Friday, February 12, 2021
Friday, January 1, 2021
The year 2020 was rough for me, both due to the pandemic and for some personal reasons as well. As a result, I felt much less motivation to write than in years past. However, that certainly doesn't mean that I didn't have the energy to play games; quite the opposite in fact! This year I tackled over 75 games! With release dates ranging from 1982 to 2020, there were some real gems in there that I'd like to highlight in a quick little Top 10 list:
#10: Ys Oath in Felghana
The Ys series has pretty consistently had a spot in my honorable mentions for the past several years, but Oath in Felghana is the one that had what it takes to break the top 10, even in a very competitive year. Felghana is the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the Ys games great: fast-paced combat, tough bosses, an interesting story, and a rockin' soundtrack. This series doesn't deviate much from the action RPG formula, but it is so well-polished that it's quickly making its way into my favorite RPG franchises.
#9: Paper Mario The Origami King
While its combat didn't exactly stay fresh the whole time, Origami King's creativity, charm, and humor were more than enough to make this one of my favorite games of 2020. Part of what elevated this game into my Top 10 was streaming it; experiencing this frankly absurd game with others provided some much-needed levity in a really tough year.
#8: Ace Combat 7
As somebody who loves the aerial vehicle sections in games like Battlefield, I've been meaning to get around to trying purely air combat-focused game. Ace Combat 7 fit the bill; I had a blast with it! Much like Forza Horizon, I liked that AC7 provides options to tweak the level of realism to your liking. As someone who doesn't have much flight sim experience, the ability to fly realistic-looking aircraft with more forgiving arcadey physics was just right for me. I'm looking forward to playing more games like this in the future.
#7: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (First and Second Chapter)
Falcom's Legend of Heroes franchise has been recommended to me many times over the years, especially the Trails in the Sky chapters, but until now I had always felt intimidated by the length and scope of these JRPGs. (The game is script is notoriously massive, several times longer than the novel War and Peace). However, being stuck at home in a quarantine situation earlier in 2020 provided the perfect excuse to finally jump in. I loved the tactical battle system, rich world-building, and taking a long journey with some endearing characters. After completing the main arc of Trails in the Sky (e.g. First and Second Chapter), I needed to take a break but I have a feeling I'll be relishing the next games in the series when I get to them.
#6: Azure Striker Gunvolt
As somebody that tends to be lukewarm on Megaman, it turns out the trick to getting me to like it is to inject some extra anime nonsense. Gunvolt took the Megaman formula and added some unique mechanics, a flashier style, and some incredibly catchy music. Developer Inti Creates has a real knack for taking the core of classic retro games like Megaman and Castlevania and reimagining them in exciting new ways. (review)
#5: Shovel Knight
I've put off playing this for far too long! Shovel Knight has charming pixel art, excellent chiptunes, and very tight 8-bit platforming. I can definitely see why this is always ranked so highly among the top faux-retro indie games.
#4: Evan's Remains
I was initially drawn in by Evan's Remains upon seeing its gorgeous pixel art on a Twitch stream hosted by my pal, Stapecape. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed figuring out the game's tricky puzzle platforming challenges and unraveling its mysterious story. The game takes a bit of an unusual turn at the end, which may be offputting to some, but I enjoyed the journey so much that I ultimately wasn't concerned about the final destination.
#3: Wander Song
This music-themed adventure game was full of charm and heart. Despite an art style that didn't seem like my thing at first, the story and offbeat cast of characters sucked me right in. Even though it came out a while ago, I hadn't heard of Wandersong until this year and it immediately rocketed itself up to being one of my all-time favorite indie games. (review)
#2: The Talos Principle
While disregarded by many as a Portal-clone, this game's combination of challenging puzzles and philosophical themes made it a game that will stick with me for quite some time. It's the perfect game to play when you're looking for something somber, slow-paced, and cerebral. (A mood that I found myself in quite a bit this year.)
#1: Nier Automata
With a slick sense of style, a fun blend of gameplay styles, and a stellar soundtrack, this was a damn fine video game! Also, for some reason, 2020 just felt like the most appropriate possible year to play a game about exploring the ruins of human civilization. (review)
With how many games I played this year, it was inevitable that a lot of great games wouldn't make the Top 10. This year one of my projects was to get into new genres and franchises that I previously never explored, so many of my honorable mentions are a reflection of that. Here's a selection of some of the other great games that I'd like to highlight.
- Sound of Drop: Fall into Poison - I decided that this year I would try to get into visual novels and this one was my favorite among the ones I finished in 2020. I enjoyed the spooky atmosphere and making tough life-or-death decisions. This game also demonstrated to me that I not only enjoy visual novels but that streaming them can be a lot of fun.
- Mario 64 - I had somehow never played all the way through Mario 64 until this year. I played through the majority of this game during a marathon charity stream and had a great time finally completing this platforming classic.
- American McGee's Alice - This was a game I have been meaning to play for 20 years. I'm so glad I finally did! Once I got my head around the controls, it really clicked with me.
- Doom Eternal - There was no need to break the mold when the previous Doom was so good. Eternal took what was already great and built upon it in a very effective way.
- Streets of Rage 4 - I played through this slick-looking beat 'em up with my pal PixelPacas and it proved to be one of the most simple yet satisfying gameplay experiences of 2020.
- Yakuza Kiwami - Yakuza was another series I'd been meaning to play for a while. This remake of the original game in the series really drew me in and has me convinced to try more entries in the franchise.
- Final Fantasy 15 - My road trip with the bros of Final Fantasy 15 was an absolutely engrossing experience. If not for how clumsily the story was handled, this game would have had a shot at landing in the Top 10. (review)
- Phantasy Star 4 - This was my first experience with Sega's retro RPG series and it still totally holds up. This is easily one of the top games in the Sega Mega Drive collection on Steam.
- Chantelise - I was really impressed by this obscure indie action RPG that some have described as "anime Dark Souls". Thanks to @Simon_Ashtear for the recommendation! (review)
- Spiritfarer - Farming or slice-of-life games aren't usually my thing but this beautifully animated and emotional game really spoke to me this year.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
When people think about "horror" games, they immediately think of survival horror and jump scares associated with games like Resident Evil. And while that is certainly a prominent segment of horror games, "horror" is more of a theme or flavor that can be applied to a variety of game genres. In celebration of #HorrorGameOct, I decided to devote my Twitch channel to streaming and exploring horror gaming in a variety of forms.
Bloodstained Curse of the Moon 2
After absolutely loving the first Bloodstained, I came to this one with unreasonably high expectations. What I found was a game that was still really good but didn't quite recapture the magic of that first experience. That being said, the new playable characters were fun, especially the corgi in a mech. If you're a Castlevania fan, all three Bloodstained games are easily must-plays.
Resident Evil 7
My prior experiences with Resident Evil games have been pretty mixed. While I would rank several of them among my favorite spooky games, others have been an exercise in frustration. The first impression this game gave me was not a good one, the introductory areas seemed tailored for the VR experience but felt off as a regular player and the "killer rednecks" trope this game leans into has become quite tired for me. However, after pushing through that stuff and into the meat of the game, I found that the game did a great job of taking the classic Resident Evil formula and updating it with more precise first-person controls and a great sense of atmosphere. Overall, it didn't quite eclipse my favorite game in the series, Resident Evil 2 Remake, but I would still rank it very highly among survival horror games that I've played.
This little retro-style indie platformer was included in the Racial Justice Bundle from itch.io earlier this year. It sported cute Halloween-themed sprite work, simple but polished mechanics, and a moderate difficulty curve. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short spooky game that can be completed in a single evening.
Silent Hill 4
Until this year, my only exposure to the Silent Hill franchise was watching the Silent Hill movie back when it came out in 2005. While I wasn't a big horror game fan back in those days, the movie piqued my interest enough to put trying one of these games on my very long-term to-do list. This year, when Konami made SH4 available on PC via Gog, the opportunity to check off that box finally arrived. Though I struggled with this game's jankyness and awkward controls at first, I eventually came to appreciate this game's mysterious atmosphere and surreal take on horror. Considering that series fans often consider SH4 to be the worst game in the series and I still had fun with it, I think I'd enjoy the other Silent Hill games if Konami elects to make them available on PC.
As a big Castlevania fan, it's always bugged me that I was never able to finish one of the most beloved games in the series when I originally played it. This year I finally decided to see it through! This time I ended up playing the Japanese version of CV3 (via the Castlevania Anniversary Collection) in order to enjoy its enhanced soundtrack and more balanced difficulty compared to the Western release. With this game's multiple characters, branching, paths, diverse environments, and stellar score I can absolutely see why it's a fan favorite. Some of the more punishing aspects of NES game design still lead to some frustration but I managed to complete a "pure" playthrough without the use of save states or cheats!
Clock Tower: The First Fear
Hearing that this SNES and Windows 95 point-and-click adventure was a major source of inspiration for later survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I was very curious to give Clock Tower a try. Early on, I was really impressed with how effectively this game conveyed the atmosphere of horror despite the limitations of its 16-bit platform. I also liked, how much detail and personality was put into the character animations, particularly for the game's primary villain, the Scissor Man. Unfortunately, the aesthetic qualities of the game were really the only thing I enjoyed. As an adventure game, I found this game to be extremely opaque, even by 1995 standards. Many times, the solution to making progress was not a function of puzzle-solving or logic, but meeting some kind of arbitrary criteria such as entering and exiting a room multiple times or repeatedly inspecting an object until your character decides that she wants to interact with it. It also didn't help matters that for a game that involves a lot of wandering around and trial-and-error, your character walks extremely slowly and running even a few yards almost immediately depletes her stamina. As a result, I found playing Clock Tower to be interesting from a historical perspective but a subpar adventure game experience.
American McGee's Alice
This dark and twisted take on Alice and Wonderland is something I've been wanting to play for a really long time. At first, the controls of the game felt really off to me, but once I got my head around the fact that this was a 3rd person action game made in the Quake 3 engine, everything started clicking. While 3D graphics and game design have come a long way since this game was made, exploring the surreal worlds of Wonderland was still an experience that totally held up for me. I'm looking forward to playing the sequel next year.
While it might be especially trendy now, indie studios cranking out Castlevania-like games is by no means a new phenomenon. Rusty is an early 1993 PC game about a whip-wielding vampire slayer on a quest to rescue damsels in distress and defeat an evil count (sounds familiar doesn't it?). Suffice to say, I didn't go into this game expecting to see anything particularly original or high quality. Much to my surprise, the game was actually pretty good! I liked the graphics and music quite a bit and I appreciated the way it deviated from Castlevania by incorporating a more maze-like level design. Unfortunately, this game's level design can also be a source of frustration as each level has a relatively short time limit and Rusty's movements are a little too stiff to pull off some of the maneuvers the game asks of you. As a result, I found Rusty to be an interesting experience that was worth playing, but it would've needed more polish to stand side by side with its source of inspiration, Castlevania.
Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #HorrorGameOct event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020
Monday, September 28, 2020
- Nights flies through fixed 2D planar routes within a larger 3D environment collecting orbs
- By collecting at least 20 orbs within the time limit, Nights can destroy the Ideya machine
- After destroying the Ideya and returning to the starting point, the flight path changes and a new Ideya spawns
- Destroying 4 Ideya machines warps Nights to a separate battle area to take on the level boss
|Flying through rings and collecting orbs as Nights|
Since Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few Sega series that I have considerable experience with, I was pretty excited to play this game that serves as a celebration of the franchise's history. In Sonic Generations, you alternate between playing 2D platforming stages as retro Sonic and 3D platforming stages as modern Sonic. Each stage is based on iconic locations from previous Sonic games such as Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2. It was awesome to see high-definition reimaginings of classic areas; they also sported some interesting rearrangements of the music from these stages as well. The gameplay itself, however, was a mixed bag. In many cases, the game successfully captured the smooth and snappy gameplay of classic Sonic games, but in other cases, either the level design or controls felt janky. As a long-time Sonic fan, I had fun with Sonic Generation's retro-modern nostalgic mashup but it may lack the polish to reel in people who aren't already invested in the adventures of Sega's blue hedgehog.
Among the classic 16-bit Sonic games, this is the only one I've never played (due to it being confined to a Sega Genesis add-on system for so many years). This game's use of CD technology provides a notable boost to the graphical detail and music quality compared to the standard Genesis titles. It was quite nice. However, I found the level layouts and time travel mechanics (a concept unique to this entry in the series) to be quite confusing. Perhaps if I had spent more time with the game, I could have come to appreciate these aspects of Sonic CD but I generally come to retro Sonic games for a straightforward pick-up-and-play experience. On the other hand, this game does some cool things with boss battles, many of them added a puzzle-like element that made them much more interesting than traditional Sonic battles. Overall, this was a solid 2D Sonic but it didn't come close to touching Sonic 2 and Sonic Mania as my favorite 16-bit Sonic games.
|I loved the rich color pallet of Sonic CD|
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
- This is an especially pretty game, especially considering it came out in 1993. I loved the cute sprites, bright color pallet, and rich, varied environments.
- As you would expect from a 16-bit Squaresoft RPG, this game features a great soundtrack. It features everything from traditional fantasy pieces to some interesting experimental tracks. A few of the tracks have loops that are a little too short for my taste, but overall, it's a great listen.
- Some of the writing is pretty amusing. While the dialog can be a bit stilted at times (more on that later), each character has a distinct personality that shows through. I also liked the way some of the characters inverted traditional RPG tropes (e.g. NPCs being prejudicated against the legendary hero and a princess on a quest to rescue a knight).
- For lack of a better word, the gameplay of Secret of Mana feels janky. The hit detection in combat always seems little off and the AI for your party members is wildly inconsistent. I often ran into issues with my characters getting stuck on objects in the environment or zoning out in the middle of a boss battle.
- Combat doesn't flow smoothly due to having to wait on a cooldown meter for basic attacks and the action freezing every time you open the magic menu. This game is ambitious for attempting to do party-based action combat with a magic system in 1993, but we've come a long way in terms of action RPG battle systems since then.
- While some parts of the dialog are entertaining, the overall story and script are very disjointed. As a result, certain lines of dialog and, even a few major plot events, feel like they are coming out of nowhere. (Upon reading about this game's development, I found out that this may be the result of some rather extreme constraints placed upon the English localization staff.)
- The nested rings that serve as the game's menu system work ok for battle but I would have liked more organized traditional menus for use outside combat. The ring menus off so little information that it makes it necessary to use the game's manual to look up the attributes and effects of items and spells. Several of Square's RPGs that predate this one offered more informative and practical menus.
- The world of Secret of Mana is very large and intricate, but there are no maps in the game. I'm pretty good at memorizing the layout of areas in games so I was able to work around this (I am far too stubborn to draw maps, however). I just don't understand why in-game maps were omitted when most other SNES games had them.
- The ability to save your game is very limited in this game, which can lead to a lot of frustration and lost progress if you're not careful. Since I was playing via the Collection of Mana, I was really glad that save states were also an option.
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Monday, July 27, 2020
- The game's graphics combine large detailed 2D sprites and simple 3D environments. Imagine Street Fighter 2 sprites wandering around landscapes of Ocarina of Time's level of detail. I liked this combination of styles, but it's bound to be polarizing.
- I really liked this game's unique magic system. Damaging or defeating enemies drops gems of various colors. Picking these up allows Chante to cast various magic spells. You can only hold six gems at a time and the quantity and combinations of colors you have completely changes the effect of the spells. This means the player must put some thought into which gems they collect and when to use them, thus providing much of the game's strategic depth.
- Chantelise's regular combat requires the player to stay on their toes and the boss battles present a very high level of challenge. When researching this game, I remember someone describing it as "anime Dark Souls" and thinking that they were making a joke. They weren't. Getting the hang of the combat took some practice but I found my eventual victories to be quite rewarding.
- Considering how tough this game is, the inclusion of a practice mode was very wise on the part of the game designers. Getting to learn each room of the dungeon, and more critically, having a low-stakes way to master the boss battles, was very helpful for getting used to the combat system and being able to make progress through the story with reduced frustration.
- While generally being combat-focused, the rooms of the dungeon contain puzzles and secret items that are mostly optional. Looking for these secrets was fun, though some of them were so obscure that I had to resort to using a guide to find them.
- Chantelise's dialog features some great comedic writing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when reading it during my Twitch streams of this game.
- Music in video games is very important to me. Chantelise features some good individual pieces but there is little consistency in how they are used. One issue that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was that the boss battle music continues playing after the fight is over. It's very jarring to be reading "Yay! We won!" dialog while still hearing intense battle music.
- Between the game's simple structure and the need to practice each dungeon prior to making a final run, the game can feel repetitive after a while.
- Moving a 2D sprite character through 3D polygonal environments can create some depth perception issues when landing jumps or trying to evade enemy attacks. After a little while, I managed to get used to it but it still felt somewhat imprecise.