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Underappreciated Games

Let’s get it out of the way up front: THIS IS NOT A LIST OF UNDERRATED GAMES (wait for everyone to get their joke comment about how these games aren't underrated out of their system...aaaaand GO)

These games, I feel, got rated exactly what they deserved (in most cases). BUT, in my opinion, critical and central parts of them were missed or simply didn't get highlighted as much as I thought they should be. And, of course, a lot of this is personal opinion so...don’t like it? DON’T EAT! Oh and DO feel free to suggest, or even make your own, entries. If I played them, I’ll add them. If not, I’ll add YOURS and credit! EVERYONE wins!

List items

  • Lovecraft is a difficult horror to pull off. Half the time, or more, when you actually visualize the kinds of horrors he was describing, they look...well, just a little bit silly. Or they’re impossible to describe because...they’re impossible. But once every now and get something like the Amygdala artist just nails it.

    Like Pickman’s Model, when the unnatural horrors of Yarnham are revealed, they are a jaw-dropping horror. They evoke terror when they’re lifting you up and literally crushing the life from you, but when you see them just lurking about the world, realizing they’ve always been there...that’s HORROR. From Vacuous Rom to the Moonbeast itself, I’ve never failed to grasp how this is a horror game, and how few people appreciate it as such.

    The first time an invisible hand crushed me, as mentioned above, I actually threw the controller down and had to go look up what it was just in case it happened again at random. Then it happened again unexpectedly and, MOMENTS before it did, the thought flashed through my mind “It’s happening again!” And then it did. And I freaked out all over again. Bloodborne got kudos for changing up the Dark Souls formula, it got credit for its setting and monster designs, but I never hear it mentioned in the same breath as other horror games and I cannot figure out why. It’s got resource scarcity, very intentional controls and jump scare terror mixed with cerebral, existential horror.

  • My name is Bond. James Bond. Or Bauer. Jack Bauer. Or Bourne. Jason Bourne. Whatever spy you decided to emulate, or whether it was a version of all three, and therefore none at all, few games have really “gotten” choice like Alpha Protocol did.s

    Were you rude in that dialog tree? Congratulations! The guy you were rude to/smashed his head into the bar informed on you and now the next mission is treating you like a maniac. Did you stealth your way through, knocking out or silently killing those elite soldiers? Great! Your next mission won’t be as populated with guards! Oh and there’s an “Orphans Created” number so...maybe start choking out rather than stabbing necks.

    The characters, as well, while not all being out-of-the-park knockouts (hey, guess what: a videogame STILL isn’t great at doing romance) are at least unique enough to stand out and be extremely memorable. Points especially to Nolan North’s inspired turn as the unhinged Steve Heck. Do yourself a favor and swallow your pride: set the difficulty to low (normal at the absolute highest) and enjoy a truly branching storyline with some interesting, unique characters.

  • NOTE: This entry covers both titles. And any future ones, probably.

    If this game had come out 20 years ago, my child-self would probably not be here writing lists. He’d have been dead grinding gear and changing history alongside Piccolo, Vegeta and all the rest. This game’s gameplay is...dull. It’s not uninspired, because, in point of fact, some of the most amazing moments are from the animations of moves and your character’s exclamations. But it is...repetitive. Let’s say. Also a story that’s supposed to be all about you and your character, SOMEHOW, still winds up being about Goku. TWICE. But otherwise, godDAMN this game’s a delight.

    There are few games better at being ‘just zone out and listen to a podcast or watch a Team Fourstar video. Or a Rifftrax. Anything else. Because your hands are going to be busy, but your mind certainly won’t be. This is a love letter to DBZ fans, and I happily receive it every time I boot up either game. The character customization is JUST varied enough, the game allows you to fill in gaps that you might have experienced watching the show as a kid (want to be an ass-kicking lady? A person of color who DOESN’T have questionable, Jim Crow comic lips? DO IT!) and half the fun is playing dress-up with your character. Especially after the second game made the brilliant move of introducing items that boosted your stats independent of your clothing, allowing you to truly make your character look the way you want.

    It’s not the most deep game, it’s much more realtime RPG than it is a fighting game, but the sheer level of content and customization makes it something ANY fan, lapsed or otherwise, should check out.

  • You know what’s a hallmark of sci-fi from the 60s through the 80s? Things. Were. BLEAK. There weren’t happy endings every time, and sometimes, every now and again: the protagonist just had to die. A lot of criticisms were leveled against the ending of this game, but the irony is that I saw just as much anxiety and grumbling about how EA would “Force Bioware to have a happy ending” when that wasn’t what the series was about. Then people got their wish and reminded everyone why focus groups are inherently useless.

    To. Be. was clear that a lot of content was held back for DLC and that SUCKS. Leviathan and Javik both should have been included, and it’s pretty clear they were originally meant to be (one indicator of Mass Effect’s DLC as a franchise is that squadmates almost never talk because of how much extra dialog recording would be required. Leviathan has a TON Of squad dialog...just putting that out there) DOES include one of the most lovingly crafted bits of DLC I’ve ever played in “The Citadel.”

    Not only is the story pure schlock at its finest (A CLONE?! PERFECT!!!) but it’s filled with inside jokes about the multiplayer, some truly compelling minigames and arenas AND expansion of the characters’ and squad’s interpersonal relationships. Especially at the party. Watching Zaeed (RIP Robin) take a run at Samara is pure gold, and the sheer number of variances that can happen at the party show a level of craft and love that makes for a worthy send-off, bad ending or no.

  • Vampire: The Masquerade was AD&D for kids who thought they were too cool for AD& like me! To be fair to the system itself: it had a lot more depth and variable characters than a system that was designed, from top-to-bottom, to be about combat. On the other hand...good LORD was this system in love with how edgy and cool it perceived itself to be.

    Enter: Bloodlines! Glitchy, unfinished, barely polished and still, somehow, perfectly capturing the setting. Once again: player choice comes into play in huge, unexpected ways. The clan of vampire you choose winds up having a huge impact not just on how you play the game, but how you interact with it. Like Alpha Protocol before it, if the gameplay surrounding these systems were better, this would be a Game of All Time Contender, but it simply falls SO flat in terms of gameplay and stability (the game would hard crash to desktop if you sneezed toward it), that it’s entirely understandable why it didn’t have a bigger following.

  • The Playstation 2 had, at the height of its power, something like 10,000 games per month coming out for it. Likewise, and perhaps in what sounds like an unrelated point, the 1970s and 80s were filled with pulpy stories of crime-ridden streets run by ultra-organized, and often thematic, gangs that called for a fascist response (often at the hands of vigilantes, though sometimes the government simply steps in and steps up), and while that might not work so great in real life: in the realm of videogame fiction, we got Urban Chaos: Riot Response.

    A perfect homage to that wild and wooly fiction that sees the fire department merged with the SWAT team in a movement dubbed “ZERO TOLERANCE” as a gang of organized arsonists sets the city ablaze, literally and figuratively. The sheer absurdity with combining the fire department with an ultra-violent SWAT team should have been more highlighted when talking about this game because it’s the kind of thing I’m SHOCKED didn’t show up in some grindhouse fare or early days John Carpenter because it’s SUCH a wonderfully absurd idea.

    Your player is 3 parts Judge Dredd and 1 part firefighter as you take to burning buildings in what is a fairly paint-by-numbers FPS but for the ludicrous setup and surprisingly satisfying progression of weapons. There are enemies to take non-lethally (meaning you taze them, though...of course, you can ALSO taze them until they catch fire which...which just never gets old) for rewards, though they’re often couched in other enemies, making their takedown a matter of using SOME precision to make sure you don’t hit them. Couple that with a shockingly great final act that sees your home invaded and you reduced to using a pistol, after having gotten used to some truly heavy artillery, for the first part of it, Urban Chaos: Riot Response stood out with its flair and side stories, if not its core conceit of competent FPS gameplay.

  • Much in the same way that Urban Chaos stood out in a sea of FPSes on the PS2, though not really enough to make a dent, Singularity stood out on the console generation after it with a story ripped from the pages of 1970s sci-fi. It’s not a perfect game. It’s not even THAT interesting, even WITH its time travel and time warp mechanics, but the first time you accidentally slip back in time in front of a statue of Joseph Stalin and save a scientist from a burning building, only to return to that same scientist replacing said statue, the first thing that runs through your head is, “OH! OH NO! I FUCKED THIS UP! I FUCKED UP REAL BAD!” And the rest of the game is spent fixing said fuckup. With guns. And time travel powers. And guuuuuuuns.

    This frantic tone is met with the gameplay where every shootout has the player thinking, “I CAN FIX THIS! I CAN FIX HISTORY! NONE OF THIS WILL HAPPEN!” as they wade through the mess they’ve made of the past, and a tone of singular, Soviet desperation pervades the entire game. Never too grim to allow you to do something absurd like turning one of a squad of troops into a horrific, prehistoric Croenenberg-esque mass of flailing guts and bone, the storyline and tone of this game never got the props I felt it deserved.

  • Saving the best for last (for now), as it is but Soul Sacrifice was a highly also-ran character action game exclusive for the Vita with mashy, grindy, arena-based combat with similar environments and largely palette swapped (though horrifically well designed) enemies. Why is it on this list? The framing device is one of the most creative and harrowing I’ve ever experienced in a videogame.

    The game opens in an absolute wasteland in the wake of the world’s end. This isn’t a post-apocalypse that you fight through, this is EVERYTHING is dead except the mage that caused it, you and a strange book made of flesh and bone that you read to absorb its power and MAYBE stand a chance at killing Magusar, the mage that destroyed the world. The narration is fantastic with the storyline of the nameless mage that traveled with Magusar framing everything that happens next, but what makes it so unique is that at the end of every story mission, no matter how hopeful the outcome, there’s a countdown to the end of the world. The countdown begins with days, but by the game’s end is down to minutes and it works. Every. Time. When it’s days, it almost feels casual. Almost feels like you’re going to prevent it, even, and by the end when you get to “Moments...until the end of the world” you feel the weight of horror and hopelessness weighing you down, grinding its heel into the back of your neck.

    Magusar as an antagonist is fascinating as well, this is a world in which when one mage kills another, he gets that mage’s memories and so the twisted story is unreliable as revealed when Magusar suggests a detour to a nearby village to visit his son. But the narrator reveals, “This concerned Magusar had no children.” The side quests are fairly simple, but each comes with just enough narrative hook to make you want to grind through the rather repetitive battles to see what’s next. A perfect short-term commute game with one HELLUVA hook that I never saw get enough love (most likely because the initial slog before it gets interesting would have turned most people off).