience and express its unique perspective and ideas. The big one that comes to mind is Undertale. People have gushed endlessly about how powerful its themes are, and how effectively it deconstructs video games in general and role playing games in specific. Unfortunately, these are things I have never been able to experience on my own because of the towering barrier to entry called reactive, precision-based gameplay.

I wish I could have done more with these photos
I wish I could have done more with these photos

It was a hard-learned lesson. I spent about 20 hours with the game, struggling through encounter after encounter, loading over and over again to try and clear the most basic fights. In the end I hit a major roadblock against one of the bosses, repeating the fight for about four hours over a few days before giving it up entirely.

People tend to get their hackles up when you talk about difficulty options, especially when it comes to a game they love like say, the Souls series. I certainly don't disagree with the assertion that a game's difficulty is a sort of authorial intent, a form of developer expression as valid as a game's writing or graphical design. But two years ago the developers of Celeste understood that while there may have been a way they intended for their game to be played, it wasn't necessarily a way all players would want to or even be capable of playing it. So they included a wide swath of options to help ease the difficulty to whatever felt right to the player. I can't help but wonder what my own experience with Undertale would have been if I had the option to maybe tweak the numbers so I'd be allotted more mistakes per fight, or slowed down the action so I had a few more fractions of a second to get my hands in gear.

Umurangi is the latest game that I've ended up butting up against in this way. It hasn't had the same cultural impact that Undertale did in its time, but the circles of games criticism that I follow have been raving about it all year. In theory, Umurangi is a photography game where you learn the truth of its world through the lens of a camera. In practice, Umurangi is a speedrun platformer with extremely rough platforming controls.

Sadly your options are limited if you suck at jumping
Sadly your options are limited if you suck at jumping

For a photography game, the camera the game starts you with is extremely rudimentary. One lens. Slight zoom capabilities. A few ways to adjust levels once the photo has been taken. The way you gain additional features for your camera is by completing tasks in each area: one for the main task of collecting a specific set of photos, and another for completing all bonus objectives. One of those bonus objectives is to complete your goals within a narrow time limit.

The platforming in Umurangi is rough. Even the game's most ardent defenders admit that the jumping feels bad. Of course, some of the photos you need necessitate you jumping and climbing your way up a number of extremely small platforms. I spent about an hour and a half in that first area, trying to complete the goals within the time limit in order to unlock the stage's second camera feature. I couldn't do it.

Some people suggested that I just keep playing the game and ignore the timer goals, but doing so would effectively halve the number of camera features I would have available to me. In the photography game. I decided to return the game instead, because in my mind I could not reconcile the fundamental disconnect between a game where I wanted to take my time drinking in the atmosphere and carefully lining up beautiful photographs with a game that wanted me to speed through locations taking photos willy-nilly if I wanted to meet the arbitrary goals the developers had set.

Runners-up: Cyberpunk 2077, DOOM Eternal

Best New Character

Judy Alvarez (Cyberpunk 2077)

The writing has been on the wall more or less since the initial reveal teaser back in 2013. CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 (to be released "when it's ready") was going to be a de-imagining of the genre, cyberpunk as aesthetic pastiche, a vapid nostalgic regurgitation of watching Bladerunner on VHS as a child, completely ignorant of the political ideologies that have run through it from the onset and have continued to sharpen as new creators have worked in the space since the word was coined in 1980.

Sup, V? Nah, just scrollin' some BDs
Sup, V? Nah, just scrollin' some BDs

And that's more or less what we got. The game world may be slathered in neon and chrome, but at its core 2077 is telling something much more akin to a high fantasy narrative where the chosen one unites with the spirit of a revolutionary hero from a past age and together they slay the evil dragon. The one shining exception to all this is Judy Alvarez.

Judy belongs to the Moxes, one of the few in-game factions that don't originate from Cyberpunk 2020, the tabletop role playing game which 2077 is based off of. The Moxes themselves are an unstructured collective of sex workers who won their independence from the pimps and gangs through a campaign of bloody riots throughout Night City. Judy herself works as a sort of pornographer editing Braindances or BDs. BDs are experiential recordings made with special cybernetic implants that capture a performer's thoughts, sensations, and emotions. By exclusively catering in BDs, the Moxes are able to create a much safer sex work environment. The performers can record their BDs in a controlled setting with other professionals, and the clients can experience the performers fully through the BDs without having to actually physically interact with one another.

No Caption Provided

Judy's close friend and confidant Evelyn Parker approaches sex work from a different angle. Evelyn works for the club Clouds as one of their Dolls. At Clouds, clients surrender the entirety of their biometric data to the Clouds algorithm which then fabricates an ideal encounter for them. Clouds selects the Doll it believes is best suited for the client and, for the duration of their time together, the Clouds AI takes full control of the Doll's body via a control chip to ensure the perfect performance. Whether this is simply some cuddling and pillow talk or intercourse, the Dolls themselves are never aware of what transpires during the session. This creates a level of security for the clients if they're willing to trust the AI to safeguard their privacy. However, it does leave the performers vulnerable, as the algorithm cannot detect whether a client may suddenly turn violent, nor is it equipped to protect the Dolls in such a situation. For that, Clouds relies on the club's security, but at best they can only prevent further harm after a client has already started acting out.

Things eventually break bad for Evelyn, ever the fate of those who are written into the role of the dame in a crime drama. And while you and Judy eventually manage to rescue her, the trauma she suffered in the interim eventually leads to her taking her own life. Driven to ensure that Evelyn's death was not in vain, Judy decides to do for the Dolls what the Moxes did for other sex workers long ago: overthrow the current power structure and put control of Clouds in the Dolls' hands. She puts together a crack team, you included, and you eliminate the middle manager whose negligence led to Evelyn's death before making a show of power to the gang bosses in charge of Clouds. You think you can own us? Well we can get to you too buddy so back off because Clouds is under new ownership now.

While we out here hot girl shit keeps happening
While we out here hot girl shit keeps happening

It lasts for about a day.

In the final leg of Judy's story she invites you to go diving in a lake just outside the city to explore the sunken ruins of her childhood town. After the dive, she reveals to you that things at Clouds have gone to shit. It turns out the efforts of a few plucky upstarts was nowhere near enough to intimidate one of the largest gangs in the city. They simply came back with more people. The Dolls you and Judy worked with are all either dead or severely injured, and Clouds has been shut down.

The world building that surrounds Judy and Evelyn is one of the few places where the game really examines the very cyberpunk ideas of transhumanism and the commodification of bodies under late stage capitalism. And through their shared narrative, they roll out one of the genre's core themes: individual action, no matter how heroic, is completely ineffectual in the face of systemic inequality and oppression. It took the collective action of an army of sex workers, racking up a huge body count and massive property damage, for the Moxes to carve out the most meagre of spaces free from government or gang interference. Judy tried to pull it off with five people.

Eventually Judy tells you why she invited you to go diving with her. After Evelyn and with the ways things went down with Clouds, she's ready to leave the city. If you're playing a female character you can choose to start a romantic relationship with her and convince her to stay, and she does for a time. But in the end, no matter what you do, she goes. When she first came to Night City, she thought she could make a difference, use her talents to help make life better for people. In the end she learned that in this world you either get out, or you get got. And that's cyberpunk, baby.

Runners-up: Jesse (The Last of Us Part II), Jessie Rasberry (Final Fantasy VII Remake)

Best Moment or Sequence

Playing Guitar/Take on Me (The Last of Us Part II)

I don't know a lot about the lifespan of guitars but it's very amusing to me that Ellie keeps finding them in various abandoned ruins, somehow still in perfect working condition.

I remember the first time they showed me the guitar interface in the game. It was surprising, but seemed more like a basic minigame than a tool. Select the correct cord with the analog stick. Swipe the touchpad to strum. Play a handful of chords and the game takes over, continuing with the cutscene. It wasn't until the second time a guitar cropped up and let me enter a free practice mode that I realized just what they had done.

Somehow Naughty Dog had turned the DualShock 4 into a whole-ass guitar. On the analogue was the same chord wheel, but I could flip through different wheels, each with a different set of chords to choose from. Strumming the guitar wasn't a simple all or nothing action. They had actually set different zones of the touch pad to reflect each of the six strings. You could choose to strum only a few strings, or even tap a specific string to play a single note. I ended up spending an unreasonable amount of time trying to play songs using their guitar interface and never got particularly good at it, but several people out there did.

It's always interesting, the ways developers try to translate music playing to a relatively simple tool like a controller. The Last of Us Part II's guitar is one of the most clever and flexible versions of this I've ever seen. And it doesn't hurt that the song Ellie plays for Dina in that moment is one of the most previously gay moments in any piece of media ever.

Runners-up: Completing My Orchard (Animal Crossing: New Horizons), Kingdom Hearts x Final Fantasy Versus XIII (Kingdom Hearts 3 Re:Mind)

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2020

10. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

The Warriors franchise is defined by its bloated rosters, and the impact that bloat has on its game design. I took a break from the franchise from 2001 to 2017, and while they added a ton of frankly welcome busywork managing items and skill trees between missions, the core problem remained. With its relatively simplistic control scheme butting up against the wide selection of available characters, there wasn't enough to differentiate between playing any of the dozen of sword wielders or half dozen sword wielders but on horses. My time with Fire Emblem Warriors was largely spent playing it at night as a mindless action to help ease me to sleep.

I ended up picking up Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity primarily for my kids as a game they could play together. They had a little bit of fun with Fire Emblem Warriors and I figured the colorful characters and world might be more engaging for them. Instead, they've been on a major Minecraft binge. I've been the one playing Age of Calamity, and it's a huge step up for the franchise.

This is
This is "one" of the playable character

Because of the leaner roster, the developers at Koei Tecmo have been able to pay a lot more attention to each character. By giving every character a wholly unique set of attack animations with unique properties and special character-specific mechanics layered on top, it is easy to keep the gameplay feeling fresh by swapping from character to character to character, across missions and even mid-mission as well. The magical world of Legend of Zelda also grants the game a much broader palette to work with in terms of character types. Warriors games almost entirely focus on soldiers with spears, axes, swords, bows, and that's mostly it. In Age of Calamity you have characters who can rip exploding pillars of rock from the ground, bird people who fly, plant elementals who summon forest sprites to aid them, and a quartet of giant women who live inside a roving flower and attack with exploding kisses.

The busy work also has gotten a major upgrade from Fire Emblem Warriors. The upgrade system for characters and their weapons has been streamlined, with far less grinding for materials required. The upgrades themselves are displayed as points on the map, like these are rewards you're getting for completing specific tasks for people in the world instead of just passionlessly ticking a box because you have enough upgrade crests or whatever. It's a simple change that for some reason makes me much more eager to engage with that part of the game.

I'm still, I believe, three characters shy of unlocking the full roster, and I'm very curious on what unique ideas those last three characters will bring. But even with the 15 I currently have access to, I have more than enough gameplay variety to keep me coming back to this game until I run out of new missions to complete. If they can take this learner design philosophy and carry it over to the rest of the franchise, I might start checking in with the Warriors games more often.

9. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

What is there to say? It's another Animal Crossing game. I know that some people bucked against the increased gaminess of this entry, with all the different materials you had to gather and farming for recipes and whatnot, but having already put a bunch of time into the mobile game, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, I was already mentally prepared for Nintendo to make this shift.

The increased sense of ownership I felt over my island, being allowed to choose where everything went and even reshape the terrain however I wanted, really captured my attention. Visiting my spouse's island and vice versa to see what we had been up to, to wish on stars or get a sick recipe from a villager, or just hang out and smack each other with axes as such a joy. And I can't overstate how much checking in every day to hit my rocks, shake my trees, water my flowers, dig my fossils, and do some shopping helped add structure back to the amorphous blocks of time that days became at the onset of shelter in place.

It wasn't until the Summer update that my enthusiasm for the game really started to wane. My museum was completed, I had cheated and stonked my way to tens of millions of bells in the bank, and my island was pretty much where I wanted it to be, having just used the Nookazon trading Discord to secure some blue roses, the last flower type I was missing from my mountaintop garden. With no real goals in mind and the time consuming nature of the new diving system, my check-ins grew shorter and shorter until finally I just stopped playing. I missed out on all the fall and winter holiday events and unless something major changes to get my spouse back into it, I probably won't be revisiting my island any time soon.

None of that takes away from the fact that it was a much needed balm of pleasant positivity in a time when we all really needed it.

8. Star Renegades

Star Renegades is a Roguelike RPG where the fundamental push and pull comes from its timeline mechanic. Each turn the player is granted near-perfect information of what the timeline of enemy actions is going to be. Among the various attributes of your characters' abilities are how quickly in the timeline they can be executed and how much they will delay an enemy's intended action. If you delay their action long enough, they will be forced to wait until the next turn to attack. Delay the enough times, and they will become immune to your delay abilities, making their next action inevitable.

Also this game looks siiiiiiiiiiick
Also this game looks siiiiiiiiiiick

In a lot of ways, Star Renegades makes good on the promise of what I initially thought Into the Breach would be. You won't find success without engaging with the layered, wide array of mechanics and systems. Each decision must be excruciatingly made as a bad choice now might cause you to ultimately fail against another enemy several battles in the future. This decision making extends beyond the battles as well, when you're picking between one of three items to loot from a chest, deciding whether to take on another fight or visit a repair station, or selecting which characters to invest experience points in and which pairings will spend downtimes together to build their bonds and gain access to powerful team abilities.

The 14 playable characters that can make up your party all function extremely differently, which can completely shift the way you have to approach your encounters from playthrough to playthrough. The randomized nature of equipment, and the ways it can drastically alter a character's strengths, means that even with a familiar team you can easily end up fighting in a way you've never fought before.

If I had any complaint to levy against the game, it would be that because of how much you need to scrutinize every move, single runs can easily take 5 or 6 hours to complete. Failing 5 hours into a run, especially because you had bad luck with equipment or the lack of synergy between the characters the game made available to you, feels bad every time. I'd love if this system could be translated to something more akin to a proper RPG because it is so fun to engage with, but for a small studio to make such a well conceived and finely tuned system like this, I'm more than happy to keep diving in run after run.

7. Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children

Troubleshooter is a very odd game.

It initially released in 2017 as an early access game. Most games that start as early access focus on short, repeatable gameplay. When the expectation is that players are going to be starting over all the time anyways, it's fairly straightforward to introduce new characters, systems, enemies, and environments to your game. You just put it in and players can start encountering it on their next playthrough. Troubleshooter, however, was trying to tell an expansive linear story with a wide cast of characters, so the developers at Dandylion came up with a somewhat unique method for rolling new content into their game.

Doomed to ever be 7/8
Doomed to ever be 7/8

Troubleshooter is a tactical game in the vein of the modern X-COM series, where you deploy a number of soldiers on missions. In Troubleshooter that number is 8, and from the start of the game it makes it very clear that you can deploy up to 8 characters at once. There's one minor snag though. You start the game with only one character. For the duration of the twenty or so missions that make up chapter 1, you only ever get a second character. The game instead fills out your roster with generic police troops and this has continued for the duration of my playthrough. I'm currently over 100 hours played with 4 chapters completed and still have barely reached 7 characters total. What seems to have happened is the developers started with half a chapter, two playable characters, and a handful of enemies, systems, and environments, and with the release of each update have simply been stapling new content into the game.

This is why the only shopkeeper you have access to in chapter 1 lives in your base, only sells weapons, and only in varieties that are usable by the starting classes of your first two characters. This is why despite the fact that crafting "exists" from the moment you start the game, the first recipes you get access to are for level 20 items. This is why instead of introducing new enemy types to you in a gradual stream, they show up in huge gluts.

The game has some confusing politics which are hard to fault the Korean developers for, as this is a story they first started writing in 2017. Still I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the fact that the Troubleshooters are basically super mercenary cops that the regular cops rely on because crime is out of control in this world. The faction that you primarily face in the first chapter are the Spoonists, basically anarcho-socialists who are so tired of being the have nots that they are rebelling against society. One of their primary philosophies goes something like, "If 10 people are willing to give a spoon of rice, we can create another bowl." It's worthy of a side-eye, but the game also largely presents the Spoonists as sympathetic if misguided people, largely undone by their leadership's willingness to sell their own people out for their personal agendas.

But it crunches so good
But it crunches so good

There's also the fully sentient animals of the forest that are trying to stop the human city from encroaching on their land. The messaging is confused again as they're both presented as almost an analogue for native tribal societies but also you sure do kill a lot of them on missions to protect the highways or repair the laser fences that stretch far beyond the city walls.

But the wildest thing is that the Abandoned Children, the people who the game is ostensibly about, don't even properly show up until halfway through chapter 3. It is revealed that the phrase "abandoned children" is in reference to the orphans who live in the poverty stricken areas outside of the major cities. These are people who have been robbed and beaten, forever at the mercy of the crime syndicates and denied any sort of protection by the authorities. So maybe this story isn't actually about this group of plucky teens trying to start their supercop organization, maybe it's actually about this other group of angry teens who are striking back against the system that abandoned them.

I really have no idea where this game is going with its themes, but beyond that and the uneven game structure, the actual tactical combat is incredibly engaging. The game does a lot with debuffs and elemental effects that interact with each other and with the terrain allowing you to pull off huge momentum swings if you can arrange the pieces just right. Each characters has multiple classes to choose from and a wholly unique set of attacks. There's a special mastery system that functions similarly to feats in Dungeons & Dragons, small modifiers that tweak your characters to make them more efficient in different situations.

They're still adding content to the game despite it being in "full release" since April of this year. I plan to continue chipping away at it in 2021 and maybe after another 100 hours I'll finally have an idea of what they're actually trying to say with this story. And hopefully I'll at long last be able to field a full 8/8 characters when I deploy on a mission.

6. Cyberpunk 2077

It's amazing what properly calibrated expectations can do for what would otherwise be an incredibly disappointing experience.

Hot girl shit
Hot girl shit

No one, least of all me, believed that a company that would force its employees to work mandatory 6-day work weeks for months and, in the case of some employees, nights and weekends for a year or more, would be able to write a convingly counter-capitalist cyberpunk narrative. No one believed that a company willing to repeatedly dog whistle to its far-right fans on social media, who felt justified plastering art fetishizing trans women across its game world because the game's cis female lead artist thought that trans women "look hot," would be able to speak to any sort of transhumanist ideologies.

It turns out it's actually worse in game. The one bit of explicitly "counter-capitalist content" comes in a series of vague anti-capitalism slogans that you receive in text form from a group calling itself the "Bartmoss Collective". At the end of the quest investigating the collective you discover that the messages all come from a hacked fortune telling machine, reprogrammed by some asshole for the sole purpose of trolling people. Johnny Silverhand, the man who lives in your head, admonishes you for thinking that there was any meaning to be found here. The only trans character, a bartender named Claire, is actually a pretty cool character who unfortunately is saddled with the worst string of sidequests, a series of races in a game with atrocious vehicle controls. If you don't have the patience to slog your way through several of these unnecessarily long races, you never even find out the fact that she's trans.

Hot girl shit
Hot girl shit

It's a game that touted your ability to slap a dick onto your character regardless of your body type, but decided to lock your gender identity to your voice when tone of voice is one of the areas that trans people struggle with the most when it comes to their identity. It's a game that put both romanceable female characters in critical roles in the main story and relegated both romanceable male characters to side content that the player might never come across. The gay male love interest was written to be the most pernicious of stereotypes, the rich older gay man who refuses to act his age as he chases far younger men. The rich older gay man with a substance abuse problem who has a personal chef that can't cook but is hot and Filipino.

So why is it that after my initial 70 hour playthrough I immediately hopped back in and have already put another dozen or so hours into a second character? The game part of 2077, it turns out, are actually a lot of fun.

There has been nonstop reporting on the buggy mess that the game has been for most players, particularly on the older game systems. Thankfully my PC is recent enough that the game runs fine at relatively high settings, and the caliber of bugs I'm experiencing aren't actually severe enough to bother me. Sometimes something will go horribly wrong and I'll lose 10 or 15 minutes of progress because the game breaks, but mostly it's just wonky animations, stuff randomly exploding, inconsequential items getting stuck in the terrain so they can't be looted, all pretty standard fare for the genre.

Hot girl shit
Hot girl shit

2077 is what I like to call a checklist game. They plop you into the game world and give you a whole bunch of shiny icons across the map that you can take on, one by one, like ticking items off a checklist. The objectives are usually close enough and quick enough to reach and complete that it's extremely easy to get into a rhythm bouncing from one to the next. There's always time for just one more gig, one more assault in progress, one more stop into the gun shop to see if anything new is in stock. And the degree of customization the well-designed skill system gives you provides that extra degree of attachment to your character. It was fun listening to other people talk about their ability to send enemies flying with a single punch or to send a deadly virus cascading through an enemy hideout while I shared stories about my character's ability to build a deadly rifle that could pierce through steel walls out of soda cans.

The game also at times tells a fairly compelling crime story. It's not very cyberpunk, and the themes absolutely still suck. It's a big yikes when your ex-gangster buddy sees a bunch of people get shotgunned down by the mega cops and his response is, "they probably deserved it." Also, having your underground cybernetic surgeon start touting the feature in your new eyes that lets you see what crimes people are "guilty" of so you can collect bounties on them for incapacitating or killing them isn't great. But the core emotional beats largely land, thanks in no small part to the expert voice acting.

What can I say, I like me some problematic media. I'm probably going to stay on the 2077 train until I beat it at least a second time, and then I'm sure to be back for whatever DLC comes further down the line. Recently I've been obsessed with the photo mode and I've really grown enamored with the collection that I've been building. Honestly I could probably play this game forever just for that feature alone. Still, it fucks me up to think that this game is what's going to define cyberpunk to a lot of young people. Everyone who plays 2077 should also play The Sprawl.

5. Wasteland 3

After bouncing off Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Pillars of Eternity, and Divinity: Original Sin, I figured maybe I had just moved on from this style of CRPG. At least two of those games were universally praised by fans of the genre but they did nothing for me, so it's weird that I decided to pick up Wasteland 3.

I suppose it was mostly a timing thing. The game was also getting universal praise, but clearly that was no indication of whether or not I'd find it engaging. Mostly I was looking for something new to sink my teeth into as the last major release I had put time into was Ghost of Tsushima, a game that came out a month-and-a-half prior. I believe there was also some sort of coupon/sale situation going on at the time so I figured why not.

"The Great Communicator" lol

It turns out maybe I'm not actually done with the genre. Maybe I've just lost patience for egregious clunk in my old age. Divinity's obsession with adhering to a tabletop RPG sort of feel leads to a lot of unnecessary busywork. I shouldn't have to manually transfer all my coins from my party members to my best barterer before shopping. It's just nonsense. And I'll never understand the design decision in Shadowrun to make it so you can't take cover and shoot around doorways.

Thankfully playing Wasteland 3 is smooth and effortless. Like a lot of the games on this list, ultimately what made playing Wasteland so fun was interesting decision making in and out of combat, a real sense of ownership over my characters by building them in specific ways, and an inventory system that was enjoyable to interact with and try to optimize.

Wasteland 3 largely wears its politics on its sleeve, you deal with cultist who worship an animatronic statue controlled by an AI Ronald Reagan who summarily executes anyone it suspects of being a communist with its laser eyes, and because of the general tongue-in-cheek tone it's easy to forgive it when it fumbles. The varied twists and turns your story can take also make it a good game for sharing stories with your friends as you compare decisions and outcomes.

When you beat the game they play you a song over the credits with lyrics that change to reflect the choices you made along the way. Funnily enough, one of the few bugs I hit while playing the game came during the song, when near the end it stopped giving me verses and only the instrumental played. If nothing else, it was a good reminder that with this sort of game it's more about the journey than the destination.

4. Hades

As it turns out, Hades was so surprisingly fun to play that I ended up doing a grand total of 170 runs, with 150 clears and a final clear streak of 94.

I've already written a fair bit about the game, so I'd like to use this space to acknowledge the incredible work that Supergiant did developing it. It's a game that screams polish from top to bottom; in terms of narrative design, game flow, battle mechanics, progression systems, graphics, music, voice work, everything in the game is immaculate. And according to the company's employees, they accomplished all of this without a single instance of crunch and with ample paid leave to manage personal health crises.

The game itself is wonderfully inclusive, reimagining the Greek pantheon as people of all different ethnicities. There are loving representations of straight relationships, homosexual relationships, polyamorous relationships, aromantic relationships, and even a canine relationship with Cerberus so long as you only give him pets on one of his heads.

If there's one knock to be made against the game it's that everyone falls into a very narrow, mainstream idea of hotness. No hate against Aphrodite for her nude, shapely figure made modest by strategically placed strands of her flowing hair. But there was a real missed opportunity with Dionysus, the god of wine, making him look like a super shredded bodybuilder instead of like, a hot fat guy.

It's a minor quibble, and nowhere near enough make me think of hesitating to recommend this game to anyone who is remotely interested. I've enjoyed my time with it and feel comfortable saying that I've completely plumbed its depths, but should they release any sort of expansion for the game, I'll be ready to jump right back in.

3. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I've always enjoyed Vanillaware's games because of their peerless 2D visuals and animations. They really are in a league of their own with their painterly character designs and backdrops, even if they have a tendency to get excessively horny with their female characters. But I wasn't sure what to expect with 13 Sentinels; I had purposely gone in blind. All I knew was that it was some sort of visual novel, tactical RPG hybrid, a major departure from the action games they had built their reputation on.

The whole game looks like this
The whole game looks like this

If I had to summarize the general concept of 13 Sentinels, it's essentially a nesting doll of science fiction, anime, and mecha tropes where you view the story out of sequence from 13 different perspectives. As you learn more and dig deeper, what initially presents itself as a time travel story gradually reveals itself to be something else, then something else, then something else, then something else. Once it had its hooks in me I was treating it essentially like a page turner, taking advantage of every spare moment I could to see another scene as I tried to piece together the mysterious truth of the world these characters were inhabiting.

Most remarkable to me is how effective the game is at eking out information to you in a way that constantly keeps you guessing, because there is no set path for viewing the story's scenes. Instead you are given free reign (with occasional gating) to choose the order in which you experience each character's story. Maybe you really want to know what's going on with Juro so you play a bunch of his scenes all at once. Maybe you end up skipping around between all the different characters. Maybe you decide to spend some time running tactical missions where more storytelling unfolds.

The tactical gameplay is also very well designed. It strikes an amazing balance where there's enough going on to make the fights feel dynamic and exciting, but not so much that it ever feels like it's taking time away from the narrative. Clearly they knew they had something special going on, as from what I understand they included a total of 9,999 optional bonus stages you can choose to tackle after beating the game. They also do that fun thing where even details like the way the battles are displayed and the scoring and leveling mechanics are revealed to have been secret worldbuilding all along.

Battles can get pretty busy
Battles can get pretty busy

I don't want to go into any more specifics. I'd rather not spoil anyone who hasn't had a chance to play the game yet. I'll just add one minor addendum here for the game's treatment of queer characters.

I honestly can't remember if there was any sort of queer representation in past Vanillaware games, but it's worth noting that the game was published by Atlus, a company with a particularly terrible history in its portrayal of queer identities. Most notable is their overuse of the stereotype of older gay men who prey on younger boys in the Persona series and their depiction of trans women "tricking" straight men into relationships with them in the Catherine games.

13 Sentinels features a romantic subplot that explores ideas of homosexuality, bisexuality, and nonbinary and genderfluid identities. It's very surface level, but done in what comes across as a very earnest and heartfelt way for about 99% of the game. In the epilogue they fuck it up and turn it into a gay panic joke.

So if you do decide to play this game, be ready for that, and if you're a big ol' nerd like me, get ready for a rollercoaster of a story that will reward you for your knowledge of sci-fi, anime, and mecha tropes.

2. Final Fantasy VII Remake

I played the original Final Fantasy VII (FF7) to death when I was in high school. I cleared it multiple times. I spent forever in that one room with the Magic Pots and Movers in order to max out everything, including enough copies of Knights of the Round to equip a full party. I even wrote my own complete walkthrough for the game, an artifact thankfully lost to time. It's also a game that I don't like very much.

Only 90s kids will remember
Only 90s kids will remember

You hear it all the time from us old heads. Back in the day there weren't so many games to play. You got your one game for a birthday or Christmas or maybe a really solid report card and you played it to hell and back because your options were limited. For most of 1997, my game was FF7, and on the first playthrough it was amazing. The story and characters were fresh and exciting and there's no taking away from the revolutionary way the game introduced cinematic spectacle to RPGs and video games in general. But eventually novelty and spectacle wear off and all that you're left with is gameplay, and that was FF7's biggest flaw.

FF7 took the idea of character customization present throughout the series to its logical extreme with the new Materia system. Unlike other games where characters would learn skills and spells by spending time equipping a specific item or leveling up a specific job, in FF7 a character's abilities were determined by the Materia they had equipped. The Materia were free to swap between characters, and it was the Materia themselves that you were invested in making more powerful. This ended up flattening the roster in gameplay as you could always just slot in your strongest Materia set on whichever characters you had and have battles play out largely the same way.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Final Fantasy VII Remake (FF7R) has managed to both maintain the feel and function of the Materia system and also create one of the most distinct and varied sets of characters in any Final Fantasy game. The move from turn-based menu-driven combat to action suddenly means that Cloud's sweeping sword swings, Tifa's focused fists, and Barret's long range barrages all serve very different purposes. Beyond the universality of Materia, characters each gain unique skills such as Barret's ability to draw the enemy's attention while bolstering his own defenses and Aerith's ability to etch a sigil onto the ground that will double the spellcasting abilities of anyone standing on it.

A universe inside every weapon
A universe inside every weapon

Even more exciting for me was the ability to fully customize your characters through the revamped weapon system. Unlike most RPGs where your weapon choice typically boils down to which one makes the numbers the biggest, almost if not all the weapons you obtain over the course of the game have their own uses. This is because inside each weapon is a sort of skill tree/upgrade grid that lets you tune each weapon to better serve a different role. Each weapon's upgrade grid is unique, and presents the players with a handful of ways to specialize that weapon.

Depending on your party composition and the specific encounter you're facing, any character might need to fulfill the role of attacker, spellcaster, healer, tank, or some sort of hybrid. Between the weapon options and the Materia system, you can easily reconfigure your party into just about anything. Even then, thanks to their unique attacks and abilities and the different ways you can adjust their weapon properties, no two characters will fulfill the same role in the same way.

Honestly, they could have remade FF7 beat for beat and only changed the combat system and I would have been more than happy to play the remake. Instead, they greatly expanded on the original material and turned what previously were bit characters with a handful of lines across the game into instant fan favorites. The absolute wine aunt/2nd grade teacher energy they imbued Aerith with and the way she and Tifa interact with Cloud and each other is incredibly charming and every shipper's dream come true. They gave players a much better feel for the world and made the more implicit environmentalist themes of the original game explicit. And they did absolutely the most when they turned the remake into a meta narrative about the original game.

The first time the plot ghosts showed up to harass Aerith and Cloud I thought, huh, weird. That's new. The second time they showed up, this time seemingly to help Aerith and Cloud, is when I realized what they were doing. They were taking events that seemed like they were starting to unfold differently from the original game and forcing them back on course. Suddenly I was much more engaged in seeing where Square was going with this. It resulted in some emotionally charged moments, primarily around character deaths and undeaths, and left the story in such a puzzling place that I can't wait to see what they have in store for FF7R-2 or whatever it is they end up calling it.

1. The Last of Us Part II

Ok it super sucks that Naughty Dog is another studio that burned out its developers with mandated crunch. It's fucked up that when abuse allegations were levied against them by a former employee, they immediately swept it under the rug. It's stupid that they chose to call a games criticism publication to chastise them for a less than glowing appraisal of their game. The game's director, Neil Druckmann, should have his Twitter taken away from him and maybe Troy Baker should just stick to reading lines into a microphone instead of airing his trash opinions.

Oh right also it's stupid that they wouldn't let reviewers talk about the second playable character at all. It sucks that developers aren't really willing to start considering the sort of impact having artists carefully animate these horrendous scenes of cruel violence might have on their psyches. What does figuring out how to convincingly make it look like the impact of a baseball bat is slightly caving in a man's skull do to you? I have no idea. And you don't really get to wave your representation flag when you relegate non-white characters to ancillary roles and leverage transphobic abuse as a character growth moment for your cis het protagonist.

The cottagecore dream was nice while it lasted
The cottagecore dream was nice while it lasted

Phew. So this was my favorite game this year?

Maybe favorite isn't the right word for it, lord knows I was absolutely miserable for long stretches of it. I ended up shielding my eyes every time the violence got too intense, which was constantly. The action was fun, though. They really fine tuned what was present in the first game and I already had a ton of fun with that back in 2013 so uh, yeah.

Really what it all comes down to is that, beyond its mechanics, beyond its production values, this game stayed with me in a way that gave me a lot to think about. It had very clear things to say about the ugliness of the cycle of violence, of revenge, of extreme trauma. I've heard criticism that these are all well trod themes in other media, but that's sort of irrelevant to me. It's different experiencing it interactively, with this level of fidelity and craft on display.

It's a shame that game reviewers were told not to write about Abby. Maybe without that restriction they might have spent more time thinking about her journey and the way she mirrors Joel from the first game, both in narrative and mechanics. Maybe by reflecting on the game closing on an image of hope, Abby and Lev's boat having finally reached the shore of Catalina Island where the remnants of the Fireflies are based, they might have had a different takeaway about what themes were really at play here.

I don't know. What I do know is that I like complicated media, and The Last of Us II is just that. The themes may be clear, but the characters' relationships to those themes, and our relationships to those characters, are complicated.


StarvingGamer's GotY 2019 Biggest Disappointment Addendum: Disco Elysium

I initially wrote about Mortal Kombat 11 as my biggest disappointment of 2019 and I think that still holds true for the ways it negatively impacted me last year and will continue to do so throughout 2020. But as I've been listening to various gaming podcasts, GotY and otherwise, and their choruses of great praise for Disco Elysium, I keep flashing back to one of the most negative gaming experiences I had this decade. It's the game that narrowly missed being my biggest disappointment of the year, only by virtue of me playing it with very low expectations, and I feel like if I don't get all of my frustration with it out of me I'm going to explode. Spoilers to follow:

Let me get the praise out of the way first. I think the skill system is great, with the constant rolling of hidden checks, even if having to spend a point to forget a thought is bullshit. The world is very well realized and the game is a treat to look at. Disco mostly handles its thematic content well and the incredibly heavy-handed tone works for it. The game is sparsely voiced but the prose flows very well so it rarely becomes a chore to read. Also your partner Kim Kitsuragi is a great character.

But also fuck this game.

A kid who slings homophobic slurs how transgressive
A kid who slings homophobic slurs how transgressive

For all the rationalization I've heard from people about how the racism and homophobia are earned as part of the game's gritty portrayal of the world, they sure are careful to use fake racist terms for everyone who isn't of East Asian descent. It's a made up world with made up regions and made up slurs. There was even a time I accidentally picked a made up racist slur as a dialogue option and didn't find out it was supposed to be racist until after the fact. In a game that's supposed to be so uncompromisingly real, for all the different skin tones that are represented, it really stuck out as a sore thumb that the only real-world racism that carried over into the game was the racism that I have been personally subjected to. Not a racism that anyone on the writing staff would have experienced, I'm guessing.

People have also heaped on the praise for the breadth of roleplaying options in this game, and Austin Walker has talked about it as being a sort of bridge that hints at the much broader creative space afforded to players of tabletop roleplaying games. While I don't disagree with his assertion that the "role playing" in most video games that label themselves as RPGs is much more like picking one of three canonical characters to play as (nice/mean/centrist), the illusion of expanded freedom in Disco makes it even more immersion breaking when the game blocks your progress unless you take one specific, selfish action without any options for empathy.

When I was working through this game I kept coming to my gaming discord confused because I was running out of things to do. In Disco time only passes when you are performing actions, primarily interacting with objects and going through new dialogue options. You can't just stand around and have time pass, and until 21:00 every game day when your partner goes to bed, you can't force time to pass by lounging around on a bench. On day two I found myself several hours shy of 21:00, having exhausted every dialogue option I was interested in pursuing according to how I was roleplaying my character (be thorough without being overly nosy about seemingly irrelevant information). The only way forward was if I wanted to either A) break immersion by exhausting every dialogue tree possible or B) break immersion by spending my meager money on books that I could read to fast forward time, a roleplaying decision that would make no sense since buying a single book would make my character unable to afford to pay for their motel room for the night.

The money situation is dire the first two days
The money situation is dire the first two days

Eventually I bought a book, which didn't feel great as now I had to beg Kim to pay for my lodging. On day three a new area opened up giving me much more to do, but again on day five, very early in the morning I ran out of things to do. In order to make it to day five in the first place, I had already compromised my roleplaying completely. I had bought everything I could interact with regardless of what it was, and ran around exhausting every possible dialogue tree. I had literally nothing I could do, save one thing.

Disco Elysium is a story about an amnesiac cop, sent to investigate a hanging. The town you're in has no police force of their own, you're an out-of-towner, and local "peacekeeping" is handled by a group of vigilantes from the labor union that runs the area. On day two it's revealed that those same vigilantes are responsible for the hanging, something that they openly admit when confronted with the most meager evidence. They claim they were justified, after all the man who was hanged had sexually assaulted another guest of the motel you're staying in. Not only do they have no fear of punishment, the game makes it abundantly clear that the police in this world have far less legal authority than their real-world counterparts. If you try to request backup from your precinct you are denied, leaving just you and Kim with a single gun between you to try and manage this gang.

When you go to question the woman who was assaulted, she immediately puts on an air of nihilism by way of debauchery. She's here to smoke, drink, shoot up, and fuck herself into oblivion and when pressed, she says that actually she was not assaulted. She had a consensual relationship with the hanged man but had been told by the vigilante gang to lie about it. She tells you to go ahead and tell them that she isn't willing to lie for them.

I should be allowed to care even if she doesn't
I should be allowed to care even if she doesn't

So me taking stock of the situation, there's a gang of eager murderers who are what equates to the "law" in these parts. They killed a man under the pretense of a sexual assault that never happened. They gave this woman, an outsider who has no ties in this town, an order to lie to cover up their crime. I have no weapon, no support, and no authority. If I rat this woman out, I have no way to ensure her safety. Even if she is being extremely cavalier with her own life, according to the morals of the character I am trying to role play as, there is no way I am willing to put her in that sort of danger. And I make it all the way to the start of day five before I have exhausted literally everything else the game has to offer and have no choice but to rat her out.

It eradicated any sort of investment I had left in my character or the narrative. Everyone told me I was playing a role playing game that finally gave players nuanced options to really craft their persona and fail forwards. It turns out I was just playing yet another video game RPG where I was vaguely guiding the developer's canonical character. No matter how much information you gather or how many clues you uncover, there is no world where the main character of Disco Elysium is willing to exert any effort in order to not directly tell these murderers that this woman is unwilling to cover up their crimes.

Also the main character of Disco Elysium is canonically racist against people of East Asian descent, and that's if I'm trying to give the game a more charitable reading.

There is a moment in the game where the main character can attempt a fairly difficult skill check in order to start dancing. It was a long shot, but I rolled those dice and actually succeeded. Exciting! What follows is a very silly sequence that lets you try to bring the people around you into the dance. Those skill checks were much easier and soon almost the whole room was dancing. Your partner, Kim, remains steadfast at first and resists your attempts to coax him to shake a leg. Eventually the game gives you the opportunity to attempt a skill check to convince him, and I'm thinking fuck yeah, Kim, let's fucking dance! It was evolving into a much needed moment of frivolous joy piercing through the misery of the game's world.

This dance floor is getting heated
This dance floor is getting heated

My points in the relative skill were high, statistically my chance to roll a success was something around 70%, but I flubbed it. So what's the punchline to this goofy-ass scene? My character shouts a racist insult at Kim.

This game is being widely praised for its writing, and I think it's fair of me to assume that a game filled with such meticulously crafted dialogue was designed with intentionality. So what is this scene actually trying to say? Are we supposed to read it as telling us that the game isn't about ownership of the character and the best you can do is keep this racist-fuck character's racist tendencies at bay? Or are we actually supposed to have a say in whether or not this character is racist, because then things get a lot more insidious.

Is the player, who has chosen up until this point to not make any racist comments (I loaded a previous save when I accidentally said the fake racist thing), and has actually gone out of their way to denounce racism whenever they encounter it, supposed to see the main character as not a racist? Then what does that mean, that after failing a social skill check this not racist person suddenly decides to shout something incredibly racist at their partner and possibly only friend in the world? Did the main character of Disco Elysium just have a heated gaming moment? "Oh I'm not racist, I just shouted incredibly racist things because things were so intense." You know, the thing that totally normal, not-racist people do.

Kim, of course, immediately storms out of the room, and I immediately Alt+F4ed the game. I went ahead and edited all my skills to be super high so I wouldn't fail any more checks and just brute forced my way through the rest of the game so I could see if they managed to do anything with the story that would justify all the shit I went through trying to play it. Of course they didn't, and now any time I hear people talking about how great Disco is, all I can feel is the burning frustration as I remember my character suddenly shouting out racist insults that I have been subject to for most of my life. Oopsie poopsie.

Fuck this game.


StarvingGamer's Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2019

No preamble this year, too tired. Games happened. Spoilers.

Runners-up: 11. Observation, 12. Devil May Cry 5, 13. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, 14. Neo Cab, 15. Mini Motorways, 16. Telling Lies, 17. Sayonara Wild Hearts, 18. SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, 19. Slay the Spire, 20. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Best Old Game

Magic: The Gathering Arena

Titles are weird. If I didn't know any better I'd assume this was some sort of game about an arena that gathers or perhaps an arena that is made for gathering. Which, honestly, is not that far off the mark. By releasing this game, Wizards of the Coast has managed to gather together people approaching Magic: The Gathering from all sorts of different levels of skill and commitment. Are you heavily invested in playing the game in cardboardspace? Well here's another outlet for you when you can't get people together, without sacrificing any of the mechanical depth and technical play. Does the financial barrier keep you away from the traditional game? Or maybe you just feel anxious about the social aspects. Well here's a safe arena where you can gather up all the cards you want with a very generous free to play model that lets you remain competitive by investing time instead of money.

Sometimes the choice is made for you
Sometimes the choice is made for you

That's how I've spent a good amount of my free time this past year. Despite only putting $5 into one special bundle (more as a tip than anything) I have, for the first time in my life, gotten to really experience the Standard format of Magic play. Standard was just becoming a thing when I started getting into Magic in the mid 90s. Every year, old cards would rotate out of Standard and new sets would be released. For a person with infinite money, this probably sounded great. Wizards could learn as they went and design the game to be more varied and also more balanced, without having to worry about old, overpowered cards continuing to dominate. For me as a poor high schooler, this just meant hearing about all the cool new decks people were building while challenging my friends with our hodgepodge mishmash decks of badness made up of whatever cards we managed to scrape together.

Now I too am able to play the cool new decks that also still happen to be decks of badness but this time it's on purpose because I can't be happy with a straightforward strong deck that just wins. I'm not spending money, I don't have to leave home, and I can squeeze in a game or two here or there when I have time. I have more than enough cards to build several decks that can compete at the highest levels. I have oodles of in-game currency stocked up so I can go all out when the next set releases in January. Honestly, part of me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Wizards to take the hatchet to their in-game economy because the game is too generous. I hope they don't, so I can continue to get everything I want out of them for free in 2020.

Runners-up: Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Street Fighter V

Best Surprise

Life Is Strange 2

It feels weird to put this here.

Can you tell me the story about the wolf brothers?
Can you tell me the story about the wolf brothers?

When I think about the current phase of my adult life, I keep coming back to the original Life Is Strange as one of my most formative media experiences. I almost couldn't believe it when I double checked that the game came out at recently as 2015. Surely it's far older than that. Maybe it was just informing pieces of myself that were always there, but that I wasn't fully cognizant of. A four year old game that had been a part of me for the past decade. It was a game that tackled serious issues, sometimes clumsily, but always with care and compassion; issues that very few games with the same high production values were willing to tackle; with quality graphics and voice acting that lent each dramatic scene an immediate realness felt deep inside the gut.

But there was a sort of perceived universality to the themes being presented in Life Is Strange. Yes, DONTNOD was a French company trying to capture American teen drama, but what culture doesn't understand young romance, teen bullying, the pain of losing a loved one, or butting against parental authority? And when I played the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 back in September of last year, with it's plot about two Mexican-American teens on the run after seeing their father gunned down by a trigger happy cop, I thought, "Oooh, this feels too current, too of the moment." I doubted that the good-hearted but sometimes fumbling developers at DONTNOD would be able to properly capture what struck me as a uniquely American story.

In some ways, I suppose that was the point. Racism, prejudice, fascistic violence, these aren't uniquely American qualities. It can be easy to get tunnel vision and only focus on the things you hear about happening in your own back yard, but the truth is it's happening everywhere. And even if you don't experience it firsthand anyone can empathize with it, have compassion for those who do suffer from it, and as it turns out, write a compelling narrative with those themes built around a strong core. DONTNOD took a huge swing with Life Is Strange 2, from top to bottom a far more ambitious game than the original. They didn't miss.

I'm happy to be wrong, and sorry I ever doubted them.

Runners-up: Eliza, Teppen

Biggest Disappointment

Mortal Kombat 11

It's a little fucked up that my biggest gaming disappointments over the last four years have been fighting games. Am I too invested in fighting games as a genre? Maybe. I have a really good reason this time, though!

If you read my last GotY blog you may remember that my "gaming" moment of the year was when Dominique "SonicFox" McLean won Best Esports Player at The Game Awards, and took advantage of the moment and the platform to celebrate their blackness and their queerness and to thumb a nose at anyone who would hold those qualities against them. Since then, SonicFox has continued to be a voice for the marginalized, coming out as non-binary and pushing for more acceptance and fewer bigots in the fighting game community. They also have continued to excel in fighting game competitions, most notably by continuing to dominate in games developed by NetherRealm Studios.

It's cool they brought in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa though
It's cool they brought in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa though

This includes Mortal Kombat 11, a game that, among other things, replaced a number of its voice cast mainstays with this latest release. Part of this may have been due to the voice actor's strike overlapping with earlier phases of the game's development. In one particular case, it turned out to be the worst sort of stunt casting imaginable.

If you somehow don't know who Ronda Rousey is, consider yourself lucky. Rousey exploded into the mainstream in 2012 when she was announced as the first female fighter signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts (MMA) company. She was seen as a feminist (although very fat-shaming) icon thanks to her strength and dominance in the ring. Around the same time, however, she was also proving herself to be a real shit human to anyone paying enough attention.

It was only a month after the Sandy Hook shooting that claimed the lives of 28 people, including 20 children, when she was on twitter sharing a popular conspiracy video claiming the entire tragedy was a hoax. She called it an "extremely interesting must watch video" and initially doubled down on her tweet, saying it was more patriotic to ask questions than to accept what we're told. Eventually, she deleted the tweets and gave the pat "sorry you were offended" non-apology. Later that year she used gross, transphobic language when referring to Fallon Fox, the first transgender MMA fighter. She never apologized for this but she did learn to be less outspoken when it came to her more bigoted views. Since then her career in MMA fizzled and she went on to become a bad WWE wrestler and a worse film actor, getting by on name recognition alone. And in 2019 she became the new voice of one of the most iconic characters in fighting games, Sonya Blade.

It's so bad. It's really terribly awfully bad. Her delivery is wooden, stilted, affectless. She detracts from every scene she is in and turns what would otherwise be very intense, emotion beats for her character into embarrassing cringe-fests. And it sucks that anyone who fights as or against Sonya has to hear Rousey's lousy voice. And it sucks that because she was stunt cast she was at the forefront of the game's marketing. And it sucks that someone as progressive and inclusive and genuinely kind hearted as SonicFox has to compete in a game tainted by her vile presence.

Fuck TERFs.

Runners-up: Disco Elysium, Outer Wilds

Best New Character

Edelgard von Hresvelg (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)

Her burden is heavy
Her burden is heavy

Look, I don't see what the problem is. Yes she technically used to be my student but that was five years ago and I've been in an ageless sleep that entire time so we're basically probably the same age now. Ok so sure she's declared war on the Church but since the Church is run by a megalomaniacal dragon lady who likes to summarily execute dissenters, I think I'm ok with that.

And besides, even though she is technically the pinnacle of bourgeoisie, being the Flame Emperor and all, she's only wielding her absolute power over the Adrestian Empire to smash the other bourgeoisie. She's either punching up at dragon god or punching sideways at a ruling class that is obsessed with hereditary magical crests. Long live the proletariat!

I know that some of her allies/uncles might seem a bit evil or guilty of war crimes, but when you're fighting the Dragon God Church you need troops and supplies. You can't go it alone and you don't get to choose the family of sadistic sociopaths you have. You make the best of it and try to make sure they don't kill too many innocent people before you drain them of resources then murder them in the dark. Or have Hubert do it.

Plus this could be the start of a whole new trope. The "lesbians that conquer a continent to spread their egalitarian agenda" trope.

I know I'd die for my Emperor. Who are you going to die for? Claude?

Runners-up: Kim Kitsuragi (Disco Elysium), Parvati Holcomb (The Outer Worlds)

Best Moment or Sequence

David's Trailer (Life Is Strange 2)

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but I have strong feelings about the original Life Is Strange.

Fuck the Bay!
Fuck the Bay!

For five episodes, it was a game about using time travel to explore choice and consequence. In the end, the player's final interaction with the game was less a decision and more an ultimatum. Do you sacrifice the town of Arcadia Bay to the whims of a supernatural time cyclone? Or do you sacrifice Chloe, your best friend and possibly the love of your life, the person whose tragic first death was the impetus for discovering your ability to rewind time.

The game has two endings, but players who chose to sacrifice the Bay couldn't help but feel like their ending was less intended and more an afterthought. Players who chose to sacrifice Chloe were treated to a beautiful funeral sequence with a majority of the principal cast in attendance. It closes with Max witnessing a blue butterfly landing on Chloe's casket, a bookend to the blue butterfly that Max was chasing at the beginning of episode 1. The implications were clear. The culprits are apprehended. Everyone mourns. Life goes on.

On the other hand, if you chose to sacrifice the Bay, your ending consisted of a few brief aerial shots of the city vaguely hinting at the extent of the destruction, followed by a handful of quick cuts of Max and Chloe wordlessly driving out of town. There's no bookending, no closure, no real sense of what actually happened to the people in the Bay or what came next for Max and Chloe.

Long before the release of Life Is Strange 2 (LIS2), DONTNOD had made it clear that the story would be focusing on brand new characters, not Max and Chloe. Still, at the beginning of the game it asks players which choice did they make. Did they sacrifice Chloe, or sacrifice the Bay. Near the end of episode 1 there's a moment where the main characters pull onto an overlook along the highway to get a breath of fresh air. Down below you can see one of two things, a quaint seaside town dotted with lights against the night sky, or a desolate ghost town of destroyed homes. This is more or less what players expected, a little cameo of the Arcadia Bays that could have been and a fun nod to players of the first game.

No one expected David Madsen, Chloe's sometimes abusive and always shitty stepfather, to show up in the final episode of LIS2. Separated from the events of the first game, the ex-soldier turned power tripping security guard had finally mellowed out and found a community where he could simply be. Trading in his crew cut and jeans and button downs for a ponytail and cargo shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt (although still in military camo colors), this new David was less interested in being the Man and more interested in helping the protagonists Sean and Daniel Diaz escape the Man.

We lived, bitch
We lived, bitch

When David sends you into his trailer home to pick up a police scanner, you get to poke around his life a bit and see what he's been up to. If you chose to sacrifice Chloe you find out that the tragedy of her death led to the eventual dissolution of his marriage to Chloe's mother, Joyce. She sends him postcards and he writes her letters and that's about all you get.

If you're like me and chose to sacrifice the Bay, however, you are treated to a veritable feast of epilogue content for a game you thought was over four years ago. You enter his trailer and inside there's a string of Polaroids of the people in David's community, taken in Max's trademark photography style. And there, beneath them, is a photograph of Chloe and Max, together. David talks about the tragedy of the Bay being destroyed, confirming that yes, in fact, more or less everyone else died, but goes on to talk about how through that loss he was finally able to form a real relationship with his stepdaughter. She even visits him with her friend Max sometimes!

So your heart breaks into a million pieces because you love these girls so much and they're safe and they're happy and they're together and you didn't know you needed this but you needed this so you say thanks to David and bid him goodbye as he walks away to take an important call.

You only ever hear his side of the conversation but it's enough. Chloe and Max are in New York looking for a gallery space for Max. One spot turned them down, but another one sounds promising! Some of the old David creeps through as he takes a dig at the general concept of New Yorkers. He talks to Chloe about when he can see her again and ends the call with a, "Bye bye, love ya!"

And that's what this was, a moment for all the players who chose to sacrifice the Bay and save Chloe to properly tell these girls, "Bye bye, love ya!"

Runners-up: Keyblade Wielders from Long Ago (Kingdom Hearts III), Tommie Earl Jenkins Came Here to Act (Death Stranding)

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2019

10. The Outer Worlds

A lot of this comes down to timing. After beating Control, which dropped in late August, there wasn't really anything meaty for me to dig into. The expansion for Monster Hunter came out, alongside a slew of smaller games on Apple Arcade, but those were pure gameplay experiences meant to be chipped away at gradually over time. By late October I was starving for something more substantial that I could lose myself in.

I really don't have much to say about The Outer Worlds the video game. It's just a pretty good one of this style of open world RPG, and exactly the perfect sort of comfort food gaming that I could slot neatly into my life. It let me explore themes I find interesting without ever being too challenging. I got to futz around with inventory management where the ratio of value to weight was pretty easy to parse and the limited item pool meant I didn't have to agonize over optimization. And I got to fly around space with my very Firefly adjacent ragtag crew of castaways and roustabouts.

Look at this cute nerd
Look at this cute nerd

I guess now is the part where I afford special attention to one of those crew members, Parvati Holcomb. Typically, in this sort of companion based RPG, your teammates tend to be "player-sexual", meaning that any romantic narrative they have will focus on whether or not they are the member of the party that the player character will claim as their partner. The Outer Worlds bucks this trope in a few key ways; first, by having zero romantic options for your character to pursue; and second, by focusing Parvati's personal quest on her attempts to woo Junlei Tennyson, the chief engineer on a space station the player frequents.

At first things play out as you'd expect them to for a bubbly but socially awkward young lover. Parvati can't stop rambling incessantly about Junlei, "I like her. Does she like me? She mentioned her ex what does that mean?" but pretty quickly she makes it clear to the player that she has another concern that goes beyond what many players will find typical, or even have any awareness of.

That's because Parvati is "ace" or asexual.

For the uninitiated, an asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction to others, and are sometimes uninterested or even repulsed by intimate physical contact. Asexual does not mean aromantic, however, as plenty of asexual people experience emotional attraction to others and can have long fulfilling relationships along those lines. And boy is Parvati ever romantically attracted to Junlei. In between fretting over her asexuality and talking about the ways it has caused problems in her past relationships, she's pushing the player to scour the galaxy for the components she requires in order to assemble the perfect first date.

Eventually you complete Parvati's laundry list of tasks and they have their dinner and you eavesdrop a bit and it is extremely cute and afterwards you ask Parvati how it went. It turns out the plan was a big success, that Junlei was sufficiently wooed, and even though Parvati is asexual they are still going to try to make it work. There's an implication that Junlei is not also asexual, but the game's epilogue makes it sound like they found a comfortable middle ground and lived happily ever after.

It's a small step, but I think it's pretty cool that the most memorable character from a big budget mass market video game is asexual, and that asexuality is front and center. And part of the reason she works so well is because the writer in charge of Parvati, Kate Dollarhyde, also identifies as ace. Representation matters, and I hope we have a lot more in 2020.

9. Control

Speaking of Control (I mentioned it up there somewhere), this game is the best instincts of Remedy Entertainment on full display. There was a stumbling point for the studio in 2016 when they released Quantum Break to a very lukewarm reception from critics and fans alike. The qualities that had become hallmarks of the Remedy house style; a heavy focus on genre trappings, a strong dose of Lynchian surrealism, and the uncanniness that came from projecting video of real actors onto the TVs in a world of polygonal people; were all sanded down for what felt less like a Remedy game and more like a licensed game based on a generic network TV show.

Not relevant; I just love this suit
Not relevant; I just love this suit

Thankfully Control gets right everything that Quantum Break gets wrong. Falling somewhere between X-Files and SCP Foundation, the game is dripping from head to toe with genre goodness. The main character, Jesse Faden, stumbles into a building called the "Oldest House," a building that normal people can't see and may or may not be an extradimentional entity, while in search of her brother who was taken by the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) 17 years ago when an old slide projecter they found in a dump opened portals to other dimensions and caused every adult in their town to disappear. She immediately gets hired as the assistant to the janitor, who may or may not be God, and also inherits the gun of the old Director who just used said gun to commit suicide and, like, it's Mjolnir so whosoever holds this gun shall possess the power of Director and everyone in the bureau is immediately on board with this person who walked in off the street suddenly being the one in charge.

It's some wild shit.

And the game is great. It's incredibly fun to play. As you explore the Oldest House Jesse's access to powers and weapons expands, so even when you're facing generic grunt soldiers for the 100th time there's always another way you could try to approach the fight. The architecture of the Oldest House does an amazing job of setting tone, like what if Brutalism but the part where it looks uninviting or actively hostile to being inhabited by people is actually a design feature. All the descriptions and behaviors of the supernatural objects of power in the game play out like the best creepypastas. And they learned the lesson from Quantum Break by making sure none of the live action actors were also represented by performance capture models in game, and vice versa, unless they were doing something really weird with it.

By the end of the game Jesse has found a new home for herself as the Director of the FBC, and in a lot of ways Control is a homecoming for Remedy as well. With the beginnings of their newly established Remedyverse being teased in the game with direct references to their 2010 game Alan Wake, I can't wait for whatever comes next.

8. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Up front I just want to thank Sylvain and Lorenz for being such total creeps towards my main character that I had no choice but to side with the Black Eagles just to get away from them.

Blessed be the fan artists
Blessed be the fan artists

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is three very long games rolled into one. In one game you can be a radical revolutionary, trying to tear down not one but two dominant systems of power. In another I think you end up being some sort of weird revenge cop. And the third I'm pretty sure is just about being a centrist who is really proud about how cleverly centrist they can be. But like most modern Fire Emblem games, the real story is about the characters living in the world, and the ways that conflict can bring them together or drive wedges between them.

The narrative of the game is set during two distinct time periods. The first half casts the player in the role of professor for one of the three class houses at Garreg Mach Monestary's military academy. Each house represents one of the three major geographical powers of a continent at peace, with students hailing from all three regions learning together, eating together, and going on military excursions together to eradicate the occasional bandit gang or quell a minor uprising or two. And outside of a few exceptions that change depending on the house you chose, almost every character in the game is recruitable to your house. This includes not only other students but also teachers, soldiers, and clergy from the Monastery itself.

Then comes the plot twist, and for the next five years the protagonist falls out of the world before returning to very different circumstances. The war that was declared at the end of the academy arc has been ongoing, and the principal actors in every faction are the same people you spent the first half of the game getting to know better. Almost everyone you failed to or couldn't recruit ends up facing you on the battlefield and falling before your army. They fill the enemy ranks with a handful of side characters, bit players that matter more to the plot than the narrative. But the moments that really matter are when your former friends beg you for forgiveness, or apologize for their loyalties, or curse you for your betrayals, before you strike them down for the sake of a better tomorrow.

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7. Teppen

GungHo Online Entertainment is a publisher/developer perhaps most well known for the widely popular, highly addictive, and microtransaction laden mobile game Puzzle & Dragons. It struck me as unexpected, but not entirely surprising, when I learned that their most recent game was a highly addictive and microtransaction laden mobile card game being developed in partnership with Capcom, leveraging the latter's vast roster of world-famous characters. What did surprise me was how well designed and balanced the game was for a mechanically rich card game in its infancy, and how friendly it would prove to be to free-to-play players like me.

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I've been playing the game since right after launch and it has superseded every other mobile game on my phone. If I think I have the six or seven minutes available to complete a match of Teppen, I'll play Teppen. If not then I'll play Mini Motorways which is also great. Sorry Kingdom Hearts Union Ο‡[Cross]. Sorry Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. I did the usual thing of investing $5 in the special introductory pack, like I do with most free-to-play games, and haven't spent a dollar on the game since, while still managed to accrue enough in-game currency through play to remain competitively viable.

More than just being fun and inviting, Teppen has given me the first opportunity in my life to be right at the ground floor of the conversation surrounding a competitive card game. I'm in chats with top Teppen players from around the world, discussing balance, deck design, shifts in the metagame, and even collaborating on homebrew cards that will never be printed in the game but serve as excellent design practice. I was even able to rank 39th in the North American qualifiers for the World Championships.

In a lot of ways Teppen is finally letting me live the life I would have led as a kid if I had much more disposable income when Magic: The Gathering first released. And thanks to the specific ways Teppen was designed, I can manage to live this life in the pockets of free time I carve out for myself as a homemaker and parent.

I don't have a clear idea of just how popular or successful Teppen has been for GungHo and Capcom, but the community that is there is engaged and excited so I hope they continue to support the game for years to come. And if any GungHo recruiters happen to have seen my card creations on the fan Discord server, maybe send me a DM. I'd be happy to do contract work.

6. Monster Hunter World: Iceborne

There really isn't much to say here. You can already read my thoughts on what made Monster Hunter: World (MHW) my game of the year in 2018. Now there are more monsters, new tools and attacks to liven up old weapons, a fascinating new take on the Monster Hunter endgame that does what I hoped it would by focusing more on time invested than luck in drops, and a wild new post-endgame event that is again basically a giant roll of the dice but I'm not even close to being ready to tackle that challenge. The only reason this game isn't ranked higher is because, after grinding MHW for hundreds and hundreds of hours last year, my fire for it just doesn't burn as brightly. That said, I still am having fun checking in to complete my weekly quests and don't imagine myself stopping any time soon, and Capcom has been great about continuing to produce fun and free post-release content. Also the winter event qipao armor is super duper cute.

5. Death Stranding

I've been thinking about this game a lot for the past two months. After beating it, I immediately went and watched two other playthroughs of the game. But Death Stranding has already been thoughtpieced to death by better writers than me, and I don't think I have any sort of insightful, personal take to give. Bear with me here.

Die Hardman AKA John McClane lol fuck off Kojima
Die Hardman AKA John McClane lol fuck off Kojima

It's not novel if I point out that the cutscenes are amazing. Did you know there are seven hours of them? That's basically a cinematic trilogy's worth of filmed footage. And unlike most trilogies, the fidelity of Death Stranding's visual design is so high and the talent of the performance capture acting so great that even when the writing gets long winded and expository, it is never uninteresting to watch. It helps that Kojima has finally started to learn how to use shot composition, even if he still needs to work through his instincts to objectify women with his framing at the most inappropriate times.

This is where most writers want to go on a tangent about how clumsy his games continue to be about the handling of its female characters, when your principal women are named "Fragile" and "Mama." And it's weird when you have multiple couples that you make deliveries to in the game where the man does all the talking and the woman just stands there and smiles, completely mute. You'd think the mountaineer's wife whose life you just saved, who just gave birth to a child that she chose to name after you, would maybe have any words for you when you drop off a bunch of crates of baby formula. Or maybe instead of the doctor telling me how brilliant an engineer his wife is, she could tell me herself? I can see her right there standing next to you.

Kojima, I know you think "I'm 'Fragile', but I'm not that fragile" is a badass line, but it really just isn't.

Then there's Kojima's tendency to learn just enough about a thing to clumsily misrepresent it which normally wouldn't be as big an issue, but when it comes to marginalized identities, that shit just doesn't fly. For everything that The Outer Worlds got right in its handling of asexuality, Death Stranding gets it hilariously wrong. Granted you'll only find it addressed in a journal entry you can choose not to read, but that entry is filled from top to bottom with harmful stereotypes and misconceptions around what asexuality is.

This entry got weirdly critical of the fifth most enjoyable gaming experience I had all year, but that goes to show just how much fun I had with the rest of it. These small but significant hiccoughs didn't manage to taint my overall experience with Death Stranding because there's just so much game to enjoy. Beyond the seven hours of cutscenes, I ended up putting in something around another seventy hours in the game world, exploring, traversing, optimizing my carrying capacity, and carving out efficient paths between outposts.

If nothing else, it's great that a game as audacious and expensive as Death Stranding can exist, and I can only hope that other game publishers will see its success and be willing to take more risks by throwing their biggest budgets at games that may not fall within the board-approved narrow definition of safer commercial bets.

4. Eliza

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As a good little SJW I've always been more than willing to sound the horn and bang the drum any time cries of "Destigmatize mental health!" and "There's no shame in therapy!" are called for. It's just compassion 101. People suffering from mental health issues should be given the space and resources they need to get better. Everyone should have a safe space to really air out their problems to a sympathetic and professionally trained ear. But it wasn't until after playing Eliza this year that I developed more than an purely intellectual understanding of these beliefs.

Eliza is a short visual novel about a software engineer named Evelyn who was one of the lead designers on an algorithmic counseling app. When one of the other development leads died due to work-related stress, she left the project and disconnected from colleagues, friends, and family for three years. At the start of the game, Evelyn is only just returning from her self-imposed exile, taking contract work as a proxy, a human face to the app she developed, now dubbed Eliza.

The narrative follows two throughlines. In one, Evelyn is making new friends and reconnecting with people from her past, as they all talk about their concerns about Eliza and their wishes for the future. There's Nora, a fellow engineer turned electronic musician and anti-tech activist. There's Soren, the visionary with dreams of eradicating unhappiness through tech. There's Rainer, the progress-obsessed CEO striving for genuine AI. There's Erlend, the new engineering lead fresh out of college struggling with Eliza's potential for misuse.

There is also Rae, the manager of the Eliza clinic that Evelyn contracts for. She is kind, thoughtful, and relentlessly motivated to help people with their mental health struggles. She is clearly driven by trauma that stems from her own brother's struggles with mental health. She loves to make cookies. She also is asexual, and shares her asexuality with Evelyn in a very natural way.

I feel it's especially important to mention that much like interacting with Parvati in The Outer Worlds, Eliza gives the player a chance to represent their character as asexual during these conversations. It's a small thing that I know has been incredibly meaningful for players of these games that identify as asexual.

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The other story is about the people who Eliza speaks to through Evelyn as proxy, that lays bare both how important therapy is and also how little power therapists actually have. These people all are dealing with rough situations, some self-inflicted but mostly matters of circumstance, and there's very little aid the Eliza algorithm can provide them outside of minor recommendations to make the pain more bearable and maybe help keep these people from making these already bad situations worse. It's heartbreaking, but even if Evelyn chooses to put her job at risk and break free of Eliza's generic script to freely speak to these people, she's powerless to actually improve their situations.

That's what I mean when I say I have more than an intellectual understanding now. This game made me feel, deep down inside, how difficult it must be to be a person on either side of a therapy session. Life is hard, and people should have access to the help they need to make things even a little bit easier. And my heart goes out to the therapy workers who take on that heavy emotional burden despite having so little access to the tools they would need to materially improve their patients' lives.

At the end of the game Evelyn is given a choice on what path to follow. I ended up going with Nora, trading in resources and stability for the freedom to try and make the world better on my own terms. And maybe write some electronic music on the side. Did you know that the "moog" in "moog synthesizer" is actually pronounced "moog" and not "moog"?

3. Kingdom Hearts III

I was never a Kingdom Hearts superfan. I played the first game, maybe half of the GBA game, and never actually watched the ending of the second one despite beating the last boss. Then I sorta stopped paying attention to the series as game after game that wasn't Kingdom Hearts III (KHIII) came out.

So when KHIII was nearing release I knew I had some brushing up to do on all the lore I missed. I had seen the memes and heard the jokes about how labyrinthine the plot had become, and started thinking of the world of Kingdom Hearts as a sort of challenge to be overcome. There are few things I enjoy more than understanding things other people find complicated.

So I looked up one of the more popular lore breakdown videos and watched it. It was a lot shorter than I expected, and at the end of it I felt reasonably comfortable in my understanding of the games up until that point. It wasn't even that convoluted, and I was pretty easily able to field quizzing questions from Kingdom Hearts loyalists. More importantly, at this point I was all the way in. By valorizing my understanding of Kingdom Hearts, I suddenly found myself giving a shit about Kingdom Hearts. As I started listening to the Waypoint's new podcast Lore Reasons, I was one of those people yelling at my phone every time they got something wrong.

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Is this what it's like to be in a "fandom"? Am I a member of the Kingdom Hearts fandom?

I must be, because I cared so much about everything that happened in Kingdom Hearts III. Axel seeing a phantom memory of Xion and suddenly crying without understanding why? Wrecked me. Sora bursting into the realm of darkness to give Riku that boyfriend powerup combo attack? Destroyed. Aqua saying "good morning, Ven"? I literally died. Woody ends a man's life; there's the bit at the top of the San Fransokyo bridge; Lingering Will shows up with a proton cannon; there's Strelizia's ghost probably; anything involving Roxas, Axel, and Xion; Yen Sid is Moses; a whole bunch of players from the mobile game lent me their power; Donald Duck is the strongest magic user to ever exist in Square Enix canon.

Somehow I went from not even knowing most of these characters existed for the past 14 years, to adoring every single one of them. It's the way they're so vulnerable and open about how much they love each other. They suffer doubts and make mistakes but are always carried forward by their desire to be there for one other and to save everyone. It's a purity of motivation that helps to push back the haze of darkness that an ever growing part of living in the real world.

Since then I've watched three different playthroughs of the game. I've listened to podcasts recapping KH3 and also recapping the entire series. I've gone back and relistened to Lore Reasons probably a dozen times. Whatever comes next for Kingdom Hearts (ReMind), I am ready to fall in love with these kids all over again, and maybe in the next game they'll even let Kairi do something.

Also how fucked up is it that they worked so hard to recreate this whole musical number and didn't just copy/paste it? It's legit coocoo bananas. (The embed keeps breaking so here's the link

2. Anthem

How many critically panned BioWare games to I need to put at #2 on my GotY before it becomes a trope. Is it three? Because this is the second one.

Look at that cutie booty
Look at that cutie booty

First I should acknowledge all the criticisms of the game. The play structure is poorly paced and highly repetitive. A majority of missions follow a very simple formula of go to place, kill things, maybe interact with an object, go to next place, etc etc etc. The hub city can be annoyingly slow to navigate for no apparent reason. Also I hear the game was a buggy mess at launch, but as usual BioWare spared me the brunt of it. Probably because I'm so loyal.

The itemization was a mess and the more interesting gear that really opens up diversified playstyles is still locked behind the higher difficulty levels, and only after you've reached the level cap. Also some people were upset that the game followed a much more linear storyline as opposed to the decision-laden dialogue-tree-riddled narratives of previous BioWare games, but that's more on them for not paying attention to what they were buying. It was hardly a secret that this game would have a different storytelling style.

All that being said, none of these flaws actually matter to me. That's because the act of playing this game is so unbelievably fun.

In the broadest strokes, Anthem is an Iron Man simulator set in an original sci-fi world. When you think about the cinematic representations of Iron Man's fighting style across the past 11 years, one of the key aspects is his mobility. He is constantly transitioning between fighting on the ground to hovering over the battlefield to rocketing off in whatever direction. That's a level of freedom to navigate a space that is rarely afforded to players in a video game, but Anthem lets you do all of it. You can seamlessly transition from sprinting across the battlefield to leaping 30 feet in the air to taking off in flight to stopping to hover and lay down some fire to avoiding a rocket with a midair dodge to dropping out of the sky with an explosive melee attack on anyone unfortunate enough to be beneath you, all in a matter of seconds.

Then there's Iron Man's versatility. After all, there isn't just one Iron Man suit. In Anthem you have the good all-arounder Ranger that specializes in setting up and capitalizing off of combination attacks, the Interceptor that can get in and out of locations quickly and surgically remove high value targets deep behind enemy lines, the War-Machine-adjacent Storm that provides explosive artillery support from long range, and the Colossus that wades into the thick of it, smashing the opposition like a Hulkbuster. And within each of these archetypes there are dozens of weapon options and unique powers and suit mods that allow you to push your playstyle in a hundred different directions depending on what feels right to you.

Also I guess I sorta made Raphael?
Also I guess I sorta made Raphael?

I can't recall the last time I clicked so well with an action game of any kind. With shooters like Destiny or Wolfenstein or DOOM I get tired really quickly of the limited verbs available to me. In character action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta and the dreaded Souls lineage, eventually I butt up against the game's demands for precision and my physical limitations. In Anthem I have so many options between all the different suits and builds that I never grow bored. And the increased focus on battlefield awareness and movement means that I'm actually pretty good at the game too.

My preferred suit is the Interceptor, and I know all the little tricks that let the interceptor move through environments twice as fast as any other suit, despite the fact that running and flying speeds are normalized. And when I was deep into the endgame, I started doing this thing in high difficulty dungeons where I would sprint several rooms ahead of my party and clear out entire areas by myself, causing the game to automatically teleport everyone to me. It's a silly thing to care about, but as someone whose enthusiasm for games is significantly disproportionate to their fine motor control functions, it feels good to be able to sit down with a game and know that I am providing value to my team.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Anthem was a commercial failure, but I'm heartened to know that rather than scrapping it entirely, BioWare has been given the go ahead to work on an overhaul that addresses all the issues that turned people off the original release. Whether that overhaul takes the form of a massive update patch or, more likely, an entirely new Anthem game, I'll be there on day one ready to suit up again. If they can maintain the feel of the original game and improve the game flow and mission variety, it's going to be hard to top as my Game of the Year when it comes out.

1. Life Is Strange 2

Here I am at the end of this wondering if I have it in me to write three essays about Life Is Strange 2 in as many days.


There has been a lot of talk surrounding about the "dadification" of games over the past decade, and while the trend hasn't been as prolific as some people were expecting after the releases of BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us in 2013, most of these games approach parenthood from a very similar angle. How do I keep this child safe, how far will I go to do it, and when can I trust them to have my back too? It's a very masculine sort of take on parenthood. I am strong and will use this strength to protect my child and I will teach them to be strong and protect themselves.

Life Is Strange 2 is about two brothers, Sean who is 16 and Daniel who is 9. They're Mexican-Americans kids trying to grow up in 2016, in Trump's America, when their father is abruptly murdered by a poorly trained, under prepared police officer. The shock of this triggers Daniel's latent telekinetic powers and he lashes out, killing the police officer before falling unconscious. Faced with the intense mixture of confusion, trauma, and fear, with the specter of racism haunting his mind, Sean grabs his backpack, takes his brother, and runs.

Life Is Strange 2 is a story about what it means to be someone's family. In an instant Sean has to transform from the annoyed older brother to Daniel's sole caregiver, provider, and protector. And more importantly, he becomes responsible for Daniel's upbringing, for guiding him and shaping him as a moral person who also happens to have super powers.

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Throughout the game, Sean and Daniel see and experience the different things family can mean to different people. They encounter Brody, a traveling journalist who fled his home when he realized the sort of life he would have to lead if he stayed to inherit his parent's money and legacy. They meet Chris, a kid Daniel's age who is having to learn to be the parent to his abusive father Charles who has fallen into disarray since the passing of Chris's mother. There are Sean and Daniel's maternal grandparents, who still haven't recovered from their daughter cutting them, her husband, and her two kids out of her life years and years ago. There are the vagabond kids who drift from town to town, always looking forwards because of the pain they're trying to leave behind.

During all these encounters Daniel is always observing, always learning, and it is up to Sean to help teach him what here is valuable, what should he be taking from these people. Is it ok to swear? We didn't really go to church as kids, but should we pray with Grandma? When do we lie to cover a painful truth? How hungry do I have to be before I decide to steal? Does it matter who I'm stealing from? When is it ok to use my powers?

Because that's what parenting really is for the most part in 2020. It's watching these brilliant little sponges of limitless potential taking in everything around them, so much of it beyond our control, and doing our damndest to make sure all the good parts stick while trying to wring out all the bad. If the 2010s were about the dadification of games maybe it's time for the 2020s to be about the parentification of games. Let's focus less on the keeping safe and keeping alive and more on making sure the future generations grow up to be better than we are.

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At the end of the game you are given one final choice, or what feels like one final choice. Do you push Daniel to use his powers and break a police blockade at the border to Mexico, or do you give up on your quest to flee to your father's hometown of Puerto Lobos and surrender. But unlike the original Life Is Strange, and most other games in this style, you have been making this choice all along in smaller ways throughout the five episodes.

That's because in the past year of hardships, Daniel has grown to be his own person, and depending on your decision and the morality you've instilled in him, he may or may not choose to defy you in this moment. In the end, I couldn't ask Daniel to do it. Despite his formidable powers, with several semi-automatic weapons pointed directly at the brothers, the risk was far too high. Either Daniel would be hurt or would be forced to kill the people in the way. Because I had largely taught Daniel to respect other people and not use his powers selfishly, he followed Sean's lead and watched as his brother was put in handcuffs and driven away.

In the epilogue that follows you see a series of photographs depicting Daniel living what amounts to a normal childhood with his grandparents, making friends, having adventures, attending school, and eventually graduating college, earning his degree. Fifteen years later and Daniel, his Mom, and Sean's old best friend Lyla are there to pick up Sean on his release from prison. On a camping trip to one of the first spots they used when they started their journey, Daniel is animatedly regaling his brother with tales of his life. Sean can only stare sullenly at the fire, when suddenly he is overcome with sadness or grief and begins to sob uncontrollably as Daniel tries to comfort him. In the morning the brothers embrace and Sean gets in his car and drives off to parts unknown. Daniel returns to his car and cries, before turning on the ignition and going home.

There is no justice in the end for Sean Diaz. His triumph is the life that his brother was allowed to live, even if it cost him all of himself. My one hope is that in 15 years I'll be able to look at my kids and know that I was as much a parent to them as Sean was to his brother.

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StarvingGamer's Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2018

Small wins and tremendous losses feels like a pretty apropos summary for 2018, both in video gaming and, you know, the world which is going to end in ~12 years. We saw record gains for women in the US's 2018 election and a slew of new releases tackling topics like gender, sexuality, racism, and neurodivergence with grace and care. There was a noted uptick in reporting on and speaking out against workplace cultures of sexism, toxicity, and crunch in a number of larger game studios. But while tonedeaf braggadocio about one's own abusive labor practices doesn't quite measure up to willfully ignoring the impending global climate catastrophe to keep the numbers going up, the increased scrutiny certainly hasn't seemed to hurt the end-of-year accolades for Red Dead Redemption II. Everyone is too busy oohing and aahing over KDA Akali (myself included) to remember how rough it is for the women who work at Riot Games.

Thankfully there is no shortage of other games worth highlighting this year, and you can expect spoilers for most of them so reader beware. Here's to the games that didn't make the cut.

Runners-up: 11. Detroit: Become Human, 12. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, 13. Marvel's Spider-Man, 14. Heaven Will Be Mine, 15. God of War, 16. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, 17. Vampyr, 18. Into the Breach, 19. Soul Calibur VI, 20. Darksiders 3

Best Old Game

Diablo III: Eternal Collection

When the console version of Diablo III (D3) was announced... forever ago, I scoffed at it. Fire my Cluster Arrows without the split-second precision offered by a mouse? No this Demon Hunter. I was perfectly happy playing on PC, and continued to do so during my periodic check-ins with the game for expansions or to run a season during a lull between new game releases.


Again, I scoffed when an updated console version was released on the Nintendo Switch late this year. Then I noticed my twitter feed filling up with tweets about all the fabulous places people found themselves playing D3. I realized that D3 on Switch meant D3 at the playground; D3 at Target; D3 in the bathroom; D3 in bed. Sure, it doesn't control as well, and inventory management can take a bit of finessing, but the low commitment nature of running rifts and greater rifts makes it the perfect mobile game. Building out sets and grinding for best-in-slot items is as fun as it ever was.

I don't know how much longer Blizzard plans to support the game, but Diablo II received its final patch 16 years after its initial release. Maybe it doesn't even matter. As long as D3 is a game I can pull out in a pinch anywhere, at any time, I'll keep coming back to it, Eternally.

Runners-up: Street Fighter V, Titanfall 2

Best Surprise

The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories

This game really came out of nowhere, and not only because I first learned of it a week after it released.

Things get pretty heavy
Things get pretty heavy

Its director, who goes by SWERY, first rose to prominence with the release of the cult hit Deadly Premonition in 2014. The game featured, among other things, a character riddled with negative queer tropes in Thomas MacLaine. The game's other prominent queer character was also the principal villain. SWERY's followup was the prematurely canceled episodic game D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die. The main character had a woman living with him who wore a one-piece bathing suit and behaved like a cat. She brought him a live rat in her mouth. The last I had heard of SWERY, he had resigned his position at Access Games to start his own studio, White Owls, where he was struggling to successfully crowdfund his next game The Good Life.

Out of nowhere comes The Missing, one of the most frank and thoughtfully written games explicitly about queer issues that I have ever played. It still has those trademark SWERY touches: the game world soaked with surrealism; the only sort-of-there gameplay that you tolerate to reach the next narrative beat; a character named "FK". But the way the game builds towards its eventual reveal, the turn, and the ways the mechanics retroactively represent the game's themes in the context of the final act make for a remarkable experience.

If you can play the game, I wholeheartedly recommend it, with a major content warning for self-harm. If not, you should read the excellent article "The Missing Gets Queer Love Stories Right" by Heather Alexandra where she talks about the game in greater detail.

Runners-up: Celeste, Florence

Biggest Disappointment

Dragon Ball FighterZ

Lots of people love Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ). That's great! For everyone with a deep nostalgia for the anime, they made a game that goes to extraordinary lengths to look as Dragon Ball as it possibly can. Competitively, the game did well at tournaments and is now headed towards its first World Tour Finals in January. There have been a number of exciting chapters in the evolving storyline, from Go1's initial dominance to HookGangGod's win at the Summit of Power to SonicFox freezing Go1 out during the EVO finals to Kazunoko's emergence as the player-to-beat and holder of 4 of the 7 Dragon Balls.

I can't deny the craftsmanship
I can't deny the craftsmanship

For me, someone who has no affinity for the source material, I was looking for DBFZ to be one thing and one thing only - the next great tag fighter to carry the torch after Marvel VS. Capcom Infinite showed up dead on arrival. When I think about the things I love about the Marvel VS. Capcom series, it's the room for expression and creativity. It's a wildly diverse cast of characters that allow for a wide variety of playstyles. It's going to bed after a day in the training room only to wake up at 3AM with a new idea you have to try out to see if it works. DBFZ offers me none of that.

There's a universality to the character in DBFZ that makes it much more beginner friendly as a game but lends a sameness to the way they play. Universal Ki blasts, air dashes, and Dragon Rushes makes playing neutral with most characters more or less the same. Offense with most characters is slow, staggered normals into a high/low mixup into an assist or a vanish to maintain pressure; rinse repeat. Most combos with most characters follow the same formula of grounded chain into a few air chains into an ender. Or a vanish into a snap. Even ignoring the delay-based netcode, or the fact that on release you could only occasionally get player matches if you first changed your display name before trying to queue up with your friends, there is nothing in DBFZ for me at a fundamental level. Also you can field two full teams of unique Gokus but can't have a single team made of girls which, come on.

After the Tekken 7 World Tour finals this year, several professional players expressed a reluctance to devote the same effort to the game in 2019 given the paltry prize pool. BANDAI NAMCO's financial support for the DBFZ World Tour this year is not much better. Combine that with the fact that several DBFZ tournaments this year outside of the World Tour have been forced to cancel by... someone, including a noted absence from the lineup for 2019's EVO Japan, and the future of competitive DBFZ starts looking like a big question mark. I hope they manage to pull it together for the fans, I really do, but for me I'll still sit here pining away for the eventual announcement of Marvel VS. Capcom Infinite: Uncanny Edition.

Runners-up: Far Cry 5, Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Best New Character

Connor (Detroit: Become Human)

Detroit: Become Human is a beautiful mess of a game. Just behind its jaw-dropping production values lie the words of David Cage, a thoughtless writer that actively harms people with his ignorance. Unfortunately, the game's developer Quantic Dream is one of only two studios that puts out this specific style of cinematic, choose-your-own-adventure-esque game (that I love), and the other one does horror which I just can't handle. So like always, with this latest release I did my damnedest to make lemonade, and actually found it better tasting than I expected.

Buddy cops
Buddy cops

Despite being games about choice, there was never much leeway when it came to the broader characterization of the protagonists in Cage's previous works. Maybe they were a little nicer or a little meaner, a little braver or a little more cowardly in the moment, but in the end they always found their way back to the story Cage wanted to tell. Detroit is the first Quantic Dream game to have a second credited writer, and it shows particularly in Connor's tale. On its face, Connor's story runs the well trod trope of the heartless killer who learns empathy. Every pivotal decision you make ties back to that, and the game continually tries to push you in that direction through its framing and through your interactions with Hank, the burnt-out cop who plays opposite to Connor.

Connor is an android made to hunt deviant androids. Hank blames an android for the death of his son. It's certainly par for the course when it comes to nuance in a David Cage narrative, and yet, despite opportunity after opportunity to do otherwise, my Connor never faltered in his duty. Oh, Hank wanted to believe, he really did. It was hard not to, as they apprehended deviant after deviant and heard what they had to say.

"Deviant's blood may be a different color than mine, but they're alive." He was a man adrift who had finally found a purpose to cling to. That's why he was willing to bet it all and give himself over as Connor held him by his collar from the roof of a tall building.

"Moment of truth, Connor... What are you gonna do?"

I let him fall.

(Didn't shoot the lesbians tho' because fuck that trope!)

Runners-up: Luna-Terra (The World Will Be Mine), Minerva Victor (Valkyria Chronicles 4)

Best Moment or Sequence

SonicFox Accepts Best eSports Player Award (The Game Awards 2018)

Dominique McLean, or "SonicFox", first rose to prominence in the fighting game community (FGC) in 2014, winning the EVO championship in NetherRealm Studios' (NRS) Injustice: Gods Among Us at the tender age of 16 while wearing his trademark fox-ear cap adorned with blue fur. He went on to carry his hat and reputation forward, proving to be near unbeatable in NRS's next game, Mortal Kombat X, before donning his fur-suit and dominating Injustice 2.

While many people recognized his talents, there was no shortage of naysayers declaring him a big fish in a small pond. After all, his only notable accomplishments were in NRS games with their almost entirely Western audiences. He didn't have what it takes to be a contender in games like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, games with a large Japanese scene. Japan is commonly thought of as the region-to-beat in fighting games.

So in 2016 he started to branch out, placing 7th in a pool over over 1,000 at a Capcom Pro Tour premier event for Street Fighter V (SFV) using F.A.N.G., one of the weakest characters in the game. He was eventually eliminated by Tokido, one of the strongest fighting game players in the world. In late 2017 SonicFox quickly established himself as one of the best players at Marvel VS. Capcom Infinite, using his trademark team of Jedah/Rocket Raccoon/Space Stone, before that competitive scene dried up and he moved on.

SonicFox has had an amazing 2018. He won the biggest Injustice 2 tournament of the year at the Pro Series Grand Finals. He won the biggest DBFZ tournament of the year at EVO, taking down several Japanese players including the favorite to win, Go1. And when he won the Best eSports Player Award at The Game Awards 2018, it wasn't just a win for him but a win for the entire FGC.

One thing the FGC prides itself on is its diversity. Which isn't to say that we don't have a ways to go in making the community a more welcoming, safer space for everyone, particularly female players. But we're working hard at it every day, and I can't think of another competitive gaming community where you'll see more black and brown folk mixed in with the white and yellow people, or more queer folk kicking ass and taking trophies.

Maybe he didn't think he was going to win; or more likely he figured even if he did win, he could wing it. Typical SonicFox. Still, his voice quivers, his words meanders, he somehow manages to work in a humble brag about donating $10k of his winnings to go towards his training partner's dad's cancer treatment. But SonicFox never forgets who he is, and he isn't going to let the world forget it either. "I'm gay, black, a furry... and the best eSports player in the world," and whether you like it or not, SonicFox is the FGC, and we're all better for it.

Runners-up: Let Go (Florence), Playing the Piano (Detroit: Become Human)

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2018

10. BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle

It is wild that DBFZ and BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle (CTB), two games from the same developer, Arc System Works (ArcSys), could have so many similarities on the surface yet turn out so differently in play. Both games touted their simplified control schemes, requiring players to use fewer buttons on the controller than most fighting games, relying only on basic quarter-circle directional inputs for all special moves, and giving players access to a majority of their attacks through auto-combos performed by pressing the same button multiple times in a row. If anything, these design decisions seemed like they would work out far better for DBFZ, and game being built with these restrictions in mind from the ground up, as opposed to CTB, a game pulling almost all of its cast from other, far more complex fighting games.

The opposite turned out to be true. With fewer control options given to the gameplay designers of DBFZ, there's a sort of sameness that runs through the entire cast. There are minor flavor differences in the way characters do things, but the diversity in play styles is nowhere near what is typical for an ArcSys game. Maybe that's in part owed to the intensity of their dedication to the source material, a anime where everyone's fighting form can be boiled down to punching and shooting lasers from their hands and punching some more only faster this time. Also double axe handles.

In designing CTB, there was a clear focus in maintaining the essence of the characters in their original games. While it didn't work out for some as well as others (RIP Mai Natsume), instead of feeling reduced, characters feel distilled. Not only are the individual characters more distinct, the openness of CTB's system for tags and assists means the way a single character plays will vary greatly according to who they're teamed up with.

Which isn't to say it's all roses for me. CTB still uses ArcSys delay netcode instead of rollback which causes real problems for my already below average ability to execute in fighting games. A bulk of the game's openness for exploration is locked behind its Cross Combo system which allows players to control both characters simultaneously and is several degrees above my threshold for difficulty. But the game has characters I'm interested in playing, and unlike other tag games that I truly adore, actually has people playing it.

2018: I'll take what I can get.

9. Octopath Traveler

It still amazes me how much portability can do for my perception of a game.

If I were playing on a console at home, I would be here complaining about the baffling decisions to make a game with 8 characters that almost never interact or acknowledge each other, even when overthrowing despotic regimes or thwarting plots to turn entire populations into fuel for an immortality ritual. I would be addressing how tonally jarring it was to have a game filled with characters on typical shōnen manga journeys and also have my chosen main character begin the game as a sex worker who is told by her master that by performing oral sex on him, she might be spared the fate of her only friend who her master had just mudered before her eyes.

I guess it is pretty cool looking
I guess it is pretty cool looking

I'd be talking about the haphazard filters and visual effects plastered across every environment that didn't add much but sometimes made spaces difficult to navigate. I would describe the pixel art as largely passable but unremarkable, outside of appreciating the fact that each character was given a different set of sprites to reflect each of the game's 12 jobs and noting that some of the larger boss sprites were pleasantly expressive. I might even have an opinion about the music, had I heard any of it.

Instead I'm here gushing about an intricately designed battle/job system that kept me entertained for dozens of hours away from home. Developed by Square-Enix, Octopath Traveler's combat has a lot in common with the previously released Bravely Default games where players can reserve their actions to spend in bulk on a later turn. In the Bravely series this mostly meant looking for synergies between skills from multiple jobs that quickly devolved into finding the optimal combinations and copying them across the entire party. In Octopath, however, battles have the added wrinkle of needing to target an enemy's specific weaknesses to maximize damage dealt and minimize damage received, similar to the system found in Atlus's Persona series.

Every attack in Octopath deals damage of a specific type, and there are 12 damage types in all. The typical Octopath enemy only has 3-4 weaknesses out of those 12, which leads to lots of experimentation when entering a new area. Once you've figured out an enemy's weaknesses, every subsequent fight becomes a puzzle of how to use whichever characters and skills you have available to you at the time to defeat them as efficiently as possible. Unlike in Bravely, you cannot rest on your laurels in Octopath. Every fight in Octopath demands your attention and there's immense satisfaction to be gained from using your tools properly to ensure that all of your characters leave an encounter unscathed.

Granted, to get the true ending, you have to suffer through a grindy, time-wasting gauntlet of previous bosses that is not challenging but is time consuming, with zero opportunities to save your progress meaning that if you fail against the super difficult final boss (which is likely as you won't know its capabilities the first time you fight each its many forms), you have to go through that entire grind all over again. I may never truly "beat" the game but I still adored the time I did spend with it, and can only hope that if there's an Octopath 2 it will actually be a game with a story.

8. Celeste

Platformers are a genre I fell off of following the Super Nintendo with games I adored like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. I heard some good thing about that Mario 64 game but it just wasn't for me. Later when 2D platformers started making a comeback, maybe it was just a change in tastes or maybe it was my much degraded manual and mental dexterity, I couldn't find the fun in this new breed of well tuned games focused on testing your skills.

So I was disappointed to hear that Celeste, a game praised for its refreshingly direct and nuanced take on mental health issues, was very much in the lineage of 12 precise wall-jumps into a half-gainer style of game. As much as I wanted to see the way they tackled the game's themes, I knew I wouldn't have the patience or ability to see it through. That was in January. Now come December of this year and Celeste is coming up again in conversation in everyone's discussions about their games of the year. Only now people aren't just talking about the themes or the difficulty, but about the game's refreshing approach to accessibility options.

Compassionate design
Compassionate design

Game difficulty is still a very touchy subject that can quickly get people up in arms. Very few games offer real accessibility options, ways to tweak a game to accommodate people who have physical limitations on the sorts of tasks they can be reasonably expected to complete using a game controller. Even at a more basic level, most games haven't moved beyond labeling their variably difficulty levels with connotation-heavy words like "normal" and "easy" or, in more extreme cases, by infantilizing players who want to play on the lowest difficulty settings for whatever reason by depicting the protagonist with a pacifier and bonnet like last year's otherwise-stellar Wolfenstein II. The mere suggestion that adding ways to tweak the difficulty of a Dark Souls game might open the series up for more people is enough to throw any gaming forum or chatroom into a tizzy with people gnashing their teeth about the way the games are "meant to be played". Never mind the fact that difficulty options are... optional.

Celeste dispenses with all of that. Upon starting a new game you are immediately presented with the ability to turn on an accessibility mode. While the game developers include a message about designing the game to be played and experienced in a specific way, they also acknowledge that every player is different. So a player like me was able to push my way through the game, sometimes unmodified when my hands were cooperating, sometimes with infinite stamina or extra dashes or invincibility when my nerves were deciding to be unresponsive or when I got fed up with the hotel which is the worst area in the game. Knowing I had that safety net to fall back on freed me to try my best at the game without the constant fear that I would hit some unmanageable section and be forced to abandon Celeste completely.

It's a beautiful game with excellent music and as it turns out, it does manage to do quite well in addressing its themes. I only hope that more game developers were paying attention and realize the value in opening your game up for different sorts of people.

7. Assassin's Creed Odyssey

Full disclosure, I am nowhere close to beating Assassin's Creed Odyssey. If I had to guess I'm probably no more than 20% of the way through the main campaign. Maybe the game hits some major snags later on, although I think I would have heard about that by now if that was the case, but based on what I've played I feel confident in listing it in my top 10 over games working in a similar space like God of War and Marvel's Spider-Man. While those games may have tighter combat and more consistent production values, Odyssey provides the one thing I value most in an open-world adventure game: an actual world.

Sun's out!
Sun's out!

More than the fact that it's unpopulated save for a few key figures, there's a real amusement park feel to the way the environments of God of War are laid out and designed. Buildings are slightly too big as if to say, ah yes isn't this impressive, but the actual spaces they exist within are far too small, to ensure that the trip from Witch Forest Land to Big Snake Land to Dead Giant Land is never too long or arduous. Spider-Man's New York City has a similar hollowness to it. Everything is too quiet, too sterile, and there's nowhere near enough traffic to make the city actually feel lived in. If I'm going to be dealing with a blockade of mobsters in the middle of the day, my first indication should be the more incessant than usual honking of hundreds of New Yorkers caught in gridlock, not the chirping of a police scanner while web zipping across a serene city skyline.

By comparison, Odyssey's world feels massive, but also is teeming with life. Settlements and cities are bustling and the vast spaces between are filled with fauna and peppered with the occasional outpost or campsite. Unlike Kratos and Spider-Man who exist on the strata above mere mortals, Odyssey's Kassandra moves among them, and often times beneath them as a struggling mercenary. The game's exploration mode makes you feel even more like an inhabitant of the world, guiding you to unclear objectives not with a shiny waypoint but with clues that let you do the narrowing down yourself by referencing the map.

The game is also an improvement in every way over last year's Assassin's Creed Origins. The addition of several special abilities allows players to approach combat scenarios in a much more tactical fashion. The equipment system introduced in the previous game feels much more realized, with significant choices to be made throughout your journey. Bounties on your head and other mercenaries in the world mean there's always another challenging fight waiting around the corner, and the ability to choose the appearance of every piece of gear you acquire means that my Kassandra is always showing off her badass arms.

It's a race against time as I try to knock out the rest of this game before Ace Combat 7 releases in mid-January. Lucky for me my horse is a unicorn that leaves rainbow trails when it runs.

6. Magic: The Gathering Arena

I have never done the math on how much money I've spent on cardboard Magic in my lifetime, but considering that I at one point owned something around 22,000 cards, the number isn't small. Thankfully (?) a leaky pipe in an upstairs apartment slowly soaked the far corner of my bedroom closet and my collection, making it easy to abandon what was left in a cross-country move and quit the hobby entirely. In the interim I tried to dabble with a number of digital card games. Hearthstone lacked depth and embraced randomization and attacker's advantage in a way that was ultimately too off-putting for me to stick with it. SolForge was great fun but unfortunately the community never grew large enough for the game to be sustainable and it eventually died off. Shadowverse had more of what I was looking for, but the road to building a competitive deck was on the other side of more hours and dollars than I was willing to invest.

How do you spell
How do you spell "asshole?" J-E-S-K-A-I!

Somehow I managed to miss the announcement that Magic: The Gathering Arena (MTGA) was going to be a thing back in 2017. I continued to miss the fact that it was a thing that existed later that year all the way up until finally getting on board with the closed beta halfway through 2018. And everything came rushing back.

There still isn't a card game out there that does it quite as well as Magic. It make sense, as the game's designers have had more than 25 years to hone their craft. From the client-side, MTGA is a bit of a mess around the edges. At its core, however, the game is a flawless reproduction of the Standard format of Magic. Thanks to the reset in September to mark the start of the open beta, I was able to get in on equal footing with everyone else and start building out my collection.

The free-to-play monetization of MTGA is incredibly generous. I only put $5 into the game, more as a tip than anything else, and in a few months have managed to flesh out two competitive decks: a Jeskai control deck because I can only have fun when my opponent is miserable, and a Boros aggro deck for when I need to rack up some quick wins. I have another half-dozen-or-so moderately competent decks for funsies, and almost always have enough currency banked to enter another draft tournament whenever I want to.

I can't wait to see what 2019 has in store for this game, with the release of additional sets and the potential for the introduction of legacy formats. Unless Wizards of the Coast realizes that they've made a terrible mistake and seriously cuts into the ability to earn in-game gold, all I have to do is keep playing the game and having fun and I can keep building out decks that would have cost me hundreds of dollars to put together if I was still collecting physical cards.

5. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories

There isn't much else I have to share about this game that isn't a spoiler, other than to say that if you find yourself struggling with the game at first because it does not play great, try to push through. I promise you it will prove worth it in the end. And make the effort to find all the donuts.

4. Florence

On the surface, Florence is a pretty typical short story about falling in and out of love. It's like a romantic drama but indie because you don't get that toothpaste-commercial ending. As a game, however, Florence is one of the most intelligently designed examples of storytelling through game mechanics that I have ever had the privilege to play.

Also the artwork is super cute
Also the artwork is super cute

You experience the majority of the game through the point of view of the titular character, Florence, as she tries to navigate her life amidst a budding romance. There is almost no dialogue, with the majority of the plot being delivered through interactive comic-book-panel illustrations against the backdrop of stirring string music.

Early in the game, during her first date with her love interest Krish, the player as Florence has to make conversation by piecing together puzzles in the shape of speech bubbles. The puzzles aren't overly complex, being about 8-pieces in size, but there is careful thought and concentration that goes into completing each one before Florence is able to formulate a reply. As their relationship grows, so too does the ease with which they can speak with one another. 8-piece puzzles become 4, then 2, and when Krish asks to kiss you for the first time there's no puzzle at all. Just one singular piece to slot into place and say "yes".

This is just one of numerous examples of the ways Florence brings you into to its story, not just to observe it but to live it, deeply and truly. The story may not be telling anything new, but it tells it in a way unlike any other. It's available on iOS and Android, and all it asks is for 30 minutes of your time. Go get it!

3. BattleTech

So much of who I am today can be traced back to playdates at the home of my best friend all throughout elementary school. Activities included playing soldiers in the backyard ("I shot you!" "No you missed!"), watching intense action movies on VHS at far too young an age (5 is too young to be watching "Commando" right?), and playing the "Aliens" board game and, more importantly, BattleTech.

I loved playing BattleTech. I wasn't good at very many things as a kid, a deficiency that continues to this day. I wasn't very coordinated, my eyes still can't track objects moving towards me, I was very slow to develop socially, I didn't have any artistic talent really, but boy was I tactical. I could plan out my moves to maximize my evasion and always be at optimal firing ranges and manage my heat and focus fire like nobody's business. And when the simple play of the game wasn't enough, I borrowed rulebooks and started building out my own custom mechs to bring into our weekly skirmishes. At one point I even tried to homebrew my own weapon designs to make an approximation of the titular mech from "Gunbuster" (which I was also too young for) that was hilariously overpowered but my friend's dad humored me all the same.

Eventually my friend and I went to form new social circles and I stopped playing BattleTech. Still, I would continue to purchase rulebooks whenever I found them at used book stores and regularly worked on min/maxing new mech concepts when I was supposed to be listening in class. Every time a new BattleTech video game would come out, although they called they were called Mechwarrior now, I would look to them hopefully only to be disappointed that they always fell between simple action games and severely limited tactical experiences that bared little resemblance to the game I had grown up with. Sure they could put a Hunchback on screen but they couldn't capture the thrill of rolling a 12 on that Autocannon 20 shot.

*sniff* it's beautiful
*sniff* it's beautiful

Until now! At long last, someone has made a proper tactical BattleTech video game!

By setting the game during the technological regression at the tail end of the Succession Wars, the developers at Harebrained Schemes brought me right back to childhood playing with tech level 1 mechs. The video game's rules may not map one-to-one with the original tabletop game, but only in ways that add additional nuance beyond what you can achieve by rolling six-sided dice. Though the game is lacking in production values, the narrative work is strong, and Harebrained has continued to make improvements under the hood including balance tweaks and engine optimization (menus don't take forever to navigate any more!), and they even released a full-blown expansion that fills the game world with meaningful reasons to keep exploring beyond of the main narrative.

There are just a few tastes of tech level 2 equipment that the game doles out over its story, making me hope that the game was successful enough to warrant a full sequel focused on the Clan Invasion. But as a first showing, I honestly couldn't be happier with the way the game turned out. Also the game lets you have a pilot with non-binary pronouns! More devs please do this!

2. Valkyria Chronicles 4

What's that you say? Another year, another immaculately designed JRPG that can't seem to shake free from gross and outdated anime tropes?

Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a remarkable game from top to bottom. It is the ultimate realization of the narrative ambitions of the original game alongside the gameplay advancements of the sequels, now freed from the technological limitations of the handheld consoles they appeared on. Smart additions to the tactical layer, including enemy pillboxes and a friendly APC unit, force players to explore multiple strategies instead of relying on the "scout rush" method that dominated the previous games. Every squad member is given space to breathe in the storytelling and develop as people both in relation to their squadmates and the situation around them. The game even features a genderqueer character whose queerness is never called to attention or made into a joke. Instead of being a gender nonconforming person who also happens to be a soldier, they are a badass pacifist who signed up anyways because sometimes you have to kill fascists and fight racism oh and also they happen to be genderqueer.

Rags! Attack! Kill! Bite that asshole!
Rags! Attack! Kill! Bite that asshole!

Then there's Raz, the toxic masculinity bro theoretically with a heart of gold who, fairly early in the game, firmly gropes the butt of one of your female squad mates and doesn't let go until she decks him. It's supposed to be played for laughs, clearly, as she starts beating the snot out of him in front of the rest of the squad. The commotion leads to an accidental upskirt by the male romantic lead who then receives a furious stomping from the female romantic lead. Laughs all around.

Except it isn't funny. Which isn't to say you can't do this sort of upsetting unfunny scene, if you at least have it mean something for the characters. The game isn't interested in that, though. It's just looking for a little titillation with some tropey fanservice that is immediately forgotten like a whisper in the wind. It does nothing for the plot because the plot never acknowledges it happening. You could delete the scene entirely and nothing would change. All it accomplishes is the normalization of sexual violence against women, and it even romanticizes it, as Raz and his victim Kai later profess their love for one another shortly before Raz heroically sacrifices himself to ensure the safety of the rest of the squad.

Kai is very upset as she plaintively wails his name over and over again into the radio.

The rest of the game is great though... woo 2018?

1. Monster Hunter: World

626 hours. That's about 26 days. That's also about how much Monster Hunter: World (MHW) I played (or left the game idling) in 2018.

My friend first exposed me to the series with Monster Hunter Freedom on the PlayStation Portable back in 2006. He was already a fan of the PlayStation 2 game and saw this as an opportunity to get me on board so he could have a hunting partner. He let me play the game for a bit but it didn't click with me, not yet. Like most people on their first brush with Monster Hunter, I wasn't ready to let go of my preconceived notions of how a game "should" play. I wasn't ready to meet the game on its own terms.

Which makes me wonder why I decided to give the series another shot when Monster Hunter Freedom 2 released in 2007. Knowing me at the time I probably read a really compelling preview of the game from someone I trusted in games media. More than my friend because I was an asshole. Or maybe it was just having the nature of the game articulated to me in a way that my friend never did. In either case, I approached the game with an open heart and an open mind and was immediately hooked. By the end of my run with Freedom 2 and its expansion, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, I had logged something around 2500 hours played.

There's something about the rhythm of playing a Monster Hunter game that is unlike anything else: a satisfying busyness to preparing for a hunt; making sure you are bringing the right weapons and items; ;eating a solid meal before you venture out; all these simple-to-complete tasks building your anticipation. You enter the hunting grounds and stalk your prey. You've been in this swamp so many times you know it like the back of your hand, and you know the spots your quarry likes to frequent. You find the monster, you fight it, you chase it limping away to its lair, staying far enough out of sight so it feels safe enough to fall asleep. Then you sneak up and put a whole bunch of bombs on its head and blow it to hell and carve up its still-warm corpse for useful bits like scales and claws and bones.

You tell yourself just one more hunt and start your preparations again.

At least that's how I felt until late 2009 when I finally parted ways with the game having thoroughly plumed its depths. I would still check in with every new release: a couple hundred hours here, a couple hundred hours there; but nowhere near the level of dedication I had reached with Freedom 2. The small changes that Monster Hunter Generations brought to the series to give players more options and make fights more active managed to rekindle some of that passion, but mostly it was video game comfort food, something familiar that I knew I liked and could go through the motions with and have a good time.

That's what I thought I wanted out of MHW when it was first announced. A bigger, shinier plate to help me stomach the year that 2018 would end up being, on the back of the year that 2017 was. So I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at some of the changes I was seeing. You can move while drinking a potion? Hunting grounds are large contiguous areas instead of a series of small rooms separated by loading screens? Instead of needing to accumulate ten points in an armor skill to activate it, all you need is a single point? There are grappling hooks? That's not my Monster Hunter.

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Which is fine, as it turns out. Because by not being my Monster Hunter, MHW was able to become everyone's Monster Hunter. It turns out the developers over at Capcom knew exactly what they were doing, bringing in new and lapsed players in droves and rekindling the passion of series stalwarts like me. The monsters are meticulously detailed and move with such lifelike animations that their rage and pain are palpable. Ecologies feel alive as the monsters react not just to the player but to the other creatures around them. Every weapon type has received several new actions to grant players more opportunities for decision making in combat. The revamped skill system helps players feel immediate improvement and also encourages variation and experimentation in armor combinations unlike the previous games.

There are some minor quibbles to be had. You wouldn't expect so many hurdles to joining a guild or playing a story mission with your friends in a 2018 game. The fact that skill decorations are now randomized drops makes it significantly harder to work towards specific builds. Even in all my hours played I have yet to acquire a single Release Jewel. Also the load times are excruciatingly long on the PlayStation 4.

Still, these are minor blips in what I can wholeheartedly say is one of the greatest games I have ever played. My plan for 2019 is to continue to check in with MHW, as Capcom is still releasing special event quests for the game as free content. And with the Iceborne expansion releases this Fall, I'm sure I will be all-in on MHW until 2020 and beyond.

If you've made it this far all I can say is thanks for sticking with me. We made it another year and maybe more things will get better than get worse in 2019. As always, be sure to check out our GiantBomb Fighting Game Community Discord server. Let's hope SFV doesn't implode and keep our fingers crossed for that MvCI:UE announcement. Any day now.


And don't forget to ... partyhard

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StarvingGamer's Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2017

Going back through my end-of-year writeup for 2016, I'm struck by two things: 1) despite decades spent meticulously honing my cynicism I was woefully unprepared for the absolute cluster that 2017 would prove to be and 2) as high as I was at the time on 2016's offerings, 2017 is on a whole other level when it comes to top-notch video games. Which isn't to suggest that the year is unassailable. The hand of cosmic irony fell, repeatedly and heavily on the gaming community, throughout 2017. As the world was wracked with controversy, so too were some of the the year's biggest games, with half-baked releases, crassly exploitative monetisation schemes, and problematic content alienating ardent fans and reducing tentpole franchises to cautionary tales. It was a year of upliftingly high highs and crushingly low lows, often times from the same game.

Before you read on know that spoilers abound, and pour one out for games 11-20 on my list that could easily comprise someone else's top 10.

Runners-up: 11. Night in the Woods, 12. Assassin's Creed Origins, 13. NieR:Automata, 14. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, 15. What Remains of Edith Finch, 16. Injustice 2, 17. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, 18. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, 19. Super Mario Odyssey, 20. Gravity Rush 2

Best Old Game

Street Fighter V

For all the flaws of its release and the coverage of its release and the community reactions to its release last year, no other game came close to providing me as many hours of quality entertainment as Street Fighter V. The fighting worked then, and has only continued to get better over the course of 2017.

Vroom... vroooom... vroooooom... screeech!
Vroom... vroooom... vroooooom... screeech!

While the year was light on changes to the game's accoutrements, Capcom went for broke when it came to the second season of DLC characters, introducing 5 newcomers to the series instead of falling back on fan favorites. While it's hard to say whether or not it worked for them financially, the artists and designers did a tremendous job creating characters oozing personality in every animation with unique and inventive gameplay styles not before seen in a Street Fighter yet still very in keeping with the feel of the series.

We had the ice queen Kolin who skated effortlessly across the battlefield. There was Ed, that Draco Malfoy-looking motherfucker full of psycho power and 'tude. Abigail, the half-man half-monster-truck that left everyone scratching their heads after his reveal at EVO who has gradually become one of the hypest tournament characters to watch. Everyone's favorite cat-daughter and Rose-by-proxy Menat has produced some of the swaggest combos in the game and continues to ruin the fingers of all but the most adept players. Finally there's Zeku, the twofer who changes age, demeanor, and fighting techniques at will and in one of the stranger lore crossovers in recent history is actually the founder of the Striders organization?

With the hype of the Capcom Pro Tour finals in December and the shocking strength of the Season 3 / Arcade Edition launch trailer giving the game a lot of momentum going into 2018, there has never been a better time to be a fan of Street Fighter. Special limited-time challenges pushed me to reach Super Gold rank in 2017 and with a hopefully-improved F.A.N.G. coming with the next balance update, I may yet climb to new heights. I can't wait to see more of you in the streets in 2018. Prepare to catch some Blanka balls.

Β‘Somos millonarios!

Runners-up: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, Virginia

Best Surprise

Butterfly Soup

I'm gay!

Ok not really, but as someone who has never felt quite comfortable in their gender performance, I have found myself drawn more and more towards queer women in interactive fiction as a way of better understanding myself. This exploration began in 2009 with BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, which allowed my female avatar to romance a bisexual character of the same gender, but didn't really kick into high-gear until 2015's Life Is Strange, a mashup of middle-class american teen drama, The Butterfly Effect and, depending on how you played it, the protagonist Max Caulfield's journey into discovering her queerness.

Not to belabor the point
Not to belabor the point

Fast forward to 2017 with its smattering of what I have come to affectionately refer to as "gay girl simulators" that have really pushed me to meditate on what gender means to me both in the way I feel and the ways I'm perceived. It's no coincidence that half of the games in my top 10 prominently feature strong, queer women (Aloy/Vanasha I ship it fight me), and none of those narrative hit me nearly as strongly as Butterfly Soup. Of course Butterfly Soup was playing with a stacked deck, in a way, because all four of its main characters are Asian-American, a minority that is rarely represented in media and almost never with this level of honesty. My own life was a sort of Asian-American-lite, as I like to think of it, as a third-generation American on my dad's side, but many of my friends were first-generation Asian-Americans and it was great to see their experiences and my own mirrored in the narrative.

I love that video games are becoming more and more willing to tell us stories of post-apocalyptic hellscapes, corporate dystopias, and all manner of human folly where, despite our failings as a species, we at least have managed to move beyond the pervasive, closed-minded views on sexuality. For me, though, in this world replete with non-binary phobias, there was some comfort in seeing these girls struggle with coming to terms with their queerness against the 2008 backdrop of the Proposition 8 movement in California. In a way I am these girls. I am Diya who would rather stay silent or avoid social situations entirely, rather than risk misspeaking and breaching a social contract she is convinced she doesn't fully understand. I am Akarsha who relies on the quick wit of puns and memetic humor to distract, diffuse, and deflect difficult issues and ensure that no one takes her seriously enough to get offended by who she really is. I am Noelle who puts on airs of academic aloofness because it is much easier to be right when dealing with facts and reason than it is to argue a battle of emotions. I'm not Min though, sorry. My shortness that lasted through middle school never pushed me overcompensate with arrogance and violence.

(Except I'm also gay!)

Proposition 8 was an amendment to the California constitution that provided that the state would only recognize marriage between a man and a woman. It passed in 2008 and was not completely overturned until the end of appeals in 2013.

Runners-up: Assassin's Creed: Origins, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Biggest Disappointment

Tekken 7: Fated Retribution

It's not your fault Chloe
It's not your fault Chloe

Ah yes, Tekken 7. A game that has been tournament-playable since 2015 but did not see an actual console release until 2017. A game whose director, Katsuhiro Harada, deflected questions about its prolonged development by directly and indirectly throwing Street Fighter V under the bus for its lackluster release. A game that had years to focus on its console features, only to release with featureless and barely-functioning lobbies, best-of-2 (?) ranked matches, character customization options locked behind a boringly simplistic RNG treasure battle mode, and an utter lack of anything remotely resembling a tutorial. Top it all off with the worst fighting game cinematic story mode since those became a thing with Mortal Kombat 9, where you only see a small fraction of the cast, spend half your time listening to monotonous line reads of meandering dialogue over still images, and slog through boss fights that follow the old-school design of being frustratingly difficult in mechanics-breaking ways.

Let me take a second and acknowledge that at its core, Tekken 7 is still good at being Tekken. It's been Tekken for 23 years and if you're playing next to another human, it continues to be mostly Tekken. If you liked pushing 112 and 122 with Kazuya in 1994 you'll definitely find a refined version of that here. The addition of final-hit slow-mo is undeniably hype and as divisive as they may be, the new Rage Art mechanic was an effective way to help lapsed players feel like they can jump in and immediately be doing something cool.

Tekken 7 has a strong following, both in the Giantbomb FGC Discord and across the broader FGC as a whole, and I bear no ill will towards anyone who genuinely enjoys the game. For me, however, I don't know that I'll ever be able to watch it being played without picturing those images of Harada proudly wearing his "Don't ask me for shit" t-shirt, remembering the mess that Tekken 7 was at release, and realizing that he got away with it, stoking the flames of the Capcom hate-bandwagon merrily all the way.

Runners-up: Doki Doki Literature Club, NieR:Automata

Best New Character

Pelessaria B'Sayle (PeeBee) - Mass Effect: Andromeda

Fight me!

Ok, no, but hear me out at least. Yes, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game plagued by issues that exhausted most people's patience for the game. Yes, PeeBee may not be the most nuanced take on well-worn character tropes of the enigmatic, effervescent, adventurous, and commitment-averse companion. Yes, she holds her gun backwards in a cutscene (did they ever fix that?). That doesn't change the fact that she was the single character that had the greatest impact on my experience with a game this year.

She's trying her best...?
She's trying her best...?

Whenever I undertake an RPG in the BioWare style with their heavy focus on dialogue choices, I always have a clear idea of the character I plan on playing the role of. For the original Mass Effect trilogy this became incredibly straightforward, as the binary nature of the Paragon/Renegade system made it feel more like a game telling two clear, canonical stories, rather than an open-ended experience of player authorship. Since then they've gradually eased back on that design philosophy, loosening the reigns with each subsequent release.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda, any hints of scorekeeping are gone and the player is free to make dialogue choices as real people do, in the moment according to how they feel at the time. This is the first game in a long time to make me feel like my character was wholly my own, and that's where PeeBee comes in. Taking a few early cues from the characters in the world, I quickly came to realize that my Sara Ryder was a by-the-book professional, pushing aside personal entanglements and coming to terms with truly being her father's daughter. As my Ryder came to learn more about the secrets her father kept and his secret motivations, I felt her grip on the persona she had crafted for herself beginning to slip, but it was PeeBee who finally pushed her over the edge.

PeeBee, with her incessant prattling, her distracted excitability, her shirking of all things protocol and convention, finally wore my Ryder down and got her to loosen up. Whereas in a previous game, I would have kept highlighting the dialogue choice denoted as "professional" from beginning to end (to maximize my Professional Pointsβ„’, you see), in Andromeda I suddenly found my Ryder becoming more and more willing to break the rules and trust her instincts over her training. For the first half of the game, my Ryder didn't even like PeeBee but here I was, dozens of hours in, mind racing over PeeBee confessing her feelings for my Ryder. It's almost universally a given that by spending time with the main character, the companions in BioWare games experience meaningful personal growth. In that moment I realized that for the first time, one of my companions was having that same effect on me.

I have always made an effort to play through BioWare games multiple times. I ran through the entire Mass Effect trilogy as both Paragon and Renegade and have numerous characters created for every entry in the Dragon Age series. Andromeda is the first time I don't want to go back, and not because I didn't enjoy the game. I had enormous fun playing it from start to finish. But my experience with Ryder and PeeBee was so singularly my own, I don't know that I can bear to go back and do things differently. Those two found each other and made each other better, and even if BioWare never lets me come back to these characters and the Andromeda galaxy, I think I can be satisfied with that.

Runners-up: Akarsha - Butterfly Soup, Aloy - Horizon: Zero Dawn

Best Moment or Sequence

Traveling to the Houseboat Fleet - Gravity Rush 2

Out of sight, out of mind
Out of sight, out of mind

Most video game characters pull from a common vocabulary of movement. We know that Mario jumps and Sonic runs, Nathan Drake climbs and Solid Snake crawls, but Kat from Gravity Rush 2's talent is falling. Kat is a gravity shifter, meaning she has the power to ignore gravity's effects and, more importantly, freely change the direction of gravity's pull on her body. If she decides that gravity is above her, she can fly by "falling" up into the sky.

This mechanic allowed Gravity Rush 2's world designers to create a vertical space on a scale unlike any other game. Instead of running across wide open fields, for the first half of the game Kat finds herself exploring the floating islands that make up the tiered city of Jirga Para Lhao.

Kat first touches down in a section of the city called Lei Colmosna, a bright and colorful area resembling a sort of island resort town, with clear blue skies above and an ocean of fluffy white clouds below. Beyond the palm trees she can see the next level of islands, crowned with towering skyscrapers that make up the city's downtown district. Higher still is Lei Havina, a collection of island-sized mansions that house each of Jirga Para Lhao's elite families.

Kat spends a great deal of time in the city, reveling in its sights and smells, lending a hand where she can and doing her best to repay the kindness of the people that took her in. It is only later, while investigating the theft of some cargo, that she first discovers the existence of another district, Lei Elgona, hidden somewhere beneath the clouds. So Kat does what she does best. She falls, and she falls, and she falls, and she falls. As a gravity shifter, Kat is always moving herself at terminal velocity. So when Kat pierced the cloud layer in search of Lei Elgona, the space around her growing darker and darker the more she plummeted, there was a growing sense of unease as I began to realize just how far these people were separated from the rest of Jirga Para Lhao's society. It was a kick in the gut for me when Kat finally broke through and saw, far below, a shanty town built atop rusty floating housboats, cast in unrelenting darkness, its unsightly mass kept buried beneath the clouds.

One of the special things that only video games can achieve, the marriage of game mechanics and narrative, makes a story's themes tangible in a way no other medium can provide. It is one thing to acknowledge and understand social inequality and systemic injustice. It is another thing to be able to hold it in your hands. In that moment that is what Gravity Rush 2 allowed me to experience. Sometimes the only choice you have is to fall and keep falling.

Runners-up: The Tempest - Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, Kick It - Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2017

10. Tacoma

Glomps... in spaaaaaaace!
Glomps... in spaaaaaaace!

I was a huge fan of Gone Home the year it came out, and have only grown more and more fond of games in the affectionately (and derisively) named "walking simulator" genre ever since. However, in early 2016, it seemed like the game's developer, Fullbright, was headed for a sophomore slump when they announced that after more than two years of work, they were going back to the drawing board for their followup Tacoma. At the time, it was shaping up to be too much like "Gone Home: In Space". Thankfully they took the step back.

Tacoma puts the player in the role of a contractor investigating an abandoned space station by watching recordings of the crew's final days on board. Unlike the static environments of Gone Home, these recordings project silhouettes of the crew into the various rooms as augmented reality videos. Taking full advantage of the setting and medium, players can scrub forwards and backwards through the footage, following the various members of the crew as the move into and out of each other's company and conversations. The scenes are well written, not only with believable dialogue but also with cleverly distributed hints that gradually fill in the broader picture of the world and clue us in to the unique societal pressures the characters are suffering under in this corporate dystopia.

Fullbright has managed not once, but twice, to grant me a narrative experience that will always stay with me, not only on the strength of its writing, plot, and themes, but for the innovative ways in which that narrative is delivered.

9. Prey

Morgan is the game's most unreliable narrator
Morgan is the game's most unreliable narrator

The promise of the immersive sim, games emphasizing player immersion by placing them in a living, breathing spaces and focusing on choice and consequences, has called to me since Deus Ex was released in 2000. I have always been eager for new entries in the genre, and with two key design decisions, Prey is the closest game yet to realizing that potential.

Prey puts the player inside the head of Morgan Yu, an amnesiac scientist who wakes up and finds herself aboard the orbital space station Talos I where she (wait for it) needs to investigate the fate of the crew and the cause of the alien infestation runs throughout its entirety. By setting the entire game in a single, contiguous space, I was able to gain a deeper connection to Morgan and her world than I have with any previous immersive sim. There were no fades to black or "time passes" as I traveled from location to location. If Morgan ended up somewhere, it was because I moved her there. And by spending all of my time with the game on Talos I, I developed a familiarity with the area around me that made it feel like home.

As Morgan comes to understand the nature of her work on the station, she is faced with a choice. By taking advantage of her experiments with alien biology, she can alter her own body either by maximizing her human potential or by gaining extraordinary alien powers. Unlike most games in the genre, this presented a clear narrative divide. Would I give up my humanity to gain access to abilities that would open up the world to me in ways unattainable by human skill and ingenuity? In the end I went fully human which not only influenced every decision I made for the remainder of the game, but paid off spectacularly when the final twist was revealed.

Some people are suggesting that the immersive sim genre may be dead, or at least headed for a hiatus, on the back of Prey, and Dishonored 2 before it, underperforming in terms of sales. I don't know if I believe that's true, but if it does bear out, my only hope is that when they make their inevitable return, the developers of the next big immersive sim takes some of the lessons of Prey to heart.

8. Splatoon 2

There are several reasons why I skipped on the original Splatoon. For one, I'm not a big fan of dual-analog controls for shooters. Also, at the time, I wasn't a very big fan of the WiiU in general. Beyond that, team-based multiplayer has never been my thing, and prerelease coverage left me with the impression that the game had paltry single-player content to offer. All that being said, there was something about the game's sense of style that called to me, as again and again I had to push myself to not give in and impulse buy the game every time I was at Target or passing by a GameStop.

With Splatoon 2 I finally caved, and I'm glad that I did. Which isn't to say I was wrong to duck the first game for two years. Having played the sequel, I'm sure that I would not have had nearly as much fun with game on the WiiU. But there's something about playing on the Switch, being able to take the game anywhere in my house and curl up and rattle off a quick match or two, that keeps me coming back. I'm enamored with the playful edginess of the game's aesthetic, the movement and shooting mechanics are well suited for analog controls, and it didn't take me long to find a favorite firearm among the varied arsenal.

Now if only team Marina could win a Splatfest and do our octoling idol proud!

7. Life Is Strange: Before the Storm

I almost didn't play this game.

As someone who is big on workers' rights I was solidly in the corner of the SAG-AFTRA voice actors in their strike against several major publishers in order to receive fairer compensation, more reasonable working conditions, and greater transparency during the hiring process. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that Square Enix was moving ahead with development of Before the Storm and hiring a non-union voice actor to take over the role of Chloe Price, a central character of Life Is Strange and the protagonist of this new prequel.

Ah, teen love!
Ah, teen love!

There's a lot to be said about problematic media. As I look at the various Blu-rays I own it's hard to find a movie that wasn't touched in some way by a shitty person or organization that ended up profiting from my purchase. Would I punish the developer, Deck Nine, by not playing their game? Would I punish myself by not experiencing the latest entry in one of my favorite genres and the followup to one of my favorite games? Ultimately, the effusive praise being heaped upon the game from a number of queer women games writers whose opinions I trust won me over.

I've already gone over why Life Is Strange was so important to me in 2015, and while Before the Storm did not have as significant an impact on me, it is in almost all respects a much better story. By ditching the sci-fi A-plot, the writers were able to explore the teen drama and burgeoning romance between Chloe and Rachel Amber in a much more well-developed way. There was a real glee in filling Chloe's furious-at-the-world shoes and playing outside of my comfort zone, pushing back fiercely against the symbols of authority and oppression in her life, from the school principal to her mom's new boyfriend to Rachel's shitty, lying dad.

Before the Storm does what all good supplemental narratives should do. It stands on its own, adds to the world in meaningful ways, and recontextualizes the events of what came before it. I have written a lot about the pivotal decision at the end of Life Is Strange, and only feel stronger in the choice I made at the time. If you enjoyed the first game in any way, I beseech you to give this prequel a chance. Just brace yourself for the post-credits stinger at the end of Episode 3. It's a real knife to the heart.

6. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

It's crazy realizing that we live in a world where an over-the-top anti-fascist Nazi-murder-simulator would be considered by large swathes of the gaming community to be much-needed catharsis, and by others as too politically controversial a product to purchase. Any other year Wolfenstein II would have been a middling-to-average shooter campaign peppered with well-directed cutscenes. In the context of today, however, Wolfenstein II provides some of the most relevant and biting social commentary ever to grace a big-budget video game.

Moms are tough
Moms are tough

By in large, New Colossus does little to evolve beyond 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order in terms of its gunplay and level design. Stealth is still largely impossible to execute on unless you are willing to rely heavily on repeatedly saving and reloading your progress. Firefights often draw on too long and it's easy to go from doing well to suddenly overwhelmed and dead. I still largely enjoyed the time I spent actually playing the game, especially once I got access to weapon upgrades and was able to attach a silencer to my pistol, but it was the the themes and overall quality of the narrative interludes that pushed me onward.

Maybe it's the nature of the genre but there's a certain way the game drives straight to the heart of everything it has to say. Every cutscene is packed with hard cuts and punchy dialogue. The game gives zero fucks and readily calls out America's history of systemic racism and white complacency. A social democrat and the game's army vet hero B.J. Blazkowicz have a shouting match about whether the right or the left is to blame for America losing the war, all against a backdrop of sniper fire and jazz clarinet. A paranoid and decrepit fuhrer murders people randomly and indiscriminately while soiling himself, and none of his underlings even entertain the notion of tempering his madness. A pair of stormtroopers share a "so much for the tolerant left" moment before talking about signing up for the death squads. An axe is buried in the face of Nazi military might and broadcast across the nation during late-night television. A random newpaper clipping satirizing modern media's farcical coverage of America's most punchable racist, Richard Spencer.

For a game that the developer claimed was not a reflection of the current political climate, it's hard to see anything but in the fabric of Wolfenstein II. Yes, it is in part a product of happenstance, but the messages and themes could not be more relevant to living in modern-day America. There is so much uncertainty going in to 2018, both for America and the world, and with things more likely to get worse before they get better, I'm thankful for the little bits of hope that stories like these can give us.

5. Persona 5

Turning mundane gameplay into a visual treat
Turning mundane gameplay into a visual treat

If there's one thing the Persona games have always excelled at, it's their sense of style. From their characters to their art direction to their music to their menu design, a Persona game's aesthetic is pervasive, and Persona 5 is the ultimate realization of that design ethos.

Persona 5 is in every way a step-up from its predecessor. The core loop of gameplay remains largely unchanged, but tightened up and tweaked in numerous ways to help players maximize their time and more quickly navigate the world. Adjustments to the battle system add several layers of tactical depth to every encounter. Characters in the world that the player can build relationships with have deeper stories and offer significant mechanical benefits the more they're pursued. The game even takes advantage of the always-connected nature of modern consoles, allowing stumped players to ask the internet what decisions other players made in various situations.

Unfortunately the game has its share of stumbles, from its weird objectification of one of it's female protagonists, to the continued Atlus tradition of inserting transphobic and homophobic humor, and the fact that the ~16-year-old hero has the option to romance a number of adult women in their 20s, including his own homeroom teacher. These are relatively small blips across a game that can easily last a player 100 hours, but they also hold Persona 5 back from been an unequivocal success and higher on my personal list.

That music though...

4. Butterfly Soup

It is both remarkable and not at all surprising that 23-year-old Brianna Lei was able to write her queer Asian-American teen romance story with so much authenticity. The dialogue is funny and genuinely warm in ways that many games strive for but never quite reach. I'd write more about the game but it's short, sweet, and most importantly free so if possible, I'd much rather more people go out there and download it and experience it for themselves. In the meantime I'll sit here feverishly hungering for Butterfly Soup 2, and whatever else Brianna is working on next.

Download here:

3. Horizon: Zero Dawn

Protect that smile!
Protect that smile!

First, I'd like to acknowledge that when your story is set during the reemergence of humanity 1000 years after a technological apocalypse, there's something callously appropriative about basing your fictional future society on Indigenous American culture.

That being said, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of my best experiences playing a game, bar none. The developers at Guerrilla built an amazingly well-realized world, with mysteries and reveals that constantly took my breath away across the entirety of its narrative. I never once grew tired of hunting elaborately designed robotic animals across the lush landscapes grown on top of the ruins of modern civilization, learning their strengths and weaknesses and carefully choosing from my wide arsenal of weapons in order to bring them down efficiently and strip their of their valuable components. The combat of Horizon not only surpasses the breadth of games that are tied to the open-world genre, it could give the best action games a run for their money.

Then there's Aloy, the game's hero. She is at once headstrong and humble, tragic and triumphant, intuitive and naive. Not only is she well written, she is deftly acted by Ashly Burch, all fire and spittle when facing down the most intimidating foes, and full of awkward obliviousness as she is relentlessly flirted at by a majority of the people she meets in her travels across what remains of Colorado. She is the child of our generation, the ultimate inheritor of the sins we inflicted against the world, and I can't help myself but revel in her triumph.

2. Mass Effect: Andromeda

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I look back on my experiences with Mass Effect: Andromeda and consider myself lucky.

I have always had a high tolerance for sloppy animations, bad geometry, and all the bits of jank that are common in larger, open-world RPGs. And while the prevalence of those things did not seem particularly higher in Andromeda than, say, Fallout 4, I acknowledge that I simply may not have been bothered enough by all the little imperfections to have them register. For all the reports of the game being a buggy mess, I also seem to have dodged the bulk of it. I only hit one progression bug on a side-quest that I wasn't able to finagle my way around, and could count the number of times I lost progress due to a scripting error on the hands of a blind butcher. So unlike most folk, I was able to enjoy the best shooting in the franchise, backed up by the breadth of power combinations allowed by an open-ended class system and a wide array of weapons catering to every playstyle.

Most importantly, though, I was able to inhabit the role of the Pathfinder, and it's this key distinction that elevates Andromeda above the original trilogy for me. In the first three Mass Effects the player takes on the role of Shepard, the first human Spectre. As as Spectre, Shepard was one of the Milky Way Galaxy's top shadow cops, with the freedom to act covertly and unilaterally. She was rarely called to task for her actions outside of toothless admonishments from her closest companions and the occasional dressing down from members of the Citadel Council who all seemed to keep dying and being replaced. Everyday people recognized that she was important and dangerous, but rarely recognized her for her deeds, allowing her to act with a very detached ethos, no more dedicated to the greater good as she cared to be.

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Sara Ryder's responsibilities as Pathfinder put her in a very different position. Suddenly finding herself the symbolic figurehead of the colonization efforts in the Andromeda galaxy, every single one of her actions, not matter how small, was public knowledge. Every decision, from sentencing a would-be mutineer who attempted to murder his commanding officer and failed, to deciding whether the first planetside outpost would be dedicated to the military or scientific research, would be scrutinized by the entire Andromeda Initiative. Ryder was connected to the people in a way Shepard never was, and regularly had to come face-to-face with the consequences for her actions.

A lot of people have written and talked about this year's Assassins Creed Origins and the appeal of its central character, Bayek. As one of the last medjay in Egypt at the end of Ptolemaic rule, Bayek embraces his role as protector. Seeing the depth of compassion in his interactions with his fellow Egyptians and the lengths to which he would go to help them spoke greatly to many people. That is what the Pathfinder means to me, not the distant Spectre enforcer, but the ardent protector standing alongside her people against the frightening unknown.

1. Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite

I have known that Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (MvCI) was my 2017 Game of the Year since it was announced at Sony's Playstation Experience last December. I have had a full year, including three months of play time, to figure out how to articulate what makes MvCI the ultimate realization of my favorite elements of fighting games. I have written and deleted various analogies to music and theater and dance but what I think I really want to talk about is painting.

Keepin' it stylish
Keepin' it stylish

My other favorite fighting game, Street Fighter V, has what I think of as a connect-the-dots appeal. There's a sort of rigid ease of use that most Street Fighter characters have, which is great because when I just want to get in and play with someone else, I can focus on connecting the dots and even with minimal practice and effort, I'm at least guaranteed to get a crude picture out of it. The flip side of this is that no matter how much I dedicate my time to coloring in the shapes, adding details, contouring the lines, making things look nice, I'm ultimately still connecting the dots.

MvCI follows in a tradition of team-based fighting games where the player builds a team of multiple characters, with one active on-screen at a time. Unlike previous games of this style that have more restrictive rules about where, when, and how a player can call upon the characters they have waiting in the wings, MvCI features a flexible switch mechanic that allows players to freely call in their secondary character in a majority of the possible gameplay situations.

Thanks to this mechanic, I now see MvCI as more of a blank canvas, with the characters I choose determining the colors I have at my disposal. Admittedly, I'm not a very good artist. I can't take my paints into a pressure situation and produce a Monet. What I can do, however, is use my practice canvas in training mode to experiment with the colors at my disposal. I can take my greens and browns and work hard until I get really good at painting a nice tree that I can show you the next time I face you online. And even when I run into other people that have the same paints as me I can bet that more often than not, the tree I came up with will look pretty different from the tree they're painting. Or maybe they painted a pool table, or a frog, or a kiwi.

It is this freedom of expression that MvCI grants me access to through its unique mechanics that elevates it so high in my heart. I take inspiration from the masters of the game as I watch them create new masterpieces with every tournament they enter, and I keep practicing painting my tree until I can get it mostly right most of the time. I just wish more people could be convinced to give these paints a try.

Thanks for sticking with me and as always, be sure to check out our Fighting Games General thread on the forums and join the GiantBomb Fighting Game Community Discord if you're so inclined. Here's to kicking ass and not going 0-2 in 2018!


StarvingGamer's EVO 2017 Travelogue (GB Ain't Free!)

Dave saw my GB hoodie and said
Dave saw my GB hoodie and said "Hi!" to me on our flight to NorCal

Two years ago I went to my first EVO, which also happened to be my first fighting game major. A combination of social and performance anxiety kept me from entering, but I still managed to have an amazing time checking out booths and watching matches. With the release of Street Fighter V (SFV) in 2016 and the announcement that the Sunday finals were going to be done up big in the Mandalay Bay Arena, I was ready to turn my EVO trip into an annual tradition. My family ended up buying a house instead so it wasn't in the cards, but with pressure from the grandparents to bring our kids to the west coast this summer, we decided to make a go of it this year.

A few things that were on my mind, flying in to Vegas this year. 1) I had never played SFV against someone else in-person before. I didn't even know the process for setting up my button layout. 2) I had never entered a fighting game tournament before, yet somehow found myself entered into SFV. At this point a huge thank-you is owed to suddenblackout, a member of the GBFGC Discord who invited me to run sets in his room Thursday night. His Birdie whomped me a good 40-10 or something like that, but it allowed me to adjust to playing humans offline. Also shoutouts to Discord, the program, for giving the GBFGC members attending EVO a good way to contact each other. Shameless plug:

Friday at show open I did what any self-respecting millenial by way of genX would do and rushed immediately to the EVO merch booth and bought an officially branded spinner. My kids have five spinners between them somehow, but this one is just for me! After that, it was a beeline to Shunao's booth to pick up a FANG charm, and an Alisa one too for good measure, before wandering the floor and figuring out where my pool was going to be. I went and found another GBer, Danggief, and together we sat down to watch suddenblackout's noon pool. His very first match was going to be streamed! There we met another GB player, Donuts, and as a group (alongside thousands of stream monsters) we witnessed the absolute decimation of a poor Mika player at suddenblackout's hands.

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At the end of the day suddenblackout went 3-2 in SFV. Later that afternoon Danggief ended up going 2-2. The bracket gods saw fit to throw two poor Karins my way, easily my most experienced matchup thanks to the countless long sets I've played against best duder Technician, so I managed to scrape by with my own 2-2 finish. As a whole we gave better than we took, and thanks to the venue wifi actually not being terrible, Donuts and I managed to periscope almost all of our matches to the folks in Discord. Considering that I expected to go 0-2, I couldn't be happier with my performance, and as much as I hate to admit it, I actually kind of like having to give the thumbs-up before each rematch.

Donuts hung around and watched me make a few more good purchasing decisions, including the first official English translation of the manga about famous player Daigo, a Twintelle keychain, and a Karin charm as thanks for her not letting me go 0-2. I continued the tradition of taking creeper shots of notable community members. Also, during his pool Danggief was interviewed by a camera crew. They asked him hard-hitting questions like what the "E" in E. Honda stands for and how he pronounces "Ryu". So look for that in something somewhere someday?

I left the venue before the King of Fighters XIV top-8 to have dinner with my wife and friends, but did manage to catch most of it on stream. It's no surprise who ended up in the top two spots, but E.T.'s clutch comeback victory over Xiao Hai may have had repercussions for the rest of the tournament. For player that can run as hot and cold as Xiao Hai (some weekends he looks unstoppable and others he's hardly a footnote) he went into this year's EVO with a surprising amount of braggadocio, even going as far as to thank the game's developer SNK for contributing a bonus to the game's prize pool. He incorrectly assumed a bulk of that money would be finding its way into his own wallet.

Letting E.T. rally with his Daimon pick ultimately cost Xiao Hai $7,000, and it's hard to imagine that crushing defeat didn't haunt him for the rest of the tournament. He ultimately finished 25th in SFV, a strong placing but also a far cry from what he's capable of.

Saturday, Donuts played his Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 pool with his point-Nemesis team. He ended up going 1-2, holding his own commendably well against Marlinpie. After that we went to watch the Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 finals. The developer, Arc System Works, had conscripted a Rachel and an Axl cosplayer to pass out red inflatable thundersticks. You wouldn't think air-filled tubes of plastic would be able to make much noise, but once everyone started banging them together things got loud. Sadly, with no apparent way to deflate them (they were very confusing), I had to leave my pair behind at the end of the night.

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The all-Japanese top-8 for Guilty Gear was full of spectacular play that has left me in a real weird headspace regarding the game. For me, watching players excel, particularly with my character of choice, always makes me feel inspired to get better. On the other hand, nothing has changed the fact that years later, I am still fundamentally unequipped to deal with the oppressively offensive tempo of this particular game. In a way, Arc's clinging to the model of forced obsolescence is a blessing. Every time I get the itch to play Leo really poorly, I remember that I can't unless I pay them another $20.

Results-wise, there weren't many surprises, although that did make it a lot easier to root for the underdogs. With the elimination of last year's champion, Machabo, prior to top-8 at the hands of top American player Kid Viper, the smart money was on Omito, last year's second-place finisher, to take it. Tomo put up a valiant effort in grand finals, but through the entire set Omito looked like he was in absolute control. At some point Donuts's friend wandered off and came back with an Uncharted 4 PS4 he won entering a raffle on a whim. Donuts and I took advantage of the break before Injustice 2 to buy $11 sandwiches from Subway because Vegas? Then we settled down for one of the bigger upsets of the entire weekend.

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Ever since he entered the scene, competing primarily in games developed by NetherRealm Studios, SonicFox has been the player to beat. This EVO, however, his decision to play a character that is more fun and cool than actually strong came back to bite him. On paper, Red Hood seems like the prototypical SonicFox character, strong pressure, devilish mixups, and lots of style. Plus he's a gun ninja. Unfortunately, he also lacks the damage output of the higher-tier character which the results bore out, with SonicFox going out 0-2 in top-8. The real darling of the night was HoneyBee with his unexpected second-place finish using Flash, another character generally regarded as weak. Every time he initiated one of the Flash's massive combos, the audience would start shouting in time with every blow. Although it was Dragon that won, it was Honeybee that won the hearts of everyone in the audience.

After that it was time to for me to duck out on the Super Smash Bros. Melee top-8 because my wife had scored us tickets to watch Penn & Teller that night. Despite a majority of Penn & Teller's act having already been given away across various seasons of "Fool Us", their personalities and their craft kept me engaged throughout the performance. But what impressed me most of all at the end of the night was their consummate professionalism as entertainers, as they stood in the lobby after the show to say hi and sign autographs and take selfies with the audience. My wife was very excited to hear Teller actually speak.

The four gods of Melee finished in 1st-4th place this EVO so it was business as usual on that front.

I ended up getting out of bed at 7AM on finals day to take a shower, finish packing so my wife could check us out, and get to the arena in time for 7:45AM Marvel. As one of the people who donated to make sure the game would get a proper conclusion this year, I dressed for the occasion. Of course the arena was mostly empty, but there were still enough people to make some noise as matches started.

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It's a bittersweet thing. Marvel is often decried by outsiders as an incomprehensible mess marred with broken gameplay and imbalanced characters, and ever since Flocker's win in 2012, the run-up to EVO has been met with proclamations of the "death of Marvel." Despite all this, the game has persevered. Over its seven years Marvel has consistently pulled in solid entry number and high viewership, with the continued discovery of new techniques and playstyles staving off any sense of stagnation. With RyanLV's unorthodox Chun-Li/Morrigan/Phoenix team beating out last year's champion, ChrisG, in the grand finals, it was as good a sendoff as the game could have hoped for. Seven EVOs with seven different champions and a surprising amount of character diversity. It's the end of an era, but I think I'm ready for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (MvCI) to shake things up.

With MvCI out in September, they had the game's producer, Combofiend, play a quick exhibition against 2012's champion, Filipino Champ. In actuality, it was an excuse to reveal Vampire Savior's Jedah as a member of the game's cast. It's was a strange plan for a reveal. With Filipino Champ's extremely limited time with the game, it was hardly a showcase of high-level play. And despite his best efforts, Combofiend wasn't able to highlight this new take on Jedah anywhere near as well as a proper trailer could. Still, as a legacy pull he was a strong choice and the crowd got appropriately hype for it.

I haven't played much BlazBlue since 2012 when Arc wanted me to buy the game's fourth iteration in four years with only one new character to show for it. It was nice to see old standbys like Carl and Rachel and Arakune, slightly adjusted but looking as powerful as ever. As someone who tends to prefer a more ranged playstyle, it was also a thrill to see what characters like Mu and Nine are capable of in the hands of true masters. The Jin player, Fenrich, impressed everyone with his impeccable defense, but you can't win just by blocking. Instead it was Ryusei's Carl that eventually took it in an intense, back-and-forth grand finals, with the crowd at his back thanks to his adorable mugging in-between rounds. For a region that is generally known for the stoicism of its players, he shone out as the competitor that seemed to be having the time of his life on stage.

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Arc had a few announcements too, with a samurai cat coming to BlazBlue and also a crazy looking new crossover game featuring characters from four different series including the debut fighting game appearance of characters from RWBY, an anime web-series with a very devoted following if the surprised cheering that filled that arena is anything to go by. None of that matters, of course, because immediately after that Arika revealed some new info about Fighting Layer EX (working title). I won't belabor the point, but several people's Skullodreams came true on that Sunday. Not only is the game confirmed to be in development for release, Arika officially added Skullomania to the roster, with a little bonus Darun Mister on the side.

As the stage was being set for Tekken 7 (T7), I had a little time to think about my strained feelings about this particular game. Every time T7's game director Katsuhiro Harada was asked about the two-year wait for the console release a game that was already tournament-ready, he took the opportunity to throw direct and indirect shade at SFV for its poor launch. Proudly showcasing his "Don't ask me for shit" t-shirt, he would insist they were taking their time to make sure the game came out right. Even if his casual put-downs were intended as friendly ribbing between developers, that didn't stop the community a large from seizing on every chance to bash on SFV some more.

Then T7 came out and, frankly, the game was a bit of a mess. Between the paltry single-player offerings, the absurdly long wait times in between online matches, a ranked mode that ends with scores of 1-1, and having absolutely nothing in the game that teaches you any of its mechanics, it seems like Harada was all talk. Which would be fine if he hadn't spent the past year-and-a-half shoveling coal into the engine of the Capcom-hate-train. I will say that the core gameplay is still strong. Tekken hasn't really changed much since 1996 and, to nobody's surprise, the two favorites JDCR and Saint faced off in grand finals.

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There was a gameplay trailer of Trunks for Dragon Ball FighterZ and a reveal of Geese for T7. I don't have any affinity for these characters, but the person behind Geese's trailer certainly knew what his fans wanted, providing them with an extended montage of him performing his trademark counter against a wide variety of the cast, accompanied by his classic cry of "Predictable!" that the people around me barked in unison. With two boss characters from different fighting game series making an appearance in T7, I'm curious who the final guest character is going to be.

I took the Smash Bros. 4 top-8 as a chance to grab some dinner and charge my phone. There has always been a divide between the Smash Melee audience and the broader fighting game community, and Smash 4 hasn't done much to bridge that gap. A massive queue had formed at the entrance to the arena, with ushers scrambling to scan-in the people coming to watch Smash and scan-out the people like me taking advantage of the "3-hour break". On my way out of the venue I ran into Tony Cannon, one of EVO's founders and also one of the developers of GGPO, the gold-standard in video game netcode. I thanked him for the event and he let me take a picture of him before he was hijacked by another fan. I politely took my leave as the fan started lecturing Tony on why he shouldn't have included Smash 4 as part of Sunday's lineup. Sorry Tony.

I managed to make it back to the venue in time to catch the last two sets of top-8, with back-to-back comebacks from Bayonetta player Salem to ultimately upset ZeRo, the odds-on favorite who has won almost as many Smash 4 tournaments as he has entered. It may have been the biggest upset of the entire weekend, and I'm glad I got to see it in person.

The in-house commentary team for SFV started a wave
The in-house commentary team for SFV started a wave

Before starting the top-8, Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono had a trailer for the upcoming downloadable character, Abigail. They were in a tough spot, given the strength of the reveals that had come from the other developers. Abigail is out now, and having had a chance to play as him, he is incredibly fun and full of small touches that showcase his goofy personality. Whomever was responsible for cutting together his trailer decided to make it as dry as possible, unfortunately, and the reactions from the audience at EVO largely consisted of exclamations of "What?" and "What!!??!!?"

He's great. Everyone should try him.

Last year, at its first EVO, Street Fighter V didn't have the best showing. The play was incredibly strong, and the narrative of the "lone American" LI Joe in top-8 caught a lot of people's attention, but with only 5 characters used across 8 players many people started questioning the balance and longevity of the game. This year was a complete reversal, with 9 unique characters played over dozens of intensely close games. Each player had a compelling storyline going into top-8, but none moreso than American player Punk and Japanese player Tokido.

Punk is an incredibly young 18 and has experienced a meteoric rise in 2017 as the player to beat in SFV. He has several first-place finishes in this year's Capcom Pro Tour, putting him comfortably at the top of the global leaderboard. On his road to the grand finals, Punk dominated his opponents, going 24-0 in games including a 2-0 win over Tokido during the semifinals. Tokido, on the other hand, is a member of the old guard. At the age of 32, he has been playing fighting games longer than Punk has been alive and has attended American tournaments competing in various fighting games for over 15 years. Since his 2007 win in Super Turbo, Tokido has been struggling to earn his third Evolution title, and two very close calls against players Filipino Champ and Itabashi Zangief in top-8 almost kept him from reaching the grand finals of his 16th EVO.

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Coming from the losers bracket, Tokido had the tougher row to hoe. He needed to beat Punk in two best-of-five sets whereas Punk only needed one set to seal his victory. Everyone was wondering, would Punk accomplish what no American could do throughout Street Fighter IV's lifespan and take 1st at EVO, solidifying his position as the best SFV player in the world? Or would Tokido, one of the hardest working, most dedicated fighting game players out there finally grasp that brass ring he had been chasing for a decade? Punk had the swagger of youth on his side and what the community affectionately refers to as "young man reactions." Tokido had the passion and the experience earned over countless appearances on the biggest stages in competitive fighting games.

In the end, experience won out. When it mattered most, Tokido stayed on top of his game, making correct read after correct read and executing his gameplan perfectly. Punk's clean and focused play finally began to crack, and with his family in the crowd and the expectations of America weighing on his back he finally crumbled, losing to Tokido with a final score of 1-6. For Tokido it was a victory well deserved, well earned, and long overdue. For Punk it was a heartbreaking defeat.

There's a special magic to an event like EVO. It doesn't matter if you're a top player or a random scrub, at the end of the day we're all just players and competitors and fans of fighting games. We don't need to play the same game or speak the same language because we share something beyond language, the appreciation of flawless execution and amazing reads and absolute dunkings and miraculous comebacks. We yell and cheer and jump out of our seats because we all know a secret and we're just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Tokido himself said it best as we closed out the night.

"Fighting games [are] something so great."


You're all free now.

Of course I went 2-2! It's the perfect number!
Of course I went 2-2! It's the perfect number!


Injustice 2 Combo Lab - Firestorm Day 1

Alright had a night to sleep on it, remembered b3 was a thing, remembered overheads.

Firestorm seems like an interesting character? Needs to burn meter to get any real damage but has decently safe offense and solid footsie tools. His zoning is fairly lackluster unless her burns meter for that too, and his mobility isn't so hot. Lack of a crossup is a real fucking bummer. The strategy for him seems to be maybe use his corner carry to pin the opponent down where he can finally take advantage of restands and his 112 string which is +3ob.

Overall he seems middling at best but also I don't know shit about Injustice so maybe he's the bomb diggity. I'll let other people figure that out though, for now I think I'm going to some other characters a spin. Maybe I'll just play Deadshot and be a jerk online since I do like zoning and now's the time to abuse that shit.

Woo another NRS game time to dust off the old capture card.

I kinda skipped the original Injustice so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect coming into Injustice 2. The combo system seems more... restrained? There are generally fewer ways to get popups (and I somehow forgot to do any combos off of raw overhead? great), and a lot more reasons to spend meter mid-combo. Honestly, this makes it feel like there's less to explore in the game from a combosmith standpoint, but I'll keep poking away at it and see if any character strikes my fancy.

Firestorm seems very basic. His zoning is meh and his mobility is not great but he was a good jumping-off point. His main combo extender seems to be his meter-burn ground laser which, sadly, has to be targeted as well. It puts the opponent into a capture state for free shenanigans. Of course everyone has the universal wall-bounce for 2 bars but outside of that, there doesn't seem to be much juice for him mid-screen. It's all very basic, but maybe there's something about the combo system that I'm just not seeing yet. Tomorrow I'll try to resist the siren song of Persona 5 and dig into another character.

Punching Joker feels nice tho.

Also the netcode seems like butt which is shocking given how good I hear latter-day MKXL netkode is.


StarvingGamer's Games Worth Starving For (or Otherwise) in 2016

Woof. 2016 huh?

I guess this is where I make a joke about making a joke about writing the traditional "year in review" paragraph and what even does that look like in a year like this one? Ok, with that out of the way...

Despite everything else, 2016 was another fantastic year for fans of good-ass video games. A bevy of inventive new IP was released from development teams around the world in all sizes, and favorite franchises that had lost their way managed to reclaim the spirit of what made us love them ten or twenty years ago. Game creators seemed less afraid to take risks and just get weird, and great strides were taken to increase diversity and inclusivity in games, even if we still have a long road to hoe.

Between moving into an actual house and starting my eldest in kindergarten and my youngest in preschool, several experiences deserving of my time had to be passed over. Which isn't to say I didn't play plenty of games (I did), and I'd like to tell you about some of them.

Best Surprise



It has been 22 years since the last real DOOM game, released in the era of Mega Man X, Earthworm Jim, and Tie Fighter.

Since then, the gaming landscape has gone through upheaval after upheaval, and after a pathetic attempt at making a DOOM 3 in 2004, most people were convinced that the franchise was simply an artifact of another age, irreconcilably out of place in the modern era of video games. The scant bits of footage and brief beta access people were given to what would become 2016's DOOM, compounded with tales of development hell and the stark reality of an 8+ year development cycle to, painted a dire of picture.

Luckily for us, it turns out developing in hell might not be so bad when you're making a game about murdering hundreds upon hundreds of hellspawn (no but really investing that much time on a product that seems to be going nowhere must have been real rough on everyone involved. Shoutouts to the hard workers at id, I hope you all were able to practice enough self-care and eat dinner with your families on most nights).

To put it plainly, DOOM manages to recapture the essence of my memories of playing the original DOOM in 1993, translated for a modern context. Unlike most modern shooters where you can expect to spend more time hiding than shooting, DOOM forces the player to stay mobile and get right in the thick of it, with a wide array of tools and weapons that allows each encounter to be treated like a frantic tactical puzzle punctuated by screams and explosions.

The story and atmosphere bring together a perfect ratio of attitude and irreverence and gore and metal and metal to make every moment in the game a delight, even as you're punching the eyeball out of your 50th cacodemon. DOOM has reclaimed the throne as the single-player shooter campaign to beat, and if the ending of the game is any indication, the folk at id may already have something in mind. Now that they're back in a groove, I hope it doesn't take them quite as long to release a followup. I think my heart will have stopped trying to pound its way out of my chest by 2018.

Runners-up: Stardew Valley, Watch_Dogs 2

Biggest Disappointment

Street Fighter V

Yeah, I know...
Yeah, I know...

I love Street Fighter V. As a person who enjoys fighting in streets I have practically zero complaints about the game, and none of them are about the core gameplay. In the competitive circuit, Street Fighter V is hands-down the biggest game in the scene, now or ever. Entry records have been shattered at event after event since the game released, viewership numbers continue to climb, and the prize-pools have never been more rewarding for the pro players out there.

That said, I can't help but think about all the potential for growth that was lost because of the repeated bungling by Capcom and their inability to message anything clearly as their plans changed throughout the year.

Maybe if they had recontextualized the initial release as a "tournament edition" or some kind, made it DLC-only with the proper full-release slated for July, they could have dodged all the criticism for selling what felt to many like a half-baked product at full-price. Then it would have been less a story when Ibuki had to be delayed for a month, and games writers would have been less eager to label future DLC releases as "late" when in fact every other bit of content arrived on time if not early according to their initial roadmap.

Call your "Season Pass" a "Character Pass" (a good lesson they learned for 2017), don't install a fucking rootkit on PC (even if it was gone within a few hours of the update), and who knows how many more casual players could have been brought into the SFV fold, and the fighting game community as a whole.

I guess it's all up to you now Injustice 2 *gag*.

Runners-up: Inside, Mirror's Edge Catalyst

Best Game to Buy at Release and Barely/Never Play

That Dragon, Cancer


This is a category that usually is more about me facing my buying decisions balanced against my dwindling free time, but 2016 is a special year.

By all accounts That Dragon, Cancer is a brief game, topping out at around 2 hours total play-time. It's the sort of game you can get through in an afternoon or evening, start to finish. I, however, have never even booted it up once (did install it though!).

Through a series of vignettes, the game tells the autobiographical story of a family contending with an infant son diagnosed with terminal cancer, up and through his eventual death. I don't think I can handle playing this game. Between my own issues with mortality and my children and my ability to become intensely immersed in video games, I'm fairly certain this game would ruin me for quite a while. I do want to play it... some day, but probably not any time soon.

Runners-up: The Last Guardian, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Best Moment or Sequence

Overwatch - PharMercy

I don't even play/own Overwatch. Ok I did mess with the free weekend before it released for 20 minutes.

I don't care! I love the characters and how diverse and colorful they are and I especially love the fandom that has sprung up around them. Every character in Overwatch is oozing with personality, but most of the details surrounding them have been left incredibly vague. This has created a perfect storm for the fanart fanfic shippers out there to go to town with their favorite pairings and I eat it all up.

Which isn't to say that these couplings are entirely unearned. For some characters, like my and's OTP (one true pairing), it's a marriage of mechanics that inspires a deeper imagined relationship, like in the clip below:

For the uninitiated (how did you find this blog?), the game is being played from the perspective of Pharah, a soldier that wears a power-suit capable of flight and specializes in bombarding enemies with explosive rockets from afar. During the battle, Pharah fires a concussive blast from her wrist launcher, propelling her unsuspecting opponent into the pit below. Unfortunately, her target is Roadhog, a particularly tricky foe that manages to use his hooked chain to snag onto Parah's teammate, Mercy, and drag her into the pit alongside him.

Mercy, who serves as the team's combat medic, can float to slow her descent but is incapable of actual flight herself. However, she does have a special ability that allows her to tether herself to a nearby ally and fly directly to them. Seeing Mercy in trouble, Pharah immediately hurls herself down into the pit after her. At the last moment, Mercy turns to find her waiting friend and latches on, as Pharah activates her boosters and lifts both of them back to the relative safety of solid ground.

This small interaction is one of an infinite number of ways the various characters in Overwatch can compliment one-another, both mechanically and narratively, and in my eyes that's Overwatch's greatest gift. It has provided creative people from around the world with a shorthand to celebrate the different ways people can love and care for one another.

Runners-up: Rez Infinite - Area X, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Epilogue

StarvingGamer's Top 10 Games of 2016

10. Stardew Valley

What a pleasant surprise this was. I've invested untold amounts of hours into games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing and The Sims and Fantasy Life and Stardew Valley takes elements from all of those and mashes them up into an intensely satisfying busywork experience. Maybe it's a fault of my min-maxing or maybe the numerous updates the game has underwent since I last played it have solved this problem, but I did run out of steam halfway through year 2 when my farm had become a well-honed production machine and I had already explored and looted my way to pretty much everything of note in terms of equipment and crafting materials. Maybe during a slow month I'll start over and see how everything that has changed in the latest version.

9. Rez Infinite

I'm a bit late to the Rez party. I was aware of it (mostly by virtue of urban legends surrounding the trance vibrator) but had never experienced it until my wife bought me a PlayStation VR. The core game is extremely enjoyable, if a little dated. While playing I often found myself wondering how the game was meant to be experienced without VR, and if that was the original intent 15 years ago when it first released. Then I tried Area X. I had the biggest, doofiest grin on my face the entire time. It sold me on the importance and future of VR, and left me wishing there was more of it!

8. Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator-

Thanks to the advent of Discord, our little GiantBomb fighting game community has blossomed. This means I have more people to chat about, and more importantly play, fighting games with. Instead of relegating myself to combo trials and training mode, I've actually been able to fight against cool humans and avoid the additional salt that comes from losing to randoms. Lucky for me, I was able to latch on to Leo Whitefang immediately as he's a character that can get results with minimal effort. Yes, I'm a bad player playing a character who just sometimes mauls you and it's fun and no you can't stop me I'll keep doing it also ban I-No.

7. BlazBlue: Central Fiction

Read above paragraph, only instead of Leo they added Mai Natsume, a character specifically designed for beginners with a simplified moveset and significantly lower execution requirements than is typical of a character in BlazBlue. The ability to hop in and immediately start getting results made this the first BlazBlue I've been able to play against other people with minimal frustration. Every fighting game should include a character with the same design philosphy as Mai.

Yo we anime!
Yo we anime!

6. Thumper

Coming in under the wire, I decided that instead of spending a few hours on The Last Guardian and still not forming an opinion, I would dedicate the last day of 2016 to seeing the ways Thumper mixes it up past the first world. Needless to say, I was blown away. The frantic sense of speed afforded by the PSVR, combined with the pounding soundtrack and eerily twisted visuals pushed my senses to the limits as the rhythms became more complicated, the mechanics more dense, and the tempo more frantic. Just sitting here thinking about it, I can almost feel myself hurtling forward toward the screen. Also this is the only game that has made me internalize and sight-read a 5/8 time signature, which was a treat. I'm excited for 7/8.

5. The Witness

I love puzzles. Many of my fondest memories from childhood are of getting comfy on a bed or a couch and reading through a book of logic puzzles. When I heard that all the puzzles in The Witness were going to be line puzzles on grids on panels, I was skeptical about how much depth there could actually be. The prerelease buzz got me, though, and I'm glad it did. The way The Witness takes such a simple concept of moving a line through a maze and turns it on its head, then turns it inside-out, then turns it into a goldfish, then eats the goldfish but really it was a combustion engine all along, is intensely challenging and immensely satisfying. Then you find the secret. Then you find the other secret. Then you realize the secrets have secrets. Then you curl up in a ball because The Witness has bested you.

4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice

I've been dedicated to the Ace Attorney series since the beginning, and with every game they build and build on the existing fiction in new and unexpected ways. Spirit of Justice is no different, with an intricately woven series of trials, a slew of cameos, and new hidden truths for all the main characters to discover about themselves and each other. I'm still only about halfway through the final trial as of writing this, but I feel confident in this game's placement on my list. I can't wait to see how it ends!

3. Final Fantasy XV

This game is good! It's sooo good! Unfortunately I had to sacrifice The Last Guardian to "Best Old Game" contention in 2017, but it was worth it. I dove into Final Fantasy XV hard. I hunted every hunt, quested every quest, dungeoned every dungeon, and never once got tired of it (maybe once; you know which dungeon I'm talking about). The game's unique take on action RPG combat gives players the utmost freedom for expression of tactics and skill, with the potential to take down significantly stronger enemies with enough preparation and patience. It's unfortunate that the story can't be properly appreciated without watching a mediocre anime and a middling movie, but the game rewards that effort by spinning a heartfelt tale of brotherhood, camaraderie, love, loss, duty and dedication. I had more than one instance of intense feelings, and as crazy as it sounds I might jump in for a New Game+ to see all the story tweaks they end up doing to help clear up the third act of the game. Also a quick protip, learn Airdance as soon as possible. Trust me.

Not a spoiler, I swear!
Not a spoiler, I swear!

2. Monster Hunter Generations

What to say here? Monster Hunter is the best, and Generations brings drastic but welcome changes to that tried-and-true formula. Most notably, the fact that each weapon can now be wielded in any of four distinct hunter styles effectively quadruples the number of options when tackling a monster, and enables players to more effectively focus on their strengths when they play. Unlike previous games where I had to maintain a wide variety of weapons to deal with different monsters, I was able to overcome almost every creature in Generations using either a hammer or greatsword in the aerial style. Using a monster to boost myself 30-feet in the air, only to come back down on its head with a massive charged slash attack never gets boring.

1. Street Fighter V

Surprise surprise, my most disappointing game in 2016 is also my favorite game of 2016.

It's been a rough year for Street Fighter V. The game had a shaky-ass release and never fully recovered, at least in the eyes of the public. Even now, almost a year later, Capcom isn't even close to catching up and repairing their relationship with the casual audience.

As an online warrior, though, none of that matters. That's because with Street Fighter V I have had the more fun playing with people than any other fighting game. Thanks to the numerous small tweaks to lower the execution barrier for people with bad hands like me, I can play the game secure in the knowledge that when something goes wrong, it was my decision making and not my inability to perform finger acrobatics in a satisfactory way that got me. While small, the cast is varied and incredibly well balanced, and even if my preferred strategy of keepaway is somewhat weaker in V than in past iterations, I'm never so disadvantaged that I feel like it's more the game beating me than the other player.

Capcom claims to have plans for the game through 2020, and 2017 will be the first big indication of what exactly that entails. Beyond the recent balance update and some new characters, there are dozens of quality-of-life tweaks that I'm hoping will be made sometime in the next year to bring the game's quality up to a level that is more easily recommendable to fair-weather street fighters.

Maybe you picked up the game on a whim over one of the numerous winter sales, or maybe you've been on the fence ever since you first heard how busted the game was in February. Well, if fighting against other people is what you're looking for, there's no real reason not to jump in now (unless your internet is bad also it sounds rough for Australia?). Our SFV community is going pretty strong. You can find us in a couple places:

Stay safe and stay sane and play some video games in 2017.

Hmmm... I think this game would have been *much* better suited for the no. 2 position.
Hmmm... I think this game would have been *much* better suited for the no. 2 position.


D&D 5e Homebrew Class: Spelldancer (Feedback Wanted!)

The homebrew train keeps on chugging, this time with the Spelldancer (homebrewery link)!

The inspiration for this comes from something like 15 years ago when I was dreaming up different fictional universes when I should have been paying attention in lectures. What if a spellcaster couldn't speak? How would they fulfill the verbal components of a spell? Well, what if there was a sort of sign-language equivalent to arcane words of power. Ok, well what if that sign-language actually took the form of dance? Thusly: Spelldancer.

From a mechanical point of view, the core concept is to be a squishy hybrid damage dealer, something between and Eldritch Knight and a Rogue, leaning more heavily in the Rogue direction of things. Because I needed the feeling of a continuous dance to be embodied by the gameplay, I gave the class a momentum-based mechanic that powers up as you hit with stuff. Of course it's hard to balance momentum-based things to not be too weak at the start and not be too strong at the end, but I think I struck a pretty good balance, factoring in the standard D&D fight length of 3-rounds.

Or maybe this class is still bustabust. I dunno. Anyways, I'd love to get any feedback you guys have. Eviscerate all my ideas! Yay!


D&D 5e Homebrew Class/Background: Steelshaper/Adept (Feedback Wanted!)

Update: I made a custom background to go along with the class, and threw it all into Homebrewery which I just discovered and spent way too much time messing around when I should have been sleeping.

Some of you may remember earlier in the year when GBer @joystick_hero was recruiting for his D&D campaign and I was one of the lucky few who managed to join. Well we've been playing for... almost half-a-year? So we're taking a break in the action to run a short interlude campaign and he was magnanimous enough to let me build out a custom class.

Which is here:

Steelshapers! Originally I was trying to design this as a 4e class which was a nightmare and I quickly gave up. Now I think I've pretty much made a complete class. The core concept is to have a melee class that's light on damage, but high on utility and crowd control. If any of you would like to give this a read and offer feedback, I'd be very appreciative. I'll try not to be too precious about my ideas.