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.
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.
This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series. I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony. When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued. You want to know something weird? The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did. I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.
Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn. Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series. While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.
I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood. Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience. The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members. It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.
The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come. As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush. From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize. Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.
Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook. The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers. The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used). The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes. There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me. I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill. The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them. True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.
Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology. Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre. Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion. I think it’s the head tracking that really does it. There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before. When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.
Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares. Cheap jump scares at that. And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways. Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on. In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game. The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me. I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen. I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.
Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly. Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty. To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension. Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.
Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time. I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares. In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic. But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points. Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience. And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.
Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist. As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery. Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.
The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated. The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress. The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game. Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game. There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence. These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.
The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward. When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion. It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters. They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points. Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens. Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.
The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure. The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy. Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke. Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement. In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there. The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit. But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game. All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.
Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension. Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations. For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase. But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked. There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise. Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime. By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.
It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games. I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player. It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear. When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.
I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful. That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror. The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves. It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be. In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game. Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.
Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game. It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it. I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam. And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.
October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games. Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful. For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page. First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.
Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island. During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry. The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.
The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree. Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael. Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.
Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold. Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player. Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.
The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile. When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select. The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent. Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking. And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.
As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress. At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur. Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay. These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge. The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments. It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.
Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa. I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this. Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary. There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension. Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough. It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story. As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.
But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it. A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either. The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game. Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had. By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment. It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.
I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree. I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game. I did enjoy many parts of it. But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities. Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it. I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do. You know, I can only ever really speak for myself. Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case. Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone. However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series. It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.