White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a recently remastered horror game for Steam and PS4 that was originally released on PC in 2001 in Korea. No official English version had existed until the remastered edition that was released this year, but there was an unofficial English fan translation that managed to garner a strong cult following. This was my first time playing White Day, but for years now, I’ve heard tales of it being the scariest game ever made, so it’s been something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.
Hee-Min Lee is the new kid at Yeondu High School (frequently referred to as Y High School). One day during school, he finds the lost diary of So-Young Han, the girl all the boys crush on, and decides to sneak into school that night to return the diary to her desk along with a gift of candies. Alone in the school, he suddenly finds himself locked in the building, and while creeping around looking for his way through, witnesses a student being captured and brutally beaten by the janitor. Hee-Min soon realizes that the patrolling janitor is not the only danger lurking within the dark corridors of the school, rather the entire place is haunted by a menagerie of ghosts born from its shadowy and tragedy-stricken past.
Like the previous two horror games I reviewed, White Day is another run-and-hide game. The main threat of the game, the janitors which patrol each school building, spend their time searching for the player, while the player attempts to evade their detection. When caught, there’s no other option than to simply try to outrun the adversary and find a hiding spot. What makes White Day a little unique is its age. These run-and-hide horror games have really only become popular since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the original version of White Day was released in 2001, meaning it significantly predates the current trend.
Despite the fact that the place is haunted and guarded by a psychotic crew of custodial staff, the students of YHS seem to really like to sneak onto school property after hours. Hee-Min frequently crosses paths with three other female students who are on their own missions in the school. In addition to So-Young, there is the brash and suspicious Sung-A Kim and the timid and bookish Ji-Hyeon Seol. Interactions with these girls are a big part of the game, because the dialogue choices the player makes will have an impact on the ending (as I found out maybe a bit too late).
The ghost encounters at Y High School often play out like a puzzle, and usually require the player to already be in possession of certain items or documents to survive. Thoroughly exploring the school is critically important in White Day, as scattered about are tons of documents, from faculty and staff notes to rumors to ghost stories, most of which contain snippets of information that are needed to solve these puzzles. In addition, many ghost encounters require the player to be in possession of specific key items to even be able to initiate or complete the encounter. Via the ghost stories and objects the player receives, the game does a fair job of giving color and lore to each ghost.
This, however, leads into one of the biggest flaws I found the game to have: there are a few out-of-nowhere deaths. For instance, I specifically had trouble with one enemy toward the end which requires a specific power switch in the school to be flipped beforehand, or else there’s no way the enemy can be defeated (and at a certain point, they will perform an instant kill on the player). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to know that this switch needs to be flipped until you fight the enemy and see the instant death sequence. There’s a few instances of this, where the player needs to die to certain enemies at least once before they have an idea of what they need to do. Fortunately, the game is pretty good about checkpointing right before you initiate these no-win encounters, so it’s not a huge setback, but it can still be confusing when it happens.
Going back to what I said earlier, White Day was introduced to me long ago as “the scariest game ever made”. As it turns out, this was…………a significant exaggeration. When the original version of this game was released in 2001, I could perhaps see this maybe being the case, but even then, it has easily been surpassed in the many years since. I think perhaps a lot of this may be due to the fact that it was a game where the player is mostly defenseless released in a time when survival-horror games were still mostly focused on characters that carry guns. Still, even though it might not be the scariest game ever made, it definitely has a very thick and moody atmosphere, and most of the monsters and spooks the player encounters in the game are definitely creepy enough to leave an impression.
In particular, White Day really excels in sound design, and the sound effects and music go a long way to elevate the nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the school. There’s a handful of music tracks that seem to play randomly through the course of the game, and I felt they all really nailed the sinister feeling the game was going for. This one in particular really struck a chord with me.
That being said, the main foe of the game, the prowling janitors, can be a mixed bag. They definitely are the prime driver of tension throughout White Day. Their presence is always telegraphed by the silence-shattering jangle of their keys or the creepy tune they whistle. It’s definitely an alarming experience when they enter close proximity. But the janitors can also just become a nuisance sometimes. There were a few situations where I had to stay in my hiding spot for just too long a time while I waited for them to leave the area. Sometimes, you’ve just got to make a break for it and try to outrun them and get to another part of the building, but other times you can’t leave the area where you’re at because there’s an important puzzle that needs to be solved there.
White Day has multiple endings and I think I might have gotten the worst one of them all. Reading over online guides, it seems that the ending changes based on a few key dialogue choices the player makes when talking to the girls. I guess if you only intend to play through this game once, these multiple endings can be a bit annoying, since it seems to me like you would need a guide to get one of the better ones. But it certainly adds replay value to the game, especially if you want to tackle the harder difficulty levels. I’ve read the game has additional content on the higher difficulty levels, which I think further helps to create incentive to replay.
White Day might not be the scariest game ever made, but I think it’s still highly worthwhile for horror game fans. The game has easily been surpassed since 2001, but I think the remastered version available on Steam and PS4 presents a package that has aged reasonably well. I’m certainly grateful that we’ve finally received an official English version.
Last year, I did three posts for October, but I had actually meant to do four. I had been meaning to finish off my Halloween series of reviews with some words on Soma, but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to finish the game before Halloween ended, so I decided to hold off until I started doing spooky games again in 2017. Fast forward a year, and I boot up Soma again to realize that I was only like 20 minutes away from the end of the game, which was much closer than I had thought. Had I known that, I would have just powered through and completed it last year………. hindsight is 20/20.
Soma is the story of Simon, a terminally ill man from the modern day who agrees to have his brain scanned as part of a medical experiment. Upon waking from the scan, he finds himself not in the present day, but flung a century into the future to the abandoned and decaying deep sea station, PATHOS-II. He soon discovers that the WAU, the biological computer which maintains the facility, has gone awry, and in its misguided attempt to preserve the life of the crew has created a number of deranged cybernetic monsters which now roam the facility. As Simon contends with the threat of the WAU and its creations, he sets out to discover the ultimate truth of the new world he has awoken to and the ultimate fate of humanity.
Soma is a run-and-hide style of horror game, similar to the studio’s other infamous horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Simon has no real way to fight back against threats, and instead must make use of stealth and evasion to steer clear of dangerous encounters. Unlike Amnesia, however, Soma puts considerably less focus on handling the enemies, and a far greater focus on story and exploration. It’s one of those games where there isn’t a lot of interpersonal interaction, but instead most information is relayed in the past tense via computer terminals, written messages, and something akin to audio logs.
To be honest, most of the horror in Soma isn’t really derived from the threat of the wandering enemies. Rather, it’s the bleakness and existential nausea of Soma’s plot combined with the oppressive and alien atmosphere of the deep sea that makes the game unsettling. It’s less of a horror story that focuses on mysterious physical threats (like zombies or monsters), and more a kind of cerebral horror that is focused on questions that rattle the comfortability we have with our own human existence It’s more Eraserhead than Friday the 13th.
As a consequence, I’ve read more than a few opinions that state that Soma is best played with the enemies turned off. There exists a popular mod on Steam that basically makes all the monsters disappear, allowing the player to fully engage with the atmosphere and story without any distraction. Personally, I played through the entirety of the game with the monsters fully functional, and I found the encounters with them to be a mixed bag. There were a few that were really exciting, but there were just as many that I thought were rather menial. None of them were particularly hard to handle, save for one that I found unusually annoying. I recommend new players start the game with the enemies on, but if they become too much of a nuisance, just download the mod and turn them off. Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the things that the game truly excels at.
And the things that Soma excels at, it really excels at. There are tons of games that are set in sci-fi settings, but few games that really create stories that contend with the best sci-fi literature and film out there. It’s often said that sci-fi is best used as a tool to frame questions about the nature of human existence, but few games actually tread into this territory. Games like Halo and Half-life really just boil down to power fantasies of humans taking on overwhelming alien invaders. They don’t make the player actually question the world in ways they’ve never done before. They’re basically popcorn flicks like Independence Day. But Soma really digs deep into the ideas that it wants to explore. It’s the video game version of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
PATHOS-II is also just incredible to explore. At a technical level, the graphics in the game are far from the most sophisticated, but the team behind the game made up for it with an incredible use of lighting and their own aesthetic design. The picturesque quality of so many areas had me constantly hitting the screenshot button. These environments do a great job of evoking disquiet and wonder. My favorite moment in the game is one in which the player character is trekking on foot across the bottom of a dark abyss filled with strange deep sea creatures, and I was just left in awe by the sheer alienness of the experience.
Finally, I have to talk about the ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free and merely offer my reaction to it. At first, I found the final sequence of the game to be incredibly anti-climactic, and I wondered if I had gotten a bad ending. But after the credits were over, there was a significant playable section that made me reflect on how the game had ended before. Lots of horror games have multiple endings, often times some are considered “good” and others considered “bad”. As far as I know, Soma has one ending, but it could be considered both the good and bad ending. It’s definitely a troubling ending that drives home the ideas and themes the game focuses on. It goes back to how I can’t stress enough that this is a story-driven game first and a survival horror game second.
Soma has received an enormous amount of acclaim since its release, and I can definitely understand where all that’s coming from. It’s an exceptional storytelling experience that synthesizes an intricate and thought-provoking sci-fi narrative with a dense and immersive atmosphere. But the monsters in the game definitely feel vestigial to the whole experience. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t make something more out of this aspect of the game, but, on the other hand, the fact that the monsters are so disposable means that players who choose to turn them off aren’t going to have a compromised experience. Definitely, Soma has become one of those games I feel I can recommend easily to anyone.
I love October. The changing of the seasons always gives me a tinge of serenity. But it’s not just the arrival of fall that makes October great, but also the fact that I love the atmosphere of Halloween time. For my blog each year, I like to take the month of October to play and write about a few horror games I’ve been meaning to get around to. This year has been kind of rough, and I haven’t had a lot of time to write here, but I’d like to get that back on track, and I’m also hoping these Halloween posts can kick off a reasonable amount of regularity again. First up this year is Yomawari: Night Alone, a Vita game I’ve wanted to try out for a while now.
Late at night a young girl, who I believe is only ever called “little sister”, is walking her dog when she becomes separated from her animal companion. Upon returning home, her big sister questions the girl about the dog’s whereabouts, but little sister is unable to tell her the truth. Not understanding what has happened, big sister leaves the house to find the missing pet. As time passes and she doesn’t return, little sister becomes worried and sets out into the dark, empty night to try to find out what happened to her. (Where the parents are in all of this is never explained.) Venturing out into the sleeping town, she finds it has become infested with dangerous ghosts and begins a long journey to rescue her sister.
Yomawari is played from an top-down isometric perspective as the little sister explores her haunted town. Wandering the town are various ghost enemies that attack if they sense the presence of the player. The girl is armed only with a flashlight and small pebbles. The flashlight is used to illuminate the roaming enemies, while the rocks can sometimes be used to distract them. The player is given no means of attack, which means that if a ghost gives chase, little sister has to either run away and lose them or find a nearby hiding spot, which are things like large bushes and street signs. The enemies won’t attack if little sister is hidden in one of these spots, so if the player can reach one, it then just becomes a matter of waiting for the enemy to leave before proceeding.
Behavior patterns among the basic enemies are fairly varied. For example, one enemy type is sensitive to sound, while another type stands perfectly still and will only attack if little sister crosses their line of vision. Aesthetically, the different ghost types aren’t particularly horrific in appearance. While they’re not at all gory or grotesque, I did find a few of them to be oddly unsettling. In addition to these smaller enemies, each chapter of the game tends to feature a more elaborate monster as its focus. I guess you could consider these the bosses of the game. The encounters with these boss ghosts tend to be a little bit more complex than just running and hiding, and require better reflexes and sometimes puzzle-solving.
What really creates tension in the game is the fact that most of the basic enemies are invisible unless the flashlight illuminates them, which results in an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in the player’s surroundings. If an enemy is nearby, however, you can hear little sister’s heart beat increase, which is the telltale sign that the player needs to be careful. Furthermore, the flashlight will only shine directly in front of the player, which means that when a ghost is pursuing little sister, there’s a greater sense of suspense, since the player can’t tell exactly where the enemy is behind them. Unfortunately, horror games always tend to walk a fine line between tension and frustration, and at times the invisible enemies can result in a lot of irritation. This is compounded by the fact that the game operates on a one-hit game-over principle, so if a ghost touches little sister, the player is immediately sent back to the last checkpoint.
The one-hit deaths in the game are by far my greatest complaint. It can be really frustrating to randomly die to an unseen enemy when you’re busy trying to figure out a puzzle or find an important item that you just can’t seem to locate. In addition, little sister’s movement is quite slow (even when running) and a bit stiff, which sometimes made evading even the enemies that I was fully aware of a clumsy experience. Particularly late in the game, there are several enemies that require a high degree of agile movement to avoid, and the game became rather tedious at points. Getting past those sections felt more like luck to me than skill.
On the positive side, I found the story to possess rather interesting themes, and little sister definitely has a surprising character arc that I didn’t quite expect. Little sister is scared by the supernatural dangers she faces, but her resolve to save her sister keeps her steadfast in the face of her fear. The entire story is approached with a level of innocence that I found unusual for a horror game, probably because most horror games feature adult protagonists.
Yomawari is one of those games that I kind of wish I liked more than I actually do. That’s because it’s both tonally and mechanically trying to do something different as a horror game, and I always appreciate when games set out to try to be something original. I found little sister’s quest to be really endearing. Unfortunately, particularly in the second half of the game, it can become rather tedious for the reasons I’ve described above. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad game, but I don’t feel like I can give it my highest recommendation either. But it is certainly good enough that I’m looking forward the to upcoming sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows. I will definitely check it out if they can clean up some of the frustrations I had with this first iteration.
In the wake of the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I’ve heard a lot of people contend that Mario Kart 8 was the best of the series, and I think they probably have a reasonable point. I personally feel that it’s kind of hard to name one Mario Kart the “best” out of all of them. They each have their own unique strengths, but also their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies. MK8 was and is a really amazing game, though, and quite possibly my favorite of the entire series. It’s great that it’s come to the Switch., but I vacillated quite a bit on whether I would purchase this new deluxe version. Ultimately, I bit the bullet as it’s always hard to resist this series.
While there have been several tweaks to the racing side of Mario Kart 8, a revamped battle mode is the most prominent addition, which replaces the Wii U original’s relatively hated and water-downed offering. This time they’ve actually created 8 new arenas specifically for battle mode, as opposed to what they did on the Wii U which was to reuse the racing tracks from the grand prix. This alone makes the new battle mode a huge improvement. In addition, they’ve added several new game types that offer a lot of variety to the player. To be honest, I haven’t really put a lot of time into battle mode since Double Dash. They’ve really neglected this part of the series over the years, as it was also less than stellar in Mario Kart Wii. I’m a huge fan of car combat games, and MK8D’s improvements in this feature have been a great addition, but, to be honest, I still find myself leaning more to the racing side of the game. There’s just something about the raw adrenaline and speed of the racing mode that gets me hooked.
While the revamped battle mode may be the big new addition to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, they’ve also made some tweaks to the racing mode, as well. Unfortunately, it’s nothing major, only two changes really stand out. The first major tweak is that drifting now rewards a third tier of sparks, pink sparks, that give an even greater boost than the blue sparks. The more noticeable change, however, is that racers are allowed to hold two items at a time, similar to Double Dash on the Gamecube. Unlike DD, though, they can’t switch between the items they’re holding. Whichever item comes up first must be used first before the second item can be fired off.
It’s a bit annoying, as sometimes I find myself wasting the “top” item just so I can use the “bottom” item. I imagine this was a feature that was actually meant to improve battle mode by reducing the amount of time the players have to spend seeking out item boxes, but even so, Double Dash’s implementation offers much more strategic depth. I’m actually wondering if the reason they don’t let players switch between items is because it would require an extra button, and the game already uses all the buttons available on a single Joycon controller.
There are a few new characters added to the game, such as King Boo and the Inkling characters from Splatoon, but regrettably there are no new racing tracks added. The 16 DLC tracks for MK8 on the Wii U are included out of the box, however. The lack of new racing content is probably the biggest bummer to me. Historically, there has only been one Mario Kart game per Nintendo console (not including VC), and I guess a big part of my disappointment stems from uncertainty as to whether or not this will be the only MK released for Switch. I really really hope we don’t have to wait for the Switch’s successor to get new MK content.
Ultimately, I went back and forth on whether I should spend money on MK8D. I was a huge fan of the game on the Wii U, but I questioned whether MK8D offered enough new content to be a worthwhile reinvestment. In the end, it came down to my interest in battle mode as a car combat fan, but mainly was due to my desire to retire my Wii U. When I travel to see family and friends, I often lug the Wii U with me so we can play Smash and MK, as I did with the Wii before it. Nintendo systems have always been the “party systems” to me, at least since the N64. Unlike Sony, Microsoft, and all the third parties, Nintendo still puts a lot of emphasis on local multiplayer. It’s hard to even think of great local multiplayer games from recent times that weren’t made by Nintendo.
The Wii U was just super annoying to travel with, however. Between the gamepad and its charger and the console and its power box and the sensor bar and the extra controllers, it’s all just a lot to have to pack up and carry around. Worse yet, I got a big scratch on the corner of my gamepad while traveling with it that just drives me crazy. The Switch, on the other hand, also has a number of pieces to keep track of, but it’s all much more compact and manageable. I was able to buy a nice carrying case on Amazon that I really like that can fit both the Switch tablet and the dock, as well as extra controllers and cables, and it makes taking the system on the go with me much less frustrating.
Honestly, it’s just been great to play MK8 again, and I’m really enjoying both racing and battle modes. If you haven’t played MK8 before and own a Switch, I highly recommend it. For those of us who’ve played MK8 on the Wii U, it’s a harder value proposition, since I don’t think the new additions will necessarily justify a full price purchase for everyone who has already played the game to death. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a game that will leave any Mario Kart fans unsatisfied.
Like the changing of the seasons, the Earth rolls once again around its orbit so that the sun and stars may align for the Steam Summer Sale. I always find the Steam sale is a good time to take advantage of the low prices to try out games I wouldn’t normally. For the past few years, I’ve written up posts highlighting games that I think are underrated gems and are also going for dirt cheap prices. I try to keep the recommendations to lesser known games that are going for under $5, so that people may be encouraged to try some new things without spending a lot. Of course, previous years’ recommendations also still stand, as well. The Steam Summer Sale is set to end next Wednesday, July 5th.
(All prices listed in USD.)
Sale Price: $4.99
The struggles of Sonic the Hedgehog in the post-Genesis world are no secret. There have been a lot of terrible Sonic games since the days of 16-bit glory, but there have been a precious handful of good ones. I don’t think any of them have been great, certainly nothing that has competed with the lofty trajectory Mario has continued to take, but there have definitely been a few good ones. Of these, I think Sonic Generations is easily the best. As its name sort of implies, Sonic Generations features a combination of 2D and 3D gameplay set across a collection of remixed zones taken from previous games in the series’ history. I personally had a ton of fun with both aspects of the game, 2D and 3D. Whereas a lot of Sonic games struggle to get even the fundamentals right, Sonic Generations managed to create a game that cut out a lot of the noise that has held the series back all these years.
Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut
Sale Price: $1.74
Q.U.B.E. is a first-person puzzle game heavily inspired by Portal. In Q.U.B.E., the player has the ability to telekinetically manipulate colored blocks to overcome obstacles in the environment. The trick is that each type of colored block has different properties. Unlike its obvious inspiration, Portal, the original release of Q.U.B.E. was pretty absent of any storytelling. It was more focused on puzzle design. The Director’s Cut release that is now up on Steam seems to have a bit more explicit story added to the game, however, I’ve only played the original release, so I can’t say for sure.
Sale Price: $2.49
Virginia is a first-person narrative game that left a huge impression on me last year. Virginia tells the story of FBI Agent Anne Tarver who finds herself caught in a mystery that possesses shades of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks. Two of the most interesting aspects of Virginia is that the story is told with entirely silent characters, and individual scenes mostly only last a few minutes at the most. The pacing, absence of dialogue, and dreamlike story beats result in a game that packs a strong surrealist punch.
Volgarr the Viking
Sale Price: $1.99
Volgarr the Viking is a hack-and-slash sidescroller for people into hardcore challenges. I find it akin to retro games like the NES Castlevania or the Shinobi series. This game is really really hard, but completely possible to master if you put in the time to hone your skills and learn the game’s levels. You’ll have to die a lot if you want to finish Volgarr, but the point is to learn from each death and to adapt. Hard as it may be, nothing in the game is unfair. I only really recommend this game to people who are into games with brutal learning curves.
Odallus: The Dark Call
Sale Price: $2.99
Like Volgarr, Odallus is another retro-inspired sidescroller. The difficulty, though, is quite a bit more generous than Volgarr, although I wouldn’t call it an easy game. In addition to sidescrolling action and platforming, Odallus has a bit more of an open-ended nature to it which encourages the player to explore. It’s not a “Metroidvania” per se, but there are many secret areas with hidden upgrades in the game that allow the player to access new areas. Furthermore, many of the levels have multiple exits, which lead to alternative paths on the world map. As a consequence, you do a lot of backtracking and exploring like in a Metroid game.
Lara Croft Go
Sale Price: $3.39
Lara Croft Go is a turn and grid-based reimagining of the Tomb Raider series that was first released on mobile phones a few years ago, but the game has also made its way to Steam and Vita. Replacing the platforming and action that the series is known for with turn-based puzzles might not seem terribly exciting, but the creativity that the designers put into Lara Croft Go resulted in a really inventive experience. Many of the series’ trademarks find new interpretations, such as dangerous creatures to outwit, traps to outmaneuver, and precarious pitfalls to escape. I will say, I have seen this game go for lower than the $3.39 Steam sale price on the Android app store, so if you like playing games on your phone, it may be best to look out for it there.
Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition
Sale Price: $5.99
I try to keep this list to games below $5, but I made an exception for Sleeping Dogs. One of the most underrated games to come out at the tail-end of the Xbox 360 and PS3’s life cycle, Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-style open world game that is set in the Hong Kong criminal underworld. The game tells the story of Wei Shen, an undercover police officer, as he works his way up the ranks of the city’s organized crime. The game differentiates itself from GTA by placing a greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, ostensibly because firearms are harder to come by in Hong Kong than the USA. In addition, Wei Shen’s tale was surprisingly well-developed, and the game had probably one of the best stories I’ve seen in a game like this.
BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
Sale Price: $4.94
Runner2 describes itself as a “rhythm-music platforming game”. It’s actually one of those games where the character is constantly running, but unlike most games in the genre, the levels aren’t randomized and they have a finite end. In the game, you control Commander Video (with additional unlockable playable characters) as he runs, jumps, slides, and kicks his way through… wherever he is. I’m not actually sure what this game’s odd setting is supposed to be. It’s called a rhythm game because if you’re making the correct moves at the correct times, the actions correlate to the rhythm of the soundtrack. The game is a sequel to BIT.TRIP Runner, which is also a pretty good game on sale.
Sale Price: $1.49
Hard Reset is a first-person shooter with a heavy focus on fast-paced action and large swarms of enemies. It’s sort of like Serious Sam, in a way, where the game just likes to spam hordes of enemies at the player, although I don’t quite think it gets to the same scale as Serious Sam. It’s definitely a game where the player has to stay on their toes. The game takes place in a visually incredible cyberpunk setting where robots have overtaken all but one last human city. I recommend the game mainly to people looking for an unfettered action experience.
Sale Price: $0.49
Toki Tori 2+
Sale Price: $3.74
Toki Tori is a sidescrolling puzzle game based on a cult-classic Gameboy Color title of the same name. In the game, players guide a big yellow, egg-shaped bird as he/she attempts to collect all the eggs in each level. The catch is that the bird (whose name I assume is Toki Tori) can’t jump, meaning players must carefully figure out how to maneuver through each stage without getting stuck. (Don’t worry, if you do get stuck, there’s a time rewind mechanic that allows mistakes to be undone without having to reset completely.) Furthermore, the bird is given a specific set of limited use items in each level to help him/her get around. These items include things like teleporters that allows it to go through walls and a freeze gun that neutralizes enemies.
The sequel Toki Tori 2+ is also worth playing, perhaps more so since it ditches discrete levels for an elaborate open-world. It’s a huge change from the first game. This time, the bird sets off on an adventure to find five mystical frogs hidden in the massive overworld. Instead of items, the bird must learn how to manipulate creatures and objects in the environment using two moves, whistling (attractive) and stomping (repulsive). This game has generated a cult-following of its own due to the unique approach it takes to the puzzle-platforming genre.
That’s all the recommendations I have for this year. If you have recommendations of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments section!
I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me. I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out. This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them. Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld. It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.
I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee. It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well. Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere. The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.
While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities. When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time. The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen. When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot. Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.
Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws will negate any damage dealt to the player. The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter. The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.
In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS. There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen. Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside. I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way. There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between. But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.
Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed. I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons. This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds. The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make. Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be. So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed. Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session. I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.
In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become. Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest. The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.
It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens. It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves. Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens: A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title). She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.
RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt. Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more. Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving. Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion. And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.
Severed is a great game for the Vita. It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome. It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on. Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience. It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.
The Wii U ended up being a surprisingly forward thinking platform for Nintendo. Although its central conceit of introducing second screen gameplay hasn’t gone very far, it managed to introduce a few exciting new series to Nintendo’s stable that pushed what we all thought the company was capable of. Games like Splatoon and Mario Maker marked incredibly successful forays into online multiplayer functionality and community building, while established series like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. received a long tail of support and substantial new content post-release.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to look at Wii U as a low point for the company, especially after the obscenely successful Wii. Some of Nintendo’s best series have gone missing or fell flat on the machine. No Metroid, no Animal Crossing, a lackluster Paper Mario game, a Zelda game delayed all the way to the launch of its successor, a Star Fox title that baffled a lot of gamers, sporadic and inconsistent Virtual Console support. The Wii U has definitely had some high-highs, but also some low-lows.
In the end, I enjoyed the Wii U, even if it did sit idle for months at a time. Now with the Switch finally out in the wild, I’ve decided to highlight my favorite 5 games of the Wii U (in no particular order).
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
Captain Toad was a smaller Wii U title that doesn’t get as much credit as I think it’s due. This game is a spin-off of the Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World, but I think it actually managed to be something far more interesting and imaginative than the those small bonus stages in its progenitor. Treasure Tracker differentiates itself from 3D World by focusing on puzzle platforming that tasks the player with getting the main characters (Captain Toad and Toadette) across small 3D levels without the ability to jump. The game displays a huge range of imagination across its many tiny but dense levels, similar to the kind of creativity and diversity that you would find in a mainline 3D Mario game.
Super Mario 3D World
Although I think I prefer the Super Mario Galaxy games, Super Mario 3D World (and Land on the 3DS) are undeniably great Mario games. While the sidescrolling New Super Mario Bros. series has gotten stale, 3D World lives up to the imagination and inventiveness of its 3D Mario predecessors. The simple fun and wonderment of this game was a huge source of brightness in my life when I originally played it. I wish I had more thoughtful things to say about it, but it’s just pure, uncompromised Mario goodness, the kind of which is a reminder why this character has been the de facto mascot of gaming for over 30 years running.
Super Mario Maker
I liked the first two New Super Mario Bros. games, especially the Wii one, but like a lot of other gamers, I thought the series quickly started to stagnate, with the 3DS and Wii U games being less than inspiring. I was beginning to think that classic sidescrolling Mario had run its course again, but then came one of the most impressive games I’ve played in many years, Super Mario Maker. For a company as stubborn and old-fashioned as Nintendo, Mario Maker was a huge surprise with its focus on online community and user created content, two things Nintendo rarely exhibits an interest in. I had a ton of fun playing community levels, but also I was surprised at how much my imagination was stoked while creating my own levels in the editor.
Mario Kart 8
Mario Kart 8 may very well be number 1 amongst Mario Kart titles for me. I think in trying to tone down the chaoticness of Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 7 ended up feeling rather boring and uninspired. Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, managed to find the perfect balance between creatively-designed courses and combat and well-balanced racing challenge. Also, building on what I said about Super Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8 was surprisingly modern and forward-thinking for a Nintendo game and featured a competently designed online mode and DLC packs that actually provided substantial content to the game.
Super Smash Bros. 4
I often drag the Wii U home for the holidays to see family, because we typically plug a lot of time into Mario Kart together (as we did with the Wii before it). All that changed, however, after I introduced Super Smash Bros. 4. At first, my sisters were really unsure about this mess of a fighting game, but it didn’t take long for them to get hooked. Featuring a ton of great characters from across Nintendo’s history, like Bowser Jr., Ike, and Little Mac, but also a few not so great characters, like Villager and Dark Pit, Smash Bros. is an amazing gift to Nintendo fandom, but also just a fundamentally good game for friends and family from one of the few companies that still puts a lot of effort into high-quality local multiplayer games.
Well, after writing this list, I’m suddenly realizing that it’s basically all games featuring Mario or the Mario universe. Of course, there were a few non-Mario games that I came close to adding to the list, namely Splatoon deserves credit. The two Zelda remakes (Wind Waker and Twilight Princess) were also pretty good, but I would rather not count remakes in a list of like this. The releases have been thin over the years, but I’m hoping they’ve been saving up for the Switch. Definitely, I’m excited for Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Splatoon 2, and I’m curious about ARMS. Even though the Wii U had its troubles, I’m cautiously excited for Switch. Nintendo has its ups and downs, but they’ve always managed to maintain consistent quality over an impressively long history.
The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates. I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season. Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49. I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console. I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting. Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).
Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days. In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2). The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles. For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero. The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition. In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter. In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.
As a falling block puzzler, Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris. Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted. Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met. I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression. Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.
Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages. Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging. The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move. There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.
In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions. I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game. There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards). I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop. This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game. Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.
While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked. This mode is where things get tough. Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins. I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging. Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest. This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed. For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming. I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.
The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round. Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen. In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.
The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while. I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision. I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile. Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere. But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion). Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds. The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration. Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.
I’m afraid I didn’t have the most productive year of gaming in 2016. I keep a spreadsheet of the games I play and beat, and I only managed to finish 26 games in 2016. For comparison, I beat 32 games in 2015 and a monstrous 53 games in 2014. And while twenty six games might seem like a lot of gaming, the number is heavily boosted by all of the indie games I play, since a lot of those tend to take only a few hours to complete. The year 2016 presented a lot of shifts in both my personal and professional lives that have left me with a lot less time to devote to gaming, and probably 2017 will be about the same. I’m going to have to become a lot more disciplined in managing my free time so that I’m still able to pursue all of my interests, gaming included.
For these posts, I usually list out five games that were the highlight of the year for me (and were also new releases in the year), but this time I decided to cut it down to three. I could probably add two more, but there was nothing else released this year which I played and felt extremely passionate about. There’s still a lot of games from 2016 that I really want to get around to playing/finishing including Dark Souls III, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Final Fantasy XV, and The Last Guardian, and I feel a bit bad about not being able to consider those for this list. By most accounts, there were a lot of great titles this year, I just didn’t have the time to play most of them.
I know I’ve let this blog wither a bit for the past couple of months, but I’m hoping I can get it back on track soon. I want to thank everyone who’s read and supported my blog over 2016 and even before. I’ve been able to get to know a lot of cool people through this blog and WordPress. I’m sorry I haven’t been liking and commenting on as many posts lately, but I hope I will be back regularly in the blogging community soon.
Overwatch was unquestionably *the* game of the year for me. My interests tend to lean more toward single-player stuff, but every now and then I get deep into an online game, and Starsiege: Tribes and Team Fortress 2 are among my favorite games of all time. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve gotten hooked on an online multiplayer game, and I think the last one was the mostly obscure Gotham City Impostors in 2012.
For someone who was really into Team Fortress 2, Overwatch feels like its natural successor. Overwatch follows out the line of evolution started by TF2 by introducing a diverse cast of characters that have not just unique abilities and strengths, but unique personalities that give the game a charisma and appeal that is usually not seen in online shooters. But while Overwatch is a game built on the individuality of its characters, it’s also a game with a heavy focus on teamwork, where each player must utilize their chosen character’s strengths to complement the rest of the team. The formula has been successful enough to keep me playing on a weekly basis 9 months after release.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Rise of the Tomb Raider first appeared late last year on Xbox, but the PC version that I played was released very early this year, so I’m counting it as a 2016 game. A few years ago, I decided to take the plunge and build a reasonably high-end gaming PC, and Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the games that makes me not regret that investment. The PC version is *gorgeous*, and filled with beautiful, sweeping natural environments that possess a liveliness that other games of similar scale often lack. The game also sports some of the most impressive particle effects I’ve ever seen. Outside of the graphics, RoTR is just a very well-designed action-adventure game, although in many ways heavily inspired by the aggressive stealth action formula of The Last of Us. Similar to Naughty Dog’s banner title, it combines elements of stealth, cover-based shooting, platforming, and in situ crafting and resource gathering in a recipe that I thought was far more cohesive and engaging that its inspiration.
Secrets and exploration are a huge draw for me in games, and The Witness ranks in my list because of how well it managed to execute on those aspects. Featuring a free-roaming tour through a massive island filled with hundreds of puzzles to solve and many secrets to uncover, The Witness became my gaming addiction very early in the year. Practically all of the puzzles are at their core based on correctly determining how to trace lines through (mostly) simple patterns, but the excellence of The Witness comes from the fact that it employs so many creative ways to modify and reinvent this basic idea across hundreds of puzzles. Although the island may initially seem to just be window dressing for these labyrinthine challenges, the player quickly learns that the environment is often an integral part of the solutions, which I thought added a sense of wonder and amazement to what may cursorily seem like a very simple puzzle game.
Well that’s it. I would add some honorable mentions are Virginia and Star Fox Zero, both games I also really liked this year. Looking forward, there’s a lot of titles in 2017 that I’m excited for, including Resident Evil 7, Gravity Rush 2, Breath of the Wild, Nier Automata, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. I have a dreadful feeling that I’m not going to get to play nearly as many of those as I want, though. And of course, I also want to get back to the games I missed above. We’ll see how things go. I hope everyone has a great 2017!
We live in an age where so many games are beginning to appear under the derisive moniker of “walking simulator”, and I think I may have finally found one that really clicks with me in a big way. I can’t say there’s much gameplay to Virginia. And what I mean by that is that there’s not much challenge presented to the player that needs be overcome to progress. Rather, the game takes place across a number of relatively rapid-fire scenes that largely advance with little input from the player. Sometimes, all you’re given is a small area to explore with the scene ending when the player has found something to trigger the next major event in the story. But often, the player isn’t even given full control of the main character, and instead just sees parts of the story acted out in front of her eyes. The game doesn’t even do the Telltale thing of creating the illusion that player choice actually has an impact on the proceeding events. It’s essentially just a first-person movie which frequently requires a little bit of interaction on the player’s part.
I don’t hate this type of game, the kind that focuses so heavily on narrative that it doesn’t offer many traditional gameplay hooks. But I do think with no real complex gameplay present, it falls entirely on the story of Virginia to make the game successful. If that part isn’t more than just good, then, well, the game as a whole simply isn’t worthwhile. I’m happy to say that Virginia left a big impression on me in this regard. Despite being clearly derivative of two major inspirations, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, I felt the story it had to tell was both sincere and freshly intriguing.
Virginia tells the story of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, who has been assigned by her superiors under dubious motives to partner with and monitor fellow agent Maria Halperin. As I mentioned above, Virginia has a clear influence from The X-Files, and fans of that show will immediately see the Mulder-Scully relationship as prototypical of that of Maria and Anne. On their first joint assignment, the partners set out to the city of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local teenager. The mystery in Kingdom more prominently features the game’s Twin Peaks influence, as Anne begins experiencing otherworldly visions that strongly evoke the classic ‘90s TV series.
But despite the investigation in Kingdom being the catalyst for the story, I felt there was far more emphasis placed on the developing relationship between Anne and Maria, or at least that was the side of the story that I found more interesting. I don’t want to delve too far into it, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt that Anne’s internal struggle across the breadth of the proceedings gave way to a character arc that was far more poignant and sincere than is typical of video game protagonists. Most games tend to tell grandiose tales of global salvation or extraordinary events, but Virginia’s more personal focus makes for something that has far more heart and feeling.
The effectiveness of Virginia’s narrative resonance is heavily based in its rapid pacing of scenes and events. Rarely does a particular scene last for more than a handful of minutes. The speed at which the story moves means that there are no lulls or dips, and, instead, I feel like the player just gets a very concentrated experience that leaves a big emotional impression. The swift movement of the narrative is accomplished with two bold storytelling techniques that I think most players will find peculiar of Virginia. The first is that the experience is entirely non-verbal. No words are ever spoken in the game. Instead, the player must rely mostly on body language and context to understand the unfolding events. The results are that the game doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy dialogue sequences, but it leaves many aspects of the story to the player’s inference. I think the latter consequence, however, is also a favorable part of the experience, since it drives a sense of curiosity and wonder.
The second major effect employed by the game are the jump cuts between scenes that were heavily discussed around the game’s release due to their technically impressive nature. Transitions between scenes are immediate and seamless. For instance, one moment you’ll be in your office at the FBI, the next moment you’ll be in a car driving through the countryside. This is pretty unique in gaming, since transitions between environments usually require at least a short loading screen, while in Virginia the change is instantaneous. This facilitates the fleet pacing that I think was essential to this game’s success.
Virginia only took me ~2 hours to beat (as counted by Steam), but I personally didn’t mind its brevity. I think being able to finish the game without needing to take breaks was beneficial to the overall experience. Virginia is ultimately one of those games that walks the fine line between being pretentious and profound, and I think for the most part it doesn’t falter on this point. The non-verbal, expeditious story leaves a lot on the player to try to understand on their own, but I think it’s effective and creates a level of wonderment and sentimentality that I greatly enjoyed.