I have always enjoyed posting on my blog, but life over the past two years has really put a squeeze on my writing hobby. My output in 2019 was particularly poor with the only bright spot being that I managed to keep my Halloween writing tradition going with three posts with which I’m reasonably pleased. Changes in both my personal and professional life have incurred new taxes on my free time that mean I have less of it to devote to gaming and in turn both less inspiration and time to write.
While I can’t deny that I’m somewhat mournful of this new challenge to my hobbies, the changes I’ve faced in life over the past couple of years have ultimately been for the better, and I’m thankful for that. Going forward, I hope I can find a way to use my free time more efficiently and reinvigorate this blog as a hobby. With all of that out of the way, I have put together this long rambling post, where I talk in an abbreviated fashion about all the games and gaming stuff that became personal highlights of 2019.
Sega Genesis Mini
I picked up one of these around its launch a few months ago, and it’s been a ton of fun. A major function of games for me right now is to serve as a means of blowing off steam, and Genesis games are great at that purpose. During its heyday, Sega was really all about bringing the arcade experience into the home, and as a result, Genesis games often have a “pick up and play” quality that makes it easy to jump in for some action that can be as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour. I own a few of the other classic consoles, and this is by far the one I’ve invested the most time in for that reason. I also plucked down the money for the wireless controller from 8bitdo, and it has been an excellent controller so far, well worth the money. (I have another 8bitdo controller that I use with my tablet, and it is also excellent. They make great stuff from my experience.) Hopefully, I will be able to write more about this machine in the future.
Super Mario Maker
This game also follows the theme of using gaming to blow off steam. I really enjoyed Super Mario Maker on the Wii U, and the sequel simply carries that game over to the Switch while adding some excellent new bells and whistles. While I’ve really enjoyed making levels on the Wii U, I haven’t really gotten around yet to making my own levels on Switch. I feel that the lack of an in-built stylus in the Switch makes level designing less approachable than on Wii U. I’ve really just been downloading levels to play when I have some spare time here and there. I haven’t picked up the game up for a little while now, but the arrival of playable Link complete with his own special abilities makes me want to go back.
Resident Evil 2
I’ve already written about this game for Halloween, but I just wanted to reiterate that it was probably the highlight of 2019 for me.
Assorted 3DS Games
Most people have probably completely moved to Switch, but I’m still clinging to my 3DS. I’m having a really hard time letting go. I think it’s mostly because the 3DS is more portable than the Switch, being smaller and having a more robust clamshell design that folds up to protect the important bits, which makes it easy for me to take along to play at lunch breaks or when I’m traveling. There’s also just a huge library of great games on the system that I haven’t managed to get around to yet, which means there’s always something new for me to play. Right now, the machine really just sort of lives in my backpack.
My go-to game for the past month or so has been Super Mario 3D Land, which is a game that I’ve beaten before, but makes for good replay due to the amount and creative variety of content. It’s honestly a bit mind boggling to me to play this game and see how well Nintendo translated the scope of a 3D Mario game to a handheld device. Throw in the fact that this game is sort of a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 3 (my favorite Mario game), and I’ve come to realize that I’ve really underappreciated it for a long time. For this playthrough, I challenged myself to collect all of the star coins in each level, something that I tried but never accomplished the first time I beat it. In typical Nintendo fashion, the reward for doing such an above-and-beyond feat is incredibly basic, a simple star tagged to the save file, but I’m fine with that. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ve waded into the 3DS version of the first Luigi’s Mansion.
I bought Rage 2 completely on a whim around the time when it came out. All of the reviews at the time mentioned how mediocre the game was, and I have to concur. It does mindless action very well, but enemy variety, world building, and level and mission design are just let downs and leave the experience feeling like it could have been so, so much more. Nonetheless, I played the game all the way to completion of the story and cleaned up some of the larger optional side missions. I did enjoy what I played, and occasionally go back to do some of the open world missions that I haven’t completed when I just want to zone out to a game, because again it does mindless action very well, but it is not a game that I would put very high on my recommended list.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
This has been my go-to game lately. Star Wars is something I’m not quite as passionate about as I was when I was a high schooler, but games like Jedi Outcast and Knights of the Old Republic remain among my favorites that I revisit every handful of years. So far, Fallen Order is shaping up to meet the high standards of those particular titles. I’ve heard this game described as Souls-lite as it has a combat system that is very similar to Dark Souls melee combat, although not nearly as tight or graceful, in addition to other borrowed elements like a bonfire-style save and recovery system and worlds that just sort of weave in and out of themselves in a similar manner to the lands around the Firelink Shrine.
I only have two major complaints about the game. First, the game is heavily focused on lightsaber combat with force powers as a supplement (there are no blasters that the main character can use as far as I know). For the most part it works fairly well, but the character can feel clumsy at times. This is particularly true since so many other elements of the game scream Dark Souls, but the melee combat just isn’t as tight as what an experienced Dark Souls player might expect. The second issue I have is the enemy variety isn’t that great. It’s mostly humanoids (usually stormtroopers) that carry various flavors of blasters or energy weapons and a handful of very basic Star Wars monsters. There’s nothing that really captures the imagination to the extent that the menagerie of grotesqueries that appears in the Dark Souls series does.
Those complaints out of the way, I still think the game is really cool. The planets the player visits are fun to explore, and they look incredible. If the game can keep up the momentum it has had so far, it may actually dethrone Jedi Outcast as my favorite Star Wars game.
This is a game I downloaded to my phone, and it’s been a good way to entertain myself when I only have access to my phone. In general, gaming on phones has usually felt like a wasteland to me because of the soul-destroying monetization schemes that are hard to escape. If you had told me a long time ago in a world before smartphones that people in the future would carry around computers in their pockets that were more powerful and had a faster internet connection than the computer I grew up with, my video game addled brain would have immediately started imagining all the amazing gaming possibilities that such devices would open up. And then if you had told me that all the games on these things would suck, I think my brain would break and my faith in the future of humankind would have completely shattered.
Grindstone is, fortunately, one of the too few mobile games that is actually worthwhile. A product of Capybara Games, who also made Critter Crunch and Sword and Sworcery, their house style is definitely on display here. The game is sort of like a match 3 game (e.g., Bejewelled) but with no actual matching. Instead, each level is a grid of differently colored monsters, and the player takes control of a Viking warrior that occupies one of these grid spaces. Enemies are defeated by running a line from the Viking character through consecutively adjacent monsters of the same color. The catch is that if the Viking lands on a space adjacent to an enemy that is readying an attack, the player will take damage. Enemies that are defeated are replaced by new enemies that fall from the top of the screen. Levels are usually completed when the player defeats a certain number of enemies.
While all of this may sound complex due to the haphazard way I’m describing it, it’s actually fairly simple once seen in action. The game has a huge number of levels that keeps this fairly simple formula interesting by introducing new elements such as special monster types, environmental upgrades, and unlockable abilities.
This is the kind of game that I’ve personally found is best for me to play in short, disciplined bursts. The game can be addictive in a way that reminds me of the rabbit holes that I’ve gone down in over the Picross series. Every time I complete a level, I have this impulse to start the next one, telling myself I’ll only play “just one more”. If I’m not careful, way too much time evaporates, and I’ve long stopped having fun and, at that point I’m really just chasing after a dopamine kick. It’s like gorging on a bag of potato chips. That first chip is super salty and delicious, which makes you want to eat one more. Then you eat the second and third chip which are a little less tasty due to your brain becoming numb to the repetition of flavor. But you keep eating because you’re chasing after the satisfaction that the original chip gave you. Eventually, you’ve found that you’ve eaten way too much, should have stopped a long time ago, and that momentary pleasure has given way to self-loathing originating somewhere deep inside the body. Just like the potato chip, it’s best not to let oneself binge on these kinds of addictive games. Play a level or two here and there and then just let it go.
Last but not least, not too long ago I managed to complete my long personal quest to complete all of the games in the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. The third game in the series has always been my favorite, and after having a tough time with Crash 1 and 2, I was pleased to find that Crash 3 is still mostly agreeable to me. I plan to write more very soon on both the surprises and disappointments that the Crash 3 remake delivered, as well as why it took me an incredible amount of time to actually finish.
I arrived at being a Resident Evil fan through a somewhat tortuous history. Despite being a huge fan of the Playstation, I never actually played any Resident Evil games on the system, despite the series being one of the console’s best sellers. I certainly thought Resident Evil looked cool, and I did get to mess around with Resident Evil 2 at a friend’s house, but for some complicated reasons, I never actually got a hold of those titles for myself. The first game in the series that I actually got to spend appreciable time with was Resident Evil 4 which was a marked departure from what had been the series’ convention.
Eventually, I would play those original Resident Evil games through the DS port of RE1 and the PS1 on PSP releases of RE2 and 3, which is to say that my first experiences with those games were through handheld versions. And despite playing those games in their diminutive forms, I thought they were amazing, and it really solidified me as a fan of the series going forward. Resident Evil 2, in particular, left an impression on me. I still vividly remember downloading it to my PSP in college before heading home for Christmas to spend a week with my family and getting some Racoon City action in on the side. Despite that break being a busy holiday week with lots of family stuff going on, I was so enamored with the game that I somehow managed to squeeze in enough time with it here and there to complete both the Leon and Claire campaigns. As I get older, I feel myself getting less and less excited for games long before they release, but I was super pumped a few years back when Capcom announced that Resident Evil 2 would be getting a modern remake.
Resident Evil fans will know that the series can be divided into two separate eras. There was the original era of Resident Evil that used fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited items and ammo to produce slower, less precise, but more methodical action games. With the advent of Resident Evil 4, the series majorly shuffled things up and pioneered the modern over-the-shoulder action game. While the series has maintained its horror theming, emphasis was put more on precise aiming, less restricted ammo, and linear level design that contrast with the more backtracking oriented earlier games. The shift in direction for the series has been a huge point of contention for some Resident Evil fans, but I personally enjoy and find merit in both styles.
The Resident Evil 2 remake is a case study in wanting to eat your cake and still have it. It tries to combine the limited ammo and less linear level design of the original Resident Evil 2 with the over-the-shoulder combat experience of the more modern games. And for the most part, I think it succeeds at creating a delicate fusion of these contrasting gameplay styles. It even manages to incorporate elements of the offbeat Resident Evil 7 in a way that just clicks.
Resident Evil 2 offers two campaigns, one from the perspective of Racoon City police force newcomer Leon Kennedy and the other from the perspective of Claire Redfield, the biker sister of Resident Evil 1 protagonist Chris Redfield. The game starts with the player’s chosen protagonist making their way into Racoon City, Leon to start his new job and Claire to find her brother who has gone missing. What awaits them when they reach the outskirts of town is a doomed city overrun with a zombie outbreak. In a turn of fate, Claire and Leon cross paths and one of gaming’s greatest duos is born. After teaming up, Leon suggests to Claire that they make their way to the Racoon City Police HQ to figure out what’s going on and hopefully find safe refuge. Upon entering, they find the building nearly abandoned by the living, save for one dying officer who hints at a hidden escape route that could help the pair make their way to safety.
Within the massive RCPDHQ, the player is immediately greeted with a great many locked doors and blocked pathways. Exploration and backtracking is thus necessary to slowly open up new areas and progress in the game. RCPDHQ is essentially one big mystery that players need to work through. Eventually, players move beyond the police department, but each subsequent area is similarly structured.
For those unfamiliar with Resident Evil 2, the game is comprised of two separate campaigns, each focusing on one of the main characters. While Claire and Leon cover much of the same ground in their individual stories, they access most rooms and areas in a different order, gain different weapons, and there are certain important areas that are campaign specific. In addition, each protagonist interacts with a different set of characters along the way, meaning they each have a fairly unique story. When all of these aspects are taken into account, I feel like each campaign is distinct enough that a second playthrough with a different character doesn’t simply feel like a retread, and it’s worth playing both of them to see the complete story in all its glory.
As a remake, the new Resident Evil 2 is a fairly extensive reenvisioning of the classic. Much of RCPDHQ will be familiar to returning players, but new key areas and story beats have been added such that the game feels like a new experience while still strongly evoking nostalgia for its forebear. By far the biggest change is the more modernized camera and combat. Ditching the fixed camera angles and simplistic aiming system of the original for the over-the-shoulder style that became the norm with Resident Evil 4, the new Resident Evil 2 walks a thin line of trying to recapture the elements that made the original resonate with so many players, while also upgrading the game to the standards and expectations of 2019.
Personally, I think it’s very successful. Initially, I had doubts that the much more precise and agile gameplay would work well with Resident Evil 2’s monster design. When Resident Evil 4 arrived, the series replaced its iconic zombies with more intelligent and nimble enemies to compensate. Slow, shambling zombies might have been a threat in the earlier games with their clumsier controls and more claustrophobic environments, but it seemed difficult to believe that such monsters could present any sort of danger when headshots could be easily pulled off with true analog stick aiming. Fortunately, this remake does make them a sufficient challenge through both their herky jerky movements that makes targeting specific body parts more difficult and the fact that they can take a fair bit of ammo to bring down, ammo for which there is a reasonably constrained supply. And of course, zombies aren’t the only monsters that Leon and Claire face off against.
In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X, a mutant supersoldier sent in to clean up witnesses to the outbreak, would stalk the RCPDHQ during whichever character’s campaign the player chose for their second playthrough. The new remake turns Mr. X into the star of the show, with both Leon and Claire having to contend with him for a fair portion of their individual campaigns. While Mr. X would seemingly appear at random in the original game, the remake greatly expands his role into a persistent and pervasive threat that is always hunting for the player.
A near unstoppable foe, after his initial appearance, Mr. X’s loud footsteps can always be heard lurking the halls of RCPD. The flow of the game is radically changed by his presence. It becomes a struggle between cat and mouse. The player must always be listening for his approach, and when he does happen to reach the player, the best strategy is usually to cut and run for safety. Furthermore, loud noises like gunfire summons him toward the player’s position. No longer can the player calmly take their time to bring down zombies and other monsters with well aimed shots. The threat of Mr. X means the player must more or less always be on the move.
In terms of scare factor, I must admit that, while it has a moody, desperate atmosphere, Resident Evil 2 is not really particularly close to being the scariest action horror game I’ve ever played. There are definitely some good scares here and there, and Mr. X creates a low boiling tension that always simmers in the back of my mind while playing, but I can think of a few action horror titles that are far better at creating dread and suspense, such as The Evil Within and Dead Space. To be honest, even the original game wasn’t really super-scary, and it definitely injected what felt to be more of an action movie feel into Resident Evil. With that said, I really enjoy the game for what it is, an excellent horror-themed action game, and would rather not dwell on what its not.
Resident Evil 2 will probably be the highlight of 2019 for me (at least in terms of the world of video games). It’s super nostalgic while also standing on its own as an entirely new game. To be honest, the game kind of makes me wish they would team Leon and Claire back up again for Resident Evil 8 or something. They are easily the stand out protagonists of the Resident Evil series to me. And with Resident Evil 7 essentially being another reinvention of the series’ survival horror formula, I can only wonder if the next game will continue what it started or use Resident Evil 2 as its template. Both are excellent games in my opinion, and it’s incredible to see the series turn itself around after the mess that was Resident Evil 6.
Phantasmagoria is a mid-90s horror adventure game from Sierra and the creators of the vaunted King’s Quest series. At that point in time, adventure games were undergoing a decline, not necessarily due to quality, but due to the growing popularity of action and strategy games on the PC. In that light, Phantasmagoria feels like an ambitious attempt to establish a new generation of adventure games that would propel the genre into the next century.
I think in my mind, I’ve always seen Phantasmagoria as a grander and more important game than it actually was. That’s because as a kid I first saw this game when it was featured in a brief segment on the local evening news. While the game did garner some controversy due to its depiction of violence against women, the segment I saw was actually more of a fluff piece extolling the game’s story and use of digitized human actors. In my little kid brain, it was clear to me that if an institution as important as the local Fox affiliate had deigned to give Phantasmagoria air time, then it must be a really great game! As an adult, of course, I understand that segments like these are used by news stations as padding for when they don’t have enough real news stories to cover their 30 minute block. Nonetheless, the praise this game received has been ingrained in my head for two decades since, and I’ve always held Phantasmagoria in high esteem, despite never having played the game.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t trust what you see on the news.
Phantasmagoria is a horror-themed, story-driven adventure game that follows Adrian Delaney, a semi-popular novelist, and her husband Don, an equally semi-famous photographer who have decided to move to the quiet New England town of Nipawomsett so that Adrian can peacefully work on her next novel. As hip young affluent weirdos, the couple have decided to make their residence in the abandoned (but surprisingly well-kept) home of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovash, a 19th century magician and serial widower. What could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, Carno’s seemingly bad luck in love was no mere coincidence, as he was in fact under demonic possession and driven to murder his wives by otherworldy forces. And while Carno may be long dead, the dark spirit of his madness still lies dormant in the house and finds a long-awaited vessel in Don. This plot really exists somewhere in a spectrum between Stephen King’s The Shining and one of those terrible Lifetime channel movies where the female main characters are more or less tortured by their husbands for 90 commercial-saturated minutes.
The first chapter of Phantasmagoria starts with Adrian and Don settling into their new home, and the place really is something else. The peculiarities of this quasi-mansion estate include a giant face sculpted into the side of the building, sphinxes guarding an ominous locked door in the foyer, a live electric chair, a room filled with creepy baby laughter, and a secret chapel hidden behind the library amongst other things. As someone who recently became involved in the home buying process and came to realize the intense scrutiny it requires, the absurdity of the house leaves me wondering who would ever buy into something like this. What’s more is that Adrian and Don seem barely cognizant of how bizarre their surroundings are. Early in the story, there are some throwaway comments where they make fun of the builder, but that is the one singular time that I can remember where they express concern over the eccentricities of the house. Never do they ever seem bothered by the fact that there is a WORKING ELECTRIC CHAIR IN THE GUEST BEDROOM.
Haunted houses work best when they have a modicum of subtlety, otherwise the audience will struggle with suspension of disbelief. Characters that choose to live in a place that is overtly unnatural or dangerous just aren’t that believable, especially when those characters are people of means like Adrian and Don who could easily afford to live wherever they want. But to be fair, in the starting chapter where the player gets to explore the house for the first time, the house did manage to capture my imagination even if it clashed with my incredulity. “Hmm, I wonder what’s waiting behind this scary door guarded by sphinxes,” I said to myself. “I can’t wait to see how the story uses the electric chair,” I thought. As stupidly overt as the house is, it sets up curiosity for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when compared to these expectations, the rest of the game up to the climax feels rather uneventful.
Phantasmagoria is a seven chapter ordeal. At the end of the first chapter, Don becomes possessed after Adrian unseals the demon that’s been trapped in the house, and it feels like the story is about to take off, but then………..well not much really happens. Adrian spends the following chapters somewhat aimlessly poking around town and the house, as Don becomes more aggressive and abusive toward her. It’s hard to articulate how empty the plot of Phantasmagoria can be at times. Adrian’s motivations are often unclear, and she is seemingly oblivious to the growing danger in her own marriage. Most chapters involve her exploring a new area of the estate, and unlocking little snippets of Carno and his victims’ story. The problem is that Carno’s story really isn’t that interesting. It’s the very cliche story of a stage magician whose lust for true magic leads him to becoming the thrall of dark forces.
……And then there’s Harriet and Cyrus. A not insignificant chunk of this game is taken up by a bizarre subplot where Adrian discovers a homeless mother and son living in her barn, who she promptly puts to work doing household chores and lawn work. The questionable undertones of this story element aside, these characters do very little to advance the core plot of Don’s descent into madness or play into the horror that is supposed to be the game’s core. They simply serve to be emblematic of the padding that fills out this game.
While Phantasmagoria aspires to be a grand horror game, there’s not a lot of scares to be had in the first six chapters. Although Don is slowly becoming more and more of a dick, Adrian is never in any real danger. The scares come at specific points in the story when Adrian has visions of the various ways in which Carno murdered his wives. The scenes are pretty gruesome and really exist more for shock value than to develop true suspense and tension. As you can tell from the screenshots, Phantasmagoria uses digitized footage of live actors, and when the game was released, it came under a fair bit of controversy for its depiction of violence against women. The whole affair reeks of 90’s schlock. There’s even a painful to watch sex scene midway that crosses the line into rape and just feels incredibly tone deaf compared to the rest of the game.
Outside of the story, the game is sprinkled with light adventure game puzzle solving. It’s standard adventure game fare: find items to get other items to clear obstacles that are in the path of your progress. The puzzles are actually surprisingly easy. At the point in time when this game was released, adventure games were starting to come under fire for the obtuse and absurd logic they required, with Sierra, the company behind this title, being one of the largest targets. Phantasmagoria is incredibly easy when compared to this standard as a result of taking this criticism to heart and wanting to focus more on the story.
The final chapter of Phantasmagoria is a major departure from its preceedings. The game’s climax turns into more of an interactive movie with Don finally breaking down into a murderous rampage. In an extended chase sequence, Adrian must evade Don while finding a safe path out of the house. This segment is very trial and error in nature: go down the wrong hallway or into the wrong room and Don will meet Adrian with a gruesome death. This is the part of the game where it best approaches proper horror, and yet it still doesn’t quite reach its goals. As a deranged killer, Don, himself, is more cartoonish than threatening, and once again the game falls back on its primary means of achieving horror which is to simply use cheap, gratuitous blood and gore for shock value, although I will admit the practical special effects used in these scenes is quite impressive.
Horror is fairly relative, especially in the context of time. I’m left wondering if I had experienced this game for the first time as a kid in the 90s, would I find it scary? Maybe I would and maybe I’m just too old and desensitized now to get any chills from cheap gore. Certainly, the game reviewed and sold well upon its release. On the other hand, time and age may account for the scares falling flat, but it doesn’t excuse the story for feeling underdeveloped.
Phantasmagoria was a late in life product of Sierra, known for many classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. I have honestly never played a Sierra adventure game other than this one, so I can’t say if its representative of the company’s typical quality or not. Reading the history of this game, it’s clear the team went into this project with a lot of ambition, but became ensnared in practical constraints such as time, budget, and early 90s technology. For its time, Phantasmagoria was an unparalleled production, and I can respect the work and aspiration that went into this game even if I think it has aged poorly.
Dusk is badass. I don’t know of any other way to start talking about this game other than to just get that out there. Dusk is a first-person action game that is more similar to Quake than to the story and spectacle heavy FPS games that come out today. This is immediately apparent when you first get a look at its grungy, low-poly visuals. But beyond the superficial, Dusk perfectly encapsulates what made those early first person action games so much fun, and, in a lot of ways, it exceeds those inspirations. That said, it might seem like a strange choice for a Halloween game, but I was personally surprised to discover that it was one of the most gruesome and disturbing experiences I’ve played in a while.
Dusk begins in media res with the player character waking up as an unwilling cult sacrifice in the basement of a farmhouse guarded by hooded men wielding chainsaws. After managing to escape captivity, the player emerges into a quiet countryside where monsters and cultists lurk in every dark corner. Eventually, the player reaches the government-quarantined town of Dusk, deep beneath which a secretive archaeological site has unleashed cosmic horror upon the world. The player’s ultimate goal becomes traverse a strange parallel dimension that spawned the twisted alien abominations that are assaulting the very fabric of Earth’s reality.
Dusk doesn’t have much overt storytelling. The motives of the mute main character are never explained in-game. There are no cutscenes and no other friendly characters with which to interact. The cult leader will occasionally telepathically taunt the player, but there’s no one to instruct the player on specifically what they should be doing which contrasts with the majority of action games released today. Storytelling is really more environmental in nature. The player learns about the world of Dusk via the places and things they witness along their journey.
I think the low-level storytelling is a key part of Dusk’s appeal. Modern video games, especially big budget ones, tend to have a preoccupation with making sure the player always understands exactly what is happening and what they should be doing. As a result, they often tend to get bogged down with cutscenes, radio conversations, tutorials, setpieces, etc. Dusk, on the other hand, just lets the player run loose. As I have limited free time for games these days, the fact that Dusk just cuts straight to the fun stuff is incredibly refreshing.
The key to this is in how incredibly well-designed Dusk’s levels are. They tend to be highly non-linear, offering the player multiple paths and directions to explore at any given moment. Stages like these could falter by becoming too confusing or maze-like, too easy for the player to get lost, but I never really had this issue with Dusk. It is complex without being confusing. Each area feels distinctive and memorable, which makes it easy to find one’s way around. I really enjoyed exploring this game, discovering what oddities and horrific sights lay around every corner, unlocking the vast number of secrets the game hides, and getting hooked on the adrenaline rush that each enemy ambush brought.
With 33 levels divided across 3 episodes, I was a bit worried that the game would start to get repetitive. Fortunately, the game has a ton of imagination packed into its sweeping journey. What starts off as a struggle for survival in a dark countryside filled with cultists and killers eventually morphs into a trek through secretive high-tech facilities harboring strange and unrestrained experiments and eventually across the warped landscapes of cosmic abomination. With each loading screen to usher in a new chapter, I always felt on the edge of something strange and surprising.
As an action game, Dusk is a lightfooted run-and-gun. Like Serious Sam or Quake, the player has gotta always be moving, less they become an easy target. There is a good variety of weapons, and the enemies are designed in such a way that makes most of the weapons fairly useful to the player. In a lot of Dusk’s classic counterparts, I usually found myself defaulting to using only one or two weapons that were clearly the most powerful, and only grudgingly using the lesser ones when I was out of ammo for the favorites. Dusk, on the other hand, does a good job of designing different situations that uniquely suit particular weapons, thus giving the player fairly frequent reason to mix things up and not simply rely on the shotgun or rocket launcher.
Despite the fact that Dusk is a fairly kinetic and aggressive action game, I was impressed by how well the developers were able to infuse it with the atmosphere and tension of a horror game. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an action game where the player is routinely outgunning dozens of enemies at a time could be scary, but Dusk can often be truly suspenseful. There were a ton of times when I was getting goosebumps because I knew a disturbing reveal was being ominously teased. The game oozes atmosphere, and I thought it was great at psyching me out. One of my favorite levels features the player descending downward through a cave that leads deep into the Earth. As the cave got narrower and more tortuous, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about what I would find at the end of the long, downward spiraling tunnel. Something that really helps is the grungy, low-poly graphics which go beyond being a sentimental call back to classic games and provide a level of abstraction, aliennes, and crudeness that greatly enhance the murky and unsettling nature of Dusk’s world. Simply put, the game does an amazing job at balancing the power fantasy of taking on huge hordes of enemies with a feeling of vulnerability toward the hidden threats that lie in wait for the player.
Dusk is a quintessential example of a nostalgia trip done right. It doesn’t merely exist as a desperate attempt to recapture the fond memories of the past. Rather, it understands the elements that made those classics so great, elements which are often discarded or downplayed in modern game design, and then it enhances and advances those elements with its own ideas in a way that exceeds its inspirations. I honestly have no hesitation in saying that Dusk truly outdoes many of the action games that it seeks to honor.
From the makers of FTL: Faster than Light comes Into the Breach, a peculiar kind of strategy game that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. In the far flung future, global flooding has left only four small islands as the last habitable land mass on Earth. Civilization continues on until a race of giant subterranean insects known as the Vek begin attacking the citizens of these new nations. After a long war, the remnants of humanity are driven to extinction with the exception of the last squadron of mech pilots who open a breach in the timeline to travel to the beginning of the Vek incursion and relive the war as many times as it takes to secure the safety of mankind.
Each mission takes place on small, randomly generated maps that fill up an 8×8 grid of tiles. The player is in command of a squad of three mechs that drop down onto each map and must defend cities from the onslaught of Vek emerging from underground. Each mission requires the player to hold out and survive for roughly 4 or 5 rounds before the Vek retreat. As such, Into the Breach is really a strategy game that is more about defense than offense. Whereas strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars are mostly about eliminating all enemies in a given mission or capturing an objective defended by said enemies, there is no requirement to annihilate the Vek in Into the Breach. Missions are failed only when a certain number of cities are destroyed.
The acute scope and defensive nature of the game result in something that is a hybrid of puzzle and turn-based strategy elements. The puzzle-like nature of the game is strongly reinforced by the idiosyncratic way in which turns play out. In most strategy games, the player and opponent alternate moving and committing actions with their units. Not so in Into the Breach. Each round begins with the Vek moving into position and then indicating which tiles they plan to attack. After this phase, the player is allowed to move and take actions with their mechs. Following the player’s go, the round concludes with the enemies attacking the tiles they are targeting.
Since the player can see where the Vek are going to attack, they can effectively prioritize which enemy to focus damage on. Essentially, the player has the opportunity to sabotage the Vek before they can do anything. The Vek that are targeting cities are generally top priority in most sound strategies. The best thing about Into the Breach, however, is that the player is allowed to operate creatively in how they handle the situation. As an example, perhaps there is a Vek that is preparing to attack a city, and the player isn’t able to deliver enough damage to it to take it out this turn. However, most mechs have weapons that have some sort of knockback effect, so you can use that to knock the Vek away from the target. That seems simple enough, but it gets even more elaborate. Perhaps there is already an enemy on the tile you’ve knocked the first Vek into. The collision will do damage to both Vek, possibly destroying both. Or perhaps something even more interesting can happen, if there isn’t a second Vek already there. The first Vek is already committed to attacking the same tile relative to its new position. What this means is that if you knock the enemy 1 tile to the east, then the tile it’s targeting will shift 1 tile to the east. If there is an enemy on that tile, the Vek you moved will deal damage to this bystander.
The complex ways in which you can manipulate enemies makes Into the Breach feel like a puzzle game at times. Beyond the knockback effect I mentioned above, there are a large number of unlockable mechs that have special abilities that lead to even more strategically interesting effects. One of my personal favorites is a mech that can kick up dust storms on the tiles it attacks. These dust storms blind any enemy standing in them and render them unable to attack. This can be paired with another mech that confers electrical charge to all of the dust storms on the map, so anything standing in those storms takes damage each turn.
This is what really hooked me on Into the Breach. Experimenting with the various mechs and their abilities and discovering the ways in which their abilities can augment each other keeps the game from ever feeling stale. It is absolutely like a puzzle game. There are times when I would be in a difficult situation, on the verge of hitting game over, and I would spend several minutes going through the various possible moves in my head until finally I would have an epiphany and realize a way I could save myself from the situation. Of course, it’s immensely satisfying when this happens.
Like its predecessor, FTL, Into the Breach can be considered a roguelike game. That’s a bit of a nebulous term these days, but in this case it means that if the player gets a game over screen then all their progress is lost, and they must begin the game from the beginning. In the game’s story, this plays out as the mechs opening another temporal breach and time travelling back to the start of the war. I had mixed feelings about this when I started Into the Breach. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed games like this, including Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, but lately I’ve started to feel that this formula just isn’t for me anymore. The issue is really that I don’t have as much free time as I once did, and as roguelikes make you replay a lot of the early content in the game many times over, I worry that these games really aren’t the best use of my limited free time.
Fortunately, I feel like Into the Breach managed to narrowly sidestep this concern. There are a few reasons to which I attribute this. First, you reach a point where you can start on any of the game’s four islands. Initially, only the first island is available to play, but once you beat that island, the second island will be unlocked in all future instances that you start the game over. The same goes for the third and fourth island. Ultimately, you can play the islands in any order you please, and the final mission becomes available once you clear two islands in a given run (although there is a reason not to go the the final mission until three or four islands are cleared). Each island has sufficiently unique mechanics that choosing a different island to start on each time keeps the game from feeling stale.
It also helps that there is a wide variety of unlockable mechs that promote experimentation each time the game is started from the beginning. New squads of mechs are unlocked by completing special achievements in the game (similar to how starships were unlocked in FTL). Each squad comes with its own unique gimmick. The squad that is initially available at the start of the game are the Rift Walkers and are fairly straightforward, focused almost purely on direct damage dealing and some knockback effects. But then, for instance, there is another squad, the Flame Behemoths, that focuses on turning tiles into hazards by setting them on fire. My two favorite squads are the aforementioned Rusting Hulks, which are built around taking advantage of dust storms and electrical electrical damage, and the Zenith Guard, which make use of energy weapons that do chain damage to groups of adjacent enemies. There is a good variety of strategy represented by the different squads, and I feel like everyone tends to find their own favorite. It’s also just fun to experiment.
Into the Breach has a unique approach toward difficulty and victory. At the beginning of a run, a player chooses to start on any island they’ve completed so far. Each time an island is cleared out, the difficulty is increased for the next island the player chooses. After completing only two islands, the final mission appears on the map. The player can then proceed to this last mission or complete one or both of the remaining islands. Thus the game can be won in a two, three, or four island victory. Since difficulty increases based on the number of islands cleared, the two island victory is the easiest to achieve, while the four island victory is hardest.
I’ve honestly never managed to beat this game’s predecessor, FTL. I’ve made it to the final mission twice in FTL, and after the second time I realized that I would probably never be able to beat the game, simply because the final battle was so incredibly difficult. Into the Breach has a far more attainable ending, and the final mission is not nearly as insurmountable. In a way, this was a relief, because it meant I could obtain some closure on the game, but I can’t deny that it also felt a bit anticlimactic compared to the awe-inspiring final boss of FTL.
I actually managed to beat the final mission on my first try at it while going for a two island victory, but it was still a fair challenge. At one point, I was only a few turns away from victory, when I suddenly hit a wall. As I sat there strategizing, it suddenly dawned on me that every move I could think of would result in my team of mechs getting wiped out. Since I couldn’t see a way out, I was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I had a better idea. It was really late that night, and I settled on simply saving the game so I could come back with a fresh mind in the morning. (You can save at any point in the game and pick back up where you left off.) I came back the next morning, stared at the game for about 10 minutes, and then like a bolt of lightning, I was suddenly struck by a set of moves that would let me survive. With my persistence rewarded, I only had to survive a few more relatively easy turns before I attained victory.
Since then, I’ve also managed to achieve a three island victory. Someday maybe I’ll come back to try at a four island victory, but for now, I’ve set Into the Breach aside to move on to other games on my stack. In my post about Hollow Knight, I discussed how exciting and rare it is to find a game that isn’t merely just good, but is something that I truly love and hold in high regard as one of the reasons I enjoy gaming so much. Amazingly, I’ve played two games back-to-back this year, Hollow Knight and Into the Breach, that met this lofty standard. Years from now when I reflect on why I love gaming, Into the Breach will be one of the reasons. I think it’s that good.
The recent reveal of Serious Sam 4 got me thinking about its predecessor. I picked up Serious Sam 3 fairly close to when it came out, but I only got a few hours in before life events distracted me. After everything had settled down, it sort of fell by the wayside, as I was ready to move on to other games. But it was somewhat fortuitous that SS4 got me thinking about the game again. I really need a game that just serves as a distraction right now, one that just lets me zone out and relax, and I’ve always found the Serious Sam games to be fairly good at that. I’ve never beat the game, so I decided it was time to rectify that.
Despite the fact that I consider myself a major Serious Sam fan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the story is to any of these games. They are obviously about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth and have something to do with time travelling aliens messing around in Ancient Egypt, but other than that, the details of the plot completely elude me. Like I don’t know who these alien hordes are, and why they’re so dead set on coming to Earth and wrecking up the place. The invaders are led by an entity called Mental, but what/who he/she actually is and his/her motivations are utterly beyond my comprehension.
Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to the first game of the series, Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Obviously, you might expect, like I did, that a prequel would fill in some of the elusive backstory. There is a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game that lays out Mental’s assault on the Earth, but this quick introduction only raises more questions than it answers. We then cut away to Sam Stone helicoptering into Egypt with his squad mates on a mission to find a secret weapon that can stop the invaders. Everyone is wearing tactical gear and camo, prepared for the mission ahead of them….except for Sam, who inexplicably wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses with colored lenses (true to his wardrobe in the original game). I feel like right away, I’ve stumbled into some sort of joke that’s meant to imply that I really shouldn’t think too hard about the events to follow.
And of course, story is really only set dressing in Serious Sam. These games are deeply true to themselves. They set out to be the most intense die-hard action games out there, and they don’t pretend to be anything otherwise. When Serious Sam: The First Encounter was released, I feel like the word was that it was a game that set out to recapture the pure no-frills adrenaline of games like Doom and Rise of the Triad. That and that the game was just really good looking for its time. With the advent of games likes Half-Life and Unreal, action games had started to focus more on story and atmosphere than on pure action. Serious Sam was deeply retrograde in this respect. But while the start of the game did sort of harken back to Doom, Serious Sam eventually develops its own identity, one that couldn’t have existed on the technology that existed at the time of Doom.
What really differentiates Serious Sam is scale and scope. Classic Doom is essentially a maze game, born out of first-person dungeon crawlers. Within that game, players explore labyrinthine corridors and structures, with most of the action being close quarters. While Serious Sam games tend to have a few levels like this, most of the game instead opts for wider open spaces that serve as huge arenas for extensive hordes of enemies to besiege the player all at once. At a given moment, dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds upon hundreds, can flood out of the woodwork to descend upon Sam. The sheer number of enemies Sam can face at any instant is what really sets the Serious Sam series a part from other action games.
While it’s easy to see how such a game could quickly become an overwhelming experience, these games tend to be balanced well enough that, for the most part, they don’t descend into relentless frustration. The trick is to keep moving. Enemies don’t really track Sam all that well, which means as long as you don’t stay in the same spot (or better yet, move in serpentine patterns) you can slip through their incoming projectiles. Another important strategy is to retreat backwards toward the direction you came. The faster moving enemies will manage to keep up with Sam, but the slower moving (and more dangerous enemies) won’t be able to catch up. This divide and conquer tactic allows you to take out the faster and weaker enemies first, and then proceed toward the bigger and more threatening enemies.
I enjoy a lot of different types of games. I like games like Final Fantasy which have a heavy focus on storytelling. I like games like Dark Souls that have rich and complex mechanics to master. And I like games like Fallout that present a vast and immersive world to explore. But sometimes a Big Dumb Action Game that just focuses on getting directly to the excitement can be really cathartic for me. I feel that I’m the kind of person that has difficulty relaxing, and I think the problem stems from the fact that I have trouble silencing and shutting down my thoughts. My head has too much noise in it. I like games like Serious Sam because the action is unfiltered. The experience doesn’t have a lot of story or setpieces or other interruptions that stop my brain from being in a very focused state on the action, and this focused state burns off brain cycles from being used on thinking about work or other sources of stress.
By the time I had beaten it, I felt Serious Sam 3 was a thoroughly worthy entry in the greater Serious Sam series, but I would still recommend Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter over this entry. For various reasons, I just think those two games are a little more fun. The only solid issue I had with SS3 was the final level. It was a massive slog. The level is set in a long, fairly linear canyon that seemingly goes on forever and terminates in the final boss fight of the game. And they take the game’s signature element, the massive hordes of enemies, a little too far. There were way way to many enemies in this level. It took me forever to get to the end, and I was completely ready for the game to be over and done with by the time I made it.
The final boss fight is also a little odd. Another signature of the Serious Sam series is that the games end in bosses that are ridiculously giant. I remember how people freaked out over the first game’s ending, and how big the last boss was. At the time, I don’t know if anything that big had ever been seen in a game. Certainly not anything that moved. Serious Sam 3 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sheer volume of the screen that the final enemy takes up. However, my issue is that you don’t actual fight him in a typical way. Rather, he’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved, and the solution requires an item that is just haphazardly hidden in the level, and there’s no indication given that you need to look for this item. I had to pull up a guide on Steam to actually figure out what I was supposed to do. Once I found this item, the rest was ridiculously easy. I would have been let down by the anticlimax had I not been so ready for the game to end.
All those issues aside, Serious Sam 3 is a great modernization of the series, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to meaningful advance the formula that it is built upon. I’m liking what I’ve been reading about Serious Sam 4, however. SS4 is a prequel to SS3 (which is in turn a prequel to SS1), and it deals with the onset of the alien invasion of the Earth, rather than its aftermath. Action seems to take place all across the planet, as opposed to being contained to just Egypt. And they seem like they are adding a lot of interesting new enemy types. SS3 introduced a few cool new enemies, but it was mostly reliant on the staples of the series that were introduced in SS1. I’m actually really excited for SS4 now, and I hope it can really be a turning point for the series to gain the popularity it’s deserved for a while. And maybe….just maybe… it will finally give a satisfactory explanation as to what is actually happening in these games.
Each year when the Steam Summer Sale rolls around, I like to put together a quick list of recommendations for lesser known games that are going for really cheap prices. One of the reasons for doing this is that I think sales like these are good opportunities for trying out underrated or rough around the edges games that you wouldn’t always take a chance on at higher prices. A way to explore your tastes in games, if you will. I have two criteria to maintain the spirit of the list: 1) These are games that I (arbitrarily) feel are underrated or have been forgotten about, and 2) They have a price point no greater than $5 (USD).
This year, the list is coming in hot, since the summer sale started just as I was packing up to take off for a week long vacation (probably the longest vacation I’ve taken in forever). The sale ends Thursday (7/5) at 1:00 PM EST, so I realize there’s not a lot of time left to consider these recommendations. I thought about not doing it this year, but I decided I wanted to keep up the tradition, since I’ve been doing these lists since 2014.
I had a little more trouble writing the list this year because of the time constraint I found myself in, but also because the deals just don’t seem as good as they’ve been in past. When searching for games to put on the list, several titles I thought would be going for under five bucks by now weren’t. In fact, I’m not entirely sure previous years’ lists are still valid, since I noticed that Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed from the 2015 list wasn’t even on sale at all this year! Nonetheless, I still think you can grab most of the titles form the old lists fairly cheap, so I recommend looking over those too if you are interested.
Jazzpunk was actually one of the first games I wrote about when I started this blog way back in 2014, and I think this is the first year that it’s finally hit a price point to qualify for this list. Jazzpunk is more of an interactive comedy than a game. The game chronicles the missions of a secret agent codenamed Polyblank, who lives in a bizarre alternate Earth version of the Cold War. There’s not much challenge to it, rather you spend your time exploring the environment and discovering bizarre situations and odd mini-games to play. The comedy relies heavily on non-sequitur and absurdism, so it can be hit or miss, and of course it will depend on your own sense of humor if you find it funny or not. I found it to be an amusing experience, at least.
Pirate Pop Plus
Pirate Pop Plus is a simple arcade-style game that is based on an old Japanese game called Pang. I don’t imagine many people are familiar with Pang. I certainly wasn’t until I played Pirate Pop. In Pirate Pop, you play as a little pirate guy who needs to clear the screen of these bubbles that bounce along the ground and deal damage to the player upon contact. You do this by shooting upwards (and only upwards) at the bubbles. Each time you hit a bubble, it breaks up into smaller bubbles which are harder to hit, but also bounce lower to the ground which means they are also harder to dodge. As the game progresses, the formula gets varied up with gimmicks like alternating directions of gravity. Pirate Pop is basically an arcade game, meaning you start at the first level each time you play and your goal is to beat your previous high score. It definitely can be fun to play for short bursts when you don’t have a lot of time to play something more serious.
Haunted: Halloween ’85
Haunted was originally released as a homebrew NES cartridge and eventually a PC port was made available on Steam. You play as a kid who wakes up from a nap to realize that he’s late for the Halloween dance at school. As he rushes to school, he discovers that his town has been taken over by monsters. Part beat’em up, part platformer, Haunted plays like a real NES, while most games that claim to be modern NES games play more like idealized versions of games from that era. While it can definitely be fun, it is also crude and frustrating at times. There are 6 levels, and no way to save. This means that each time you start the game, you start at level 1, just like most NES games. If you enjoy playing actual NES games, I definitely recommend it, but to others I would be a little more cautious. Two important tips: The first is that there is a secret uppercut move that is activated by pressing Down+B and does much more damage than the standard attack. The other is to play the game in windowed mode, because I believe there is no way to exit out of the game in fullscreen other than Alt+F4.
Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle game that has a lot of similarities to Portal, but with the veneer of a Saturday morning cartoon. You play as a kid exploring the mansion of his mad scientist uncle. The puzzles are based around the gimmick that you have a device that allows you to shift “dimensions”, which really means that you can alter the laws of physics in the surrounding environment. Namely, you can make objects lighter or heavier, slow down time, or reverse gravity. You are guided through the game by the disembodied voice of your uncle in the same way the GladOS guides you through the test chambers of Portal. In general, neither the puzzles or comedy of the game are quite as good as Portal, but I think it’s still a fun game to play, nonetheless.
Strider is a modern take on the classic Capcom action series. This new version of the franchise is a bit more like the old NES game than its arcade counterparts. Rather than a linear action game, this is a fast-paced hack-and-slash set in a massive Metroid-style open world. Those that like Metroid-style games will probably find a lot to like about Strider.
Serious Sam HD
The First Encounter: $2.24
The Second Encounter: $2.99
Serious Sam is sort of a B-tier first-person shooter from around the turn of the millenium. In a time when many action game were going for cinematic-like adventures, Serious Sam had significantly less fluff and focused instead on a more pure action experience that was closer to games like Doom and Rise of the Triad than contemporaries likes Half-Life 2 or Halo. Serious Sam is about the war waged by time traveller and one-man army Sam Stone against an alien horde that is invading ancient Earth. Serious Sam’s signature style of gameplay is to basically inundate the player with a massive number of enemies at once. This might sound like it could get stressful, but I find that the games are balanced enough that they are challenging without being frustrating more often than not. Serious Sam was released as two chapters, the First and Second Encounters, and both are well worth playing, although I would try the first one first to see if you like this formula of gameplay before picking up the second.
Orcs Must Die
A handful or so years ago, there was a huge craze over tower defense games, and while I’m not much of a fan of tower defense, I really dug Orcs Must Die. In Orcs Must Die, you play as a wizard tasked with defending a castle that holds the portal to the human realm from an onslaught of invading orcs. Your magic allows you to manifest a variety of traps in each level that are strategically placed to thin out the encroaching horde. Unlike a lot of tower defense games, the wizard is an actual character that moves around the level, instead of being a disembodied entity that views the action from above. The wizard possesses his own weapons and spells that he can use to attack the orcs directly, which ultimately makes the game a fusion of tower defense and third-person shooter.
Tower of Guns
Tower of Guns is a roguelike first-person shooter from a few years back. The player is tasked with ascending a procedurally generated tower that is filled with relentlessly attacking robotic enemies. The coolest wrinkle to the gameplay is that the projectiles the enemies fire move in relatively slow patterns, which makes weaving in and out of these oncoming attacks as important as dealing damage to the enemies. This always on your toes gameplay is probably my favorite aspect of the game, and it’s one of the better games I’ve played that tries to marry first-person shooters with the roguelike formula.
There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017. I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play. Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly. My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.
Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots. In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery. Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.
Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds. In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular. Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means. Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.
For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game. Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game. It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense. You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely. If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.
While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked. The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted. This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit. The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks. Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.
The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover. The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique. Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.
Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore. My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered. I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.
Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two. It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock. I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending. This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through. But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.
That said, it was totally worth it. Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic. I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss. I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story. The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.
Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard. There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them. Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby. Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.
The year 1998 was a great time with a huge number of seminal games seeing release, such as Half-Life, Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, and Metal Gear Solid. Of course, this means that a lot of classic hits will see their 20th Anniversary in 2018, a realization that dawned on me when Epic announced that Unreal Gold was going free on both GOG and Steam to commemorate its May 22, 1998 launch date. I had a blast with Unreal back in the day. I still have my original CD, but I was super excited to snag the download version for free. For those who are old time fans of the game or if you’re just curious about this highly influential PC classic, LGR did an excellent Unreal retrospective on Youtube that I think is well worth a view.
Before Unreal’s release, Quake II was basically the king of PC gaming, and Epic Games fully intended Unreal to be a “Quake Killer”. And they weren’t just making empty smack talk, either. Unreal ended up being an amazing game for its time. The graphics were well beyond anything that had come before, as enshrined by this now infamous magazine cover:
That might look laughable today, but in the late 90s, the visual splendor of Unreal completely warranted this kind of hype. And it used those graphics to create an alien world that had a level of atmosphere and immersion that was clearly raising the bar for video game settings.
Unfortunately, I feel like Unreal’s challenge to the computer gaming throne was really very short lived. Just a few months later, Half-Life came onto the scene, and while it’s graphics engine didn’t quite have the bells and whistles of Unreal, it quickly became the biggest game to play for a variety of other reasons. Honestly, I feel Unreal, as a game, has always been an overlooked masterpiece. It spawned the Unreal Tournament spin-off series, which was massively popular around the turn of the century, and the Unreal Engine, which has powered a ton of games over the years. But people hardly ever talk about the game that started both of these things, even though its stands well on its own.
Unreal is currently free on GOG and Steam for, I think, the next day. I will warn anyone who is interested that you can run into problems playing on modern PCs. Personally, I can’t boot it up using the software renderer, I have to use Direct3D instead. This was a bit odd to me considering that other old Unreal Engine games always crash in Direct3D mode on my machine, necessitating the use of the software renderer. When I run into issues with old PC games, I always seek help from the PCGamingWiki. Their Unreal page has a good list of mods and fixes that go a long way to getting this game running up to snuff.
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.