Look! I haven’t died! Neither have you! Wonderful.
Anyway, a lack of posting isn’t for lack of things to talk about or lack of time, even. Everything’s just been a struggle lately, and I know that is far from unique to me. Here’s hoping by this time next year we can all breathe again.
For now, though, let’s talk about video games! I’ve played a lot of them this year, because if I go outside I will die. I’ve also read a lot of books, but I don’t think a single one of them was published this year, so don’t expect a list for those. Books don’t have as many guns to collect or even jiggle physics, though, so who cares.
As ever, there were a number of games I didn’t get around to, so a lack of those games doesn’t mean I disliked them. In this case, the big ones I wanted to play were The Last of Us Part II, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Cyberpunk 2077. Additionally, I haven’t upgraded to either the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X (but, come on, it will obviously be the PlayStation 5), so none of the one or two games exclusive to those systems are in the running, either.
Before we start talking about my favorite games of 2020 by discussing games that are much older, though, here are my three favorite games that I overlooked in 2019.
My best games of 2020 (2019 edition)
3) The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
Yes, I’m behind on my Trails of Cold Steel. SUE ME. The fourth game came out this year, but as of this writing I’m still working my way through the third game. I’m confident in saying it will end up being one of my favorites from 2019, both because it’s great so far and because games in 2019 sucked on toast.
The first game took a while to grab me, but once it did I was hooked. As the characters opened up and revealed their depth I was able to relate to them — or at least care about them — in ways I didn’t expect. You play as Rean Schwarzer, a student at a military academy. During field exercises, you are send to various regions to help the residents address their concerns and to learn about how the different areas behave and interact. For both Rean and for you as a player, this is a slight misdirection; you’re really touring the world to see what it’s like before war tears everything to hell.
Throughout the first two games, you balance your studies at the academy with maintaining peace as well as possible in the empire. And, of course, with flirting with the classmate or associate of your choice. (Fie is the correct answer.) The third game, however, takes place post-graduation. Rean is now a war hero and an instructor for a new group of students.
And it’s…kind of great. By interacting with them and struggling to keep their egos in check, you gain a genuine appreciation for your flighty old instructor Sara. In the previous games she was clearly competent, but she was also carefree and casual to a comic degree. In retrospect, as serious Rean bungles his relationships with his charges, you see just how effective she was at her job, and how valuable an instructor she really was.
It’s an incredible bit of character work that’s all the better because it takes us three games to get there. The length of the games in the series and the fact that they form one continuous story is probably enough to push many people away, and I don’t blame them. But those who dive into it and stick with it will be rewarded for their patience. Ditto the way in which so many background characters from the first game have grown into their own lives, roles, and personalities by this point, so that reconnecting with them is genuinely interesting and worth while. (Vivi is the correct answer.)
Of course, seeing how the empire has changed is another benefit of occupying this world for three games and counting. Sometimes you’ll see it with your own eyes. Sometimes you’ll hear about something you’re glad you didn’t have to see. Other times you visit for the first time locations you’d only heard about in the first game. Trails of Cold Steel plants so many seeds at so many points that if you hang around you’ll find many surprising things blooming around you. It’s lovely, and I’m excited to play the fourth game too late as well.
2) Return of the Obra Dinn
I rarely play games on PC. I’m not opposed to it or anything, but I don’t think I’ve ever own a computer powerful enough to play contemporary games and most of my career has involved the computer, so when it’s time to unwind, I don’t think to sit back down at one. This is to say that when Return of the Obra Dinn was released for PC in 2018, I didn’t go near it. I’d heard nothing but good things, but I was waiting for a console release if I were ever to touch it.
We got that release in 2019, and there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t been said already, by people who are much, much more intelligent than I will ever be. If you don’t know what it is, somehow, I’ll at least say that it’s a kind of whodunit. You are an insurance agent tasked with figuring out the fates of the passengers and crew of the Obra Dinn, which vanished at sea and has returned to shore with no living creature aboard.
You accomplish this with a magic stopwatch, of course, which lets you view the literal final moment of various people’s lives. Sometimes this makes it very clear how they died. Often it doesn’t, but will shed light on someone else’s fate. You use clues from one vision to figure out what’s going on elsewhere. Describing it does it no justice whatsoever. Playing it is necessary to understand both the appeal and the craftsmanship behind the game.
That latter point, by the way, almost caused me to have a kind of breakdown as I tried to deconstruct the game afterward, mentally, trying to figure out how, exactly, it was assembled. It’s like a four-dimensional puzzle that makes sense as you put it together, but I couldn’t figure out how each of the pieces was constructed, how they fit together, how they allowed for people to discover them at (almost) any point and in (almost) any sequence and still make sense overall.
Of course, part of the magic is that mystery. I was more curious as a writer than I was as a player, though, and I knew there would be incredible lessons to learn from the method by which which this plot was created, segmented, and then scattered in such a way that allowed for multiple paths to correct reassembly, but I had to stop because I was genuinely causing myself grief and dismay. The game is that good!
It is sincerely one of the most creative and innovative works of fiction I’ve come across. The narrative itself is nothing that ever would have held my attention, but the presentation of that narrative is second to none. In a very real way, it’s a game about telling a story. You tell it to yourself as you go, and that would have been fascinating, brave, and brilliant even if it hadn’t worked. It worked, however. Good Lord did it work.
When I first saw an E3 trailer for Control, I had no clue what I was looking at. I did know, however, that I was interested. There seemed to be some kind of weird gravity mechanic, or perhaps the ability to disassemble and reassemble reality around yourself. Which, yeah, let me at it.
That’s not quite what the game ended up being, but the confusing nature of the trailer was appropriate. I never knew what to make of the game ahead of playing it, and I don’t know what to make of it now. It’s a rare thing for a game to turn so much of the interpretive duty over to the player, and I appreciate that Control did just that. I could tell you at various points the things I did, saw, or fought. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the game is, however, beyond the broadest of broad strokes. And that’s wonderful.
The game finds you wandering into a mysterious (and mysteriously open) government building in search of information about your missing brother. What you find is a series of loose meditations on reality, on the power of perception, and on what it means to exist. It’s heavy stuff, but it never feels heavy. At least, not until you’re done and you reflect on what you’ve been through. That’s when you’ll feel the weight of everything you put off thinking about. And that’s wonderful, too.
The odds are you won’t be thinking about these things until the game is over because Control keeps you so engaged throughout. It doesn’t necessarily distract you from these topics, but it does dazzle you enough that you’ll probably choose not to focus on them. After all, you get to rip parts of the building apart and hurl them at spooky enemies, flying around like Peter Pan as you do so. From a purely visceral standpoint, Control is excellent. The fact that it also makes you think long after the experience is over is just a perfect, unnecessary bonus.
In fact, since I played it early this year, I’ve been meaning to write an essay on this site about one character in the game. Not the player character, not the missing brother, not even a character you meet. Just one character who exists in this universe, who has given me so much to ponder for months now. Control is a rich game for the thoughtful. And if you don’t care to consider anything beyond what you’re doing at any given time, well, you’ll still probably enjoy it.
It’s funny, it’s weird, and it’s unforgettable. I wish it were a bit scarier — at times it creeps up to pure horror without ever quite pushing through — but that’s a personal preference thing. I think I wanted to be a bit more disturbed by what I was seeing instead of only intrigued. But, well, reality isn’t always what we’d like it to be, is it?
My 10 best games of 2020
10) Resident Evil 3
Last year’s remake of Resident Evil 2 was my game of the year, and I stand by that decision. The moment I finished it, I started it over again. It was so much fun to play, ramping up the action from the original version without — in my opinion, at least — sacrificing the scares. With the exception of a few stretches (boss fights, usually), the game kept me on edge at all times, and did a great job of escalating the tension so that I never felt secure in my ability to survive.
I’ve played it many more times since. It’s an extraordinarily good game and one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. There is no reason Resident Evil 3 couldn’t have offered an experience of similar quality, but boy was it a big step back.
To be clear, it’s not a bad game. I think “Resident Evil 2 was better” is the sort of thing people will hear and therefore write this game off as an unmitigated disaster. It isn’t. But it seems to only superficially understand what made that previous remake so great. It indeed looks nice. It has great sound design. There are moments of exceptionally crafted atmosphere. But that’s really it. It’s the kind of game that works very well as a trailer or as a bunch of screenshots. Playing it is another story.
This time, I didn’t restart the game as soon as I finished it. In fact, I had to force myself to return to the game just for the sake of pushing through. Considering how short it is, that says a lot. I confess that the original Resident Evil 3 is nowhere near as good as the original Resident Evil 2, so the team definitely had less to work with. That’s hardly an excuse, however, especially when this game’s centerpiece, Nemesis, is equivalent to the previous game’s Mr. X. Mr. X was the highlight of the previous game, remaining a lurking, horrifying, genuine threat long after you think he’s out of your hair.
Dressing Mr. X up like Nemesis and calling it a day would have worked, if they were truly feeling lazy. Building on the threat of Mr. X and making Nemesis even more of a terrifying presence would have been ideal. Instead, they relegated Nemesis to a sort of quick-time-event generator. He pops up, you press the right buttons (sometimes indicated on screen), and he goes away again. That pales in comparison to the Resident Evil 2 remake, yes, but it also pales in comparison to the already pale original version of Resident Evil 3. There, Nemesis’ appearances had a degree of randomization, meaning you really couldn’t predict when you’d encounter him, even if you played the game multiple times. Here, his appearances are fixed and your way of dealing with him predetermined.
It’s far from an awful game, but it’s a big disappointment.
9) Bubble Bobble 4 Friends
Upon further research, this game evidently came out at the very end of 2019. Oops. I can’t think of anything else to include because I hate most things, so I’ll just roll with it. Yell at me. I don’t care.
Anyway, Bubble Bobble and I go way back. I remember playing it endlessly as a kid. It was one of a handful of games I had for the NES, and if you were only going to own a handful, this was a great one to have. It was adorable, it was fun, it was easy to play, and it offered simultaneous two-player mode. It was also a long and challenging game, not that I cared about those things as a kid but, in retrospect, we got damned good value out of this one.
I remember ending up having to stop the game whenever I got to a certain stage that required you to bounce on bubbles up to a higher ledge. The timing on doing so wasn’t too bad, but as a kid, I couldn’t manage it. I’d get most of the way up, mistime a jump, and fall all the way back down. This was with two players, one of whom did nothing other than supply the bubbles. I’m sure it was possible to do it alone, but it was even more difficult.
Flash forward a decade and change. I’m in college and I meet a friend who had exactly the same experience with Bubble Bobble as a kid. We decide to break out the old NES and, finally, as what we thought qualified as adults, beat the fucking game. We set aside an entire weekend. We drank. We ate junk food. We had a mutual friend who joined us to relieve us in turns. It was enormous fun and it took us forever but, finally, we beat it. For the first time since we were children we watched the screen with our hearts in our throats and waited to see the ending…which never came. Instead we got a “BAD END” displayed on screen, because we neglected to pick up some certain item during the course of the game. We were disappointed, yes, but it was also hilarious. The perfect punchline to a wasted weekend.
Eventually we did beat the game properly, but my fondest memory was having the satisfaction of a job well done — a job 10+ years in the making — snatched away. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends won’t be doing any such snatching. It’s far too easy for that and quite forgiving. But as far as the fun goes, it’s right where the NES game was. This is what we saw in our minds when we played that version, and it’s a shame this game won’t get as much attention now as that one did then. For anyone with fond, distant Bubble Bobble memories, this will be a welcome return to them without any of the frustration.
In fact, they recently doubled the size of the game with a free DLC pack…which I’m realizing was released in 2020. There, that’s my excuse. Pick it up if you can. It’s sweet and cuddly and super fun and the DLC adds that ghost whale thing that will kill you for dawdling. It’s now perfect.
I’ve had my eye on Spinch since that stupid ALF E3 thing. I couldn’t really tell what the game was then, but it definitely had a great art style. It reminded me at the time of Atari games, but I wasn’t sure why; Atari games didn’t look anything like that. What it was actually reminding me of was Atari box art; abstract, cartoony, priming the imagination for the experience to come.
My imagination was barely primed enough for the reality of Spinch, which I say as a positive thing. Spinch is one gorgeously simple punishing platformer. It enemies are characters, but so are its environments. In a literal sense, even its projectiles are characters. Spinch oozes personality, and I’m choosing the word “oozes” deliberately.
It’s an extremely strange game, but charmingly so. I’d love to call it perfectly designed, but the fact is that that’s Spinch’s problem. It presents such a wonderful and unique world that not executing it perfectly feels like something of a crime. And, of course, falling short of perfection in a brutal platformer is a bit of a problem in itself.
Your jumps need to be accurate. Your timing needs to be tight. Your understanding of what enemies will do needs to be vast. When the game fails to be as perfect as it’s asking the player to be, that’s a problem. It’s very possible it’s only an issue with the Switch version — which is what I played — but if so, that’s only slightly less disappointing. If it’s being sold on the Switch, it should function on the Switch.
The game stutters regularly, which interferes with the enjoyable flow of the experience, and which also makes the timing of player actions far more of a crapshoot. And not to be rude — I love the way this game looks — but Spinch is clearly not pushing any hardware to its limits. Stuttering, in other words, isn’t due to ambition; it’s due to poor optimization.
When Spinch works correctly — which it does for long stretches at a time — it’s brilliant. The spacey techno-funk soundtrack feels like an excellent running joke in itself, which I also mean as a compliment. It’s a contrast to the sunny vibes of the art style just as much as the punishing difficulty is. There are things I’d tweak — give players more than one shot at the bonus levels; add another checkpoint to the longer stages — but those are nitpicks. What I want is Spinch to run smoothly so I can enjoy everything it does absolutely right, because there’s a lot of it.
7) 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
I am of two minds about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Possibly three minds. I bought it after hearing people praise the writing, as good writing is A Thing I Do Enjoy. Beyond that, I knew nothing. I expected a more or less standard RPG starring school kids, perhaps in the vein of Persona (or Trails of Cold Steel). I did not get that.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is divided into three distinct sections. There’s the storyline (which unfolds as a series of chapters similar to a visual novel), the combat (which is seen from overhead and mech-based), and the lore (which is collected in various ways through the other two modes). Seeing lore — essentially an index of terms and a chronology of events — elevated to stand beside the two “main” gameplay modes seemed strange to me, until I spent more time with the game and realized that learning about what is happening is just as much a part of the game as what is happening.
How much can I say without spoiling things? A bit, but nothing definitive. I will say, though, that “starring school kids” is both correct and completely wrong, and rarely will you meet anyone or experience anything without there being at least one more layer that you won’t understand until later. The various protagonists — from whom you can choose, usually, whenever you like — each have their own stories and histories that interact and overlap, both directly and indirectly. What you learn in one story can inform the way you interpret another, even if the protagonists of each don’t cross paths.
Amazingly, this works well. It’s nearly always more interesting than it is frustrating, as each character’s story — and each chapter within that story — makes sense. It will always operate on a kind of identifiable logic. You may not fully understand everything that is happening, but you will understand what is happening in that moment. It helps that every character is interesting in their own right, and that the chapters span a wide range of tones. Some are funny. Some are scary. Some are emotional. All are interesting, even if they may not seem so until they get going.
But the game has its issues. Poring through lore entries is indeed a valid game mode for this specific game, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. (And aside from learning about various types of real-life Japanese foods, I didn’t learn much from them that I wouldn’t have learned from the rest of the game.) Asking players to alternate between the visual novel sequences and the mech battles as they see fit both abdicates the responsibility of pacing and means someone can burn through all of the content they enjoy and then be left slogging through the content they don’t.
That’s unfortunate, because both the visual novel sections and the combat sections are good, but they do feel like two very different games elbowing against each other rather than two modes that work in tandem. What’s more, the combat was far too easy. It was fun, which is the most important thing, but I felt like I was earning S rankings most of the time just by not falling asleep while playing it. And the visual novel sections sometimes strand you with no clear way to progress. As an experiment, though, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an interesting one, and a more successful one than I would have expected it could be.
6) Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo couldn’t have possibly released Animal Crossing: New Horizons at a better time. Toward the beginning of the global pandemic — and during actual lockdown, at least in my area — we didn’t just get the cutest, most charming game imaginable, but we were able to meet with friends while using it. I know I’m not alone in the fact that I actually hung out with people I know in real life and spent time with them here, in this little virtual world full of friendly animal people and presents falling from the sky.
The game also does a great job of always giving you something to work toward, which I think is especially valuable in times of boredom and when we feel the need to escape reality. Again, perfect timing all around for Nintendo. Upgrading your house, adding facilities to your island, collecting crafting components, digging up fossils…everything leads to something else. There’s always something to do and something specific to aim for, even if that goal is just rearranging your island to look exactly the way you like it.
At one point I had to take a deep breath, put down Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and tell myself to move on. I remember how much I played New Leaf, the 3DS game, and I knew if I kept playing New Horizons I’d never eat again. It’s addictive escapism. That’s a good thing, to be clear, but I knew I needed to make a break for it if I were going to play or do anything else this year.
I will say that I’m not entirely a fan of the fact that Nintendo keeps rolling out more content for it. What a thing to complain about, eh? Really, I just mean that I’m not a fan of releasing a game in one state and then adding so much so regularly. Patch some bugs out, release DLC, that is fine. But when I buy a game, I don’t like knowing that it’s now a different game a few months down the line. I’m sure from a business perspective it’s the correct decision, and I know for a fact a lot of people enjoy it, but I don’t like knowing that I need to keep playing as long as new content keeps being added for me to actually experience the entire game.
There are things people are now doing in New Horizons that I wasn’t able to do when I played at release. And anyone stopping now won’t be able to do the things that other people are doing in a few months. It’s a complaint, yes, but it’s also personal preference. Some people love logging into the same game over and over to find new surprises awaiting them. I can’t blame them for that! It sounds like a lovely feeling, but it’s not a feeling I share.
I like to explore games at my own pace. I like to move on when I’ve decided I’ve had enough. Animal Crossing games already have seasons and holidays built into the experience to keep you coming back — not to mention various timed events and waiting periods — so I don’t think adding content and functionality that wasn’t on the game card to begin with is necessary. But that’s just me. If Animal Crossing is moving in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me personally, that’s okay. That may even be a good thing. I’ll get my life back.
5) Fury Unleashed
Fury Unleashed has such an unremarkable title that I’ve looked it up twice while typing this sentence just to make sure I remembered it correctly, but it’s a hell of a fun game. It plays like a version of Rogue Legacy that focuses on firearms rather than melee weapons, and that in itself would probably be enough to convince me to give it a spin, but it stands as its own experience as well.
And it’s a brutal one. In a good way! I loved Rogue Legacy, to be clear, but the longer I played it, the more the difficulty receded. I’d encounter a tough enemy, boss, environment, whatever, and I’d die a bunch of times. Dying those times gave me the chance to upgrade my abilities, meaning when I returned I was stronger than they were. I’m simplifying, and the process isn’t quite as quick to unravel as it may sound, but the fact is that simply facing tough enemies often enough will allow you to surpass them. Instead of the game challenging me more as I progressed, it challenged me less.
With Rogue Legacy, it got to the point that I wouldn’t hit a wall of difficulty unless I got exceptionally unlucky with the randomized levels. With Fury Unleashed it’s the opposite: I’d barely make progress unless I got exceptionally lucky with its randomized levels.
I still can’t beat the first area reliably. Often, sure, but not reliably. I’ve upgraded my character many times over, but none of that makes up for carelessness. Stop paying attention to what you’re doing, even briefly, and you will likely suffer damage so severe you’ll massively reduce your chances against the eventual boss. I’ve hurled many profanities at the game, but really I was hurling them at myself. The game is fair, almost mockingly so. You’ll die frequently and have nobody to blame other than yourself.
It’s not my favorite game of the year, of course, but it’s difficult to identify many true flaws. The leveling is a slow process, but when comparing it to Rogue Legacy’s issues, that may be a good thing. The controls feel slippery, but only until you get used to them, at which point they feel perfect for the game. The close-quarters melee combat is a bit wimpy, but that’s surely by design in a game that wants you to use your guns.
There’s nothing Fury Unleashed does that I can’t justify, in other words. Its missteps are differences of opinion. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and writing about it is making me want to play it again.
4) Panzer Paladin
Panzer Paladin had a very real shot at being my favorite game this year. Every one of the ingredients was there, and, honestly, I’m probably being more harsh on it than I really should be simply because it was so close to being great. If it did few things right and bungled the rest, it would be easier for me to engage with it for what it is. Instead, because it’s so close to being exactly what I wanted, it’s difficult to focus on much other than the small gap that keeps it from getting there.
I am a sucker for so much of what Panzer Paladin is by default. It’s a work of gorgeous pixel art. It has a genuinely incredible soundtrack. It takes design cues from some of my favorite 8-bit games, including Mega Man and Blaster Master. That’s the surface-level stuff and because it nails that, I enjoy it.
Surprisingly for a game about a gigantic robot, Panzer Paladin focuses on melee weapons. And I don’t mean that in terms of combat alone. Melee weapons are broken down at the end of stages to fund upgrades. They break with repeated use but can be destroyed before that point in exchange for a health bonus, defense boost, or other one-off effect. They also serve as checkpoints; embed one in a pedestal and you can start there if you die…but you really are leaving it behind. If it was your only weapon — or only good weapon — you are making the screens to come much more difficult for yourself.
All of this is great, in concept. By tying so many functions to the weapons you pick up (there are more I haven’t discussed, such as opening certain passages or hurling them as projectiles), you take one of the most basic givens of platformers and elevate it to a level of ongoing consideration that I’ve never seen in a game of this style. Every use of your weapon — and those potential uses are many — constitutes a decision. It’s brilliant. It adds a memorable wrinkle to the gameplay without ever interrupting it.
As I said, it’s so close to greatness. So damned close. And yet it falls down in other areas of the design. The game being difficult should indeed be a given; I am glad my big robot is so easily destroyed by traps and enemies. I am less enamored of the fact that its stiff, tiny jump leads to falling into pits so frequently, ending my run no matter how well or poorly I was doing up until that point. I am less enamored of the sparse checkpoints, which often require me to redo huge portions of the level due to failing one of those jumps. I am less enamored of the blind jumps and unforeseeable death traps. You can have one or two of the things on this list in your game, but when you’re combining impossible-to-predict death with rare checkpoints, you will court frustration.
There’s also the problem of fighting without a weapon. Since your weapon can be destroyed, lost, consumed, or sacrificed at so many points along the way, you need to be able to fight without one. Panzer Paladin allows this, but with a punch with such a short range that it’s difficult to use without taking damage yourself. You’ll find yourself fighting bosses with unclear hitboxes long after you’ve run out of weapons, and a little bit of grace there would help them feel more sporting. Everything is so close with Panzer Paladin. So close. It might be my most frustrating game of the year.
3) Spelunky 2
I honestly can’t say enough good about Spelunky, which quickly became one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the rare non-retro games that I still boot up to take for a spin years later. To be clear, I’m not saying this to brag about my skill or anything; Spelunky is brutal and while I keep getting better at it I never quite get good at it. My deaths are frequent, avoidable, and hilarious. I love the game for what it is, in other words, and that’s not bolstered by any feelings of superiority or accomplishment.
Spelunky 2 could have given us more of the same and it would have ended up on this list. Which is good, because that’s basically what Spelunky 2 did. Everything feels familiar. The art style, the music, the physics (for the most part). The different environments even call back to those in the first game, even though this time we’re on the moon. The items are similar. The mechanics are similar. The enemies are similar.
And that’s half of the problem. With a procedurally generated game like Spelunky, it’s endlessly replayable. (So long as you actually enjoy it, that is.) In other franchises — say, Mario — you buy a new game even if it doesn’t change much because you get the new levels and enemies and powerups and all of that fun stuff to play with. Those things are still true of Spelunky 2, but enough of those things were already in the first game that it often doesn’t feel much different. Spelunky 2 has new content, but it’s spread out enough that it sometimes doesn’t register.
Is that a complaint? Not really. I do think Spelunky 2 is worth a buy (it’s on this list, after all), but it doesn’t usually feel different enough to justify the sequel. That’s the other half of the problem: When it does feel different enough, it’s not as good.
The features it adds feel either pointless or frustrating. An example of the former is the fact that levels are layered now; you can walk through a door to enter a “background” portion of the level, and then come back out again. As many times as I’ve done this, I think it’s only ever led to a few snakes or bits of gold. Rarely have I explored a background layer and felt that it was a good use of my time. In the frustrating category, we have enemies that are difficult to predict, such as burrowing ones that pop out and bite you before you can react. Are they impossible to avoid? Of course not, but part of the brilliance of Spelunky was that if you could somehow zoom out and view the entire environment at once, you’d see easily which hazards would threaten you at any given point. Here, they’re far more difficult to predict. Sometimes an enemy pops out and kills you, and that ends your run. That’s nowhere near as fun or fair as being speared by an arrow trap because you were paying attention to the wrong thing.
Overall I don’t think it’s quite as good or as fun as the first game, but I’ll keep playing it. It’s rougher around the edges, but it’s still a great time.
2) Wasteland 3
I loved Wasteland 2. It felt like a step back into the early days of Fallout. I am of course aware that Fallout grew out of Wasteland, but it also presented itself, its world, and its mechanics very differently. Wasteland 2 felt — in a superficial sense — like it was taking after Fallout 2 more than Wasteland. The snake nibbled its tail.
That in itself is a welcome service to provide. Fans who came to Fallout with Fallout 3, Fallout 4, or Fallout: New Vegas would almost certainly end up curious about what the earlier, isometric games were like. Maybe they’d boot them up. If they did, I’d wager a huge percentage of them gave up quickly. The games seem more confusing than they really are, but the difficulty is massive for a newcomer. For many fans of the series, they remain historical artifacts. You might walk past them in a museum and nod. Very interesting. Next exhibit…
Wasteland 2 essentially updates that style of gameplay to be less impenetrable. The challenge is still steep, but it’s easier to accept as a deliberate part of the experience rather than as a symptom of unintuitive design. It presents a post-nuclear landscape that is relentless, bleak, and relentlessly bleak. Fallout cuts its horror with humor, which I love, but Wasteland 2 relegated the humor to the sidelines. Fallout would lock you out of earning a fun weapon or handy armor if you made the wrong decision in a quest. Wasteland 2 would literally wipe an entire location from existence before you got to explore it. Fallout gave you an objective to strive for. Wasteland 2 asked you, and not even firmly, to just try to make the world a little less shitty.
You were a Desert Ranger, basically one member of a group of mercenaries who represented the closest thing this world had to justice. You were sometimes mediator, sometimes jailer, sometimes executioner. The moral dilemmas were many, and it was rarely as easy as solving that dilemma for yourself; you’d often have to back up your decision with brute force, with firepower, with luck. Make a decision you know is right and you can still find your squadmates gunned down under the desert sun because the person you sided against disagrees.
Wasteland 3 is more of the same, and yet unique in many ways. It’s more forgiving than Wasteland 2, which felt to me like a step backward, but which will probably be a genuine selling point for many people. It also relocates the action from Arizona and California to Colorado. This makes a superficial difference — it’s snowy instead of sandy — but little else. In fact, Wasteland 3 commits the sin Fallout is now so fond of committing: Your buddies from the previous games all show up so the studio audience can applaud. Honestly, the characters I remember most strongly from Wasteland 3 are ones I actually met in Wasteland and Wasteland 2. That wouldn’t be the case if the new characters got to occupy some space of their own. It almost makes me wonder why we changed settings between games at all if everyone would make the same trip with us so we wouldn’t need to miss them.
All of which is to say, Wasteland 3 wasn’t as interesting or clever to me as Wasteland 2, and yet it was a genuinely great experience. It’s somewhere between the brutality of Wasteland 2 and the accessibility of modern Fallout. It feels like a transition between Wasteland 2 and whatever Wasteland 4 will be, rather than a game with its own identity. And that’s okay; it’s more entertaining as a transition than most games are as finished products. But only rarely were the moral dilemmas, combat, and exploration as tricky for me as I wanted them to be.
1) Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
Deadly Premonition is a weird game, and I’m speaking about more than its tone and content. I’m speaking about the way in which you need to engage with it. If you treat it like any other game — something that provides outputs to your inputs, illustrating success or failure — you will get absolutely nothing out of it, other than periodic bafflement. But it you treat it like…well, like a unique artistic experience, and you keep yourself open to what the artist behind it means to say and is trying to do, it’s genuinely unforgettable.
In the years since its release, it’s become a fascinating game to study. There are things it does wrong from a design standpoint, but it’s still fun. There are narrative decisions every author would be cautioned against making, but it’s still engaging. There are exaggerations of characterization that shouldn’t happen outside of a Looney Tunes short, and it’s still moving. Deadly Premonition is a rare game that doesn’t just succeed in spite of its flaws, but is strangely enhanced by them. Everything the game does “wrong” somehow elevates everything it does right. I could spend literal hours speaking about the game’s serious problems, and that same speech could serve as my justification for why it’s one of my favorite games overall.
All of which is to say, a sequel was a fucking terrifying prospect. It could either iron out the “flaws” of the first game, robbing it of at least some of its unique identity, or it could lean into them, aware of the “joke,” trodding all over its accidental charm. Somehow, Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise does neither. That perfect blend of roughness and brilliance that almost certainly came together accidentally for the first game comes together again, intentionally this time but no less effectively. It’s an absolute miracle.
Deadly Premonition 2 is a prequel and a sequel, following FBI Agent Francis York Morgan on a murder investigation that unfolds both before and after the events of the first game. It’s serious and silly by turns, and it’s often one when you’re expecting the other. You’re investigating a grisly dismemberment that requires mastery of a bowling minigame to solve. You’ll narrate key information to yourself as you skateboard through town, stopping mid-thought because you’ve been struck by a motorist and flung into somebody’s yard. You’ll have a tagalong moppet who seems to add nothing at the start of the game but who becomes a crucial, emotionally significant part of the overall experience.
Everything about Deadly Premonition 2 should be in conflict with everything else, and maybe it even is. Maybe that’s the magic. Maybe internal conflict somehow moves the game ahead of where it otherwise would be. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s clever, it’s unnerving, it’s emotional, and it’s cartoony. Deadly Premonition shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it did so better than many other games that, technically speaking, did far more things correctly. Deadly Premonition 2 can’t work, and in spite of that it does. Right in front of you. As you watch. Amazed by whatever sorcery it’s employing to take so many things that don’t work together and arrange them in such a way that it’s the best game of the year.
I don’t know how developer SWERY managed to get the blend just right for the first game, and I don’t know what demon purchased his soul in exchange for getting it right a second time. SWERY is either one of the most brilliant artists making games today, or he’s by a country mile the luckiest one. Either way, you owe it to yourself to experience the madness.
Merry Xmas, happy new year, continue to not die. I’ll see you on the other side.