Author: Jordan Hurst

Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn

Once you get over the contrived premise – “pocket watch lets you visit the moment of a character’s death, it’s magic, I ain’t gotta explain shit”  Return of the Obra Dinn is easily one of the most original and engaging games of 2018. Detective gameplay is difficult to pull off, because it requires that the overall mystery and a collection of smaller ones both be engrossing, but Obra Dinn does so in spades. Searching for clues to individuals’ identities and causes of death requires so much awareness of your surroundings that it’s virtually impossible not to be absorbed, while the question of why these events are happening aboard the titular 19th-century trading vessel lingers behind every moment. It helps that the smaller mysteries offer a satisfying intellectual challenge; clues range from “somewhat obvious” to “ridiculously minute and only noticeable on repeat viewings,” but a small amount of guesswork is allowed to balance out the latter.

Obra Dinn excels at working within its limitations. The two-colour freeze-frame presentation creates a game composed entirely of arresting tableaux that also happens to look period-appropriate, albeit not particularly conducive to the gameplay. The bombastic music nearly sounds like a holdover from the developer’s previous game (Papers, Please), but it still fits, adding gravity and darkly comedic elements to the static imagery. The voice acting isn’t stellar, but it gets the job done. No expense was spared on the design of the ship, however, as it’s a detailed, believable recreation without an inch of wasted space. The game could use a less cumbersome method of traversing and exiting memories, particularly when dealing with memories within memories, but overall, this is a superb example of what auteur game design can accomplish.

Flower

Flower

Playing Flower in 2019 really shows how far art games have come. With obvious inspiration from Passage, this is like the gaming equivalent of Oscar bait – using up a whole lot of artistic talent to say a whole lot of nothing. After an hour of gorgeous scenery and aimless gameplay, the game’s big statement boils down to “beautiful things > not beautiful things.” A lot of elements of the presentation still haven’t been replicated elsewhere, but in some cases, that’s because they don’t work very well. The unorthodox controls effectively capture the intended feeling of weightlessness but don’t lend themselves to the collection gameplay, which feels undercooked and inconsistent even by art game standards. It’s also quite obvious how infantile procedural audio was at this point, as the music often feels disjointed even during the story’s initial relaxing arc.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange

The elevator pitch for Life is Strange is usually “a Telltale-style adventure game where you can rewind time to edit your choices,” but it’s far from a clone. The time travel mechanics are more multifaceted than that, for one thing, as they can be used to imitate premonition and teleportation, among other things. Its gameplay is also peppered with detective segments, its story is filled with potent symbolism, and its unique atmosphere often feels more like an out-of-body experience than a roleplay. The player is more of a companion than a puppeteer to the characters, but when those characters are so three-dimensional, their world so vividly realized, and its relevant subject matter handled so maturely, merely observing it all through a mildly fantastical lens is as engaging as it needs to be.

Befitting its stellar soundtrack, Life is Strange is like a punk or folk song in video game form – a lack of refinement is the price you pay for authenticity. For example, as devastatingly memorable as several sequences are, the amount of ambiguity and red herrings in the plot’s resolution is disappointing. Additionally, the “painted” art style flips between gorgeous and inadequate depending on the subject. Some of the flaws improve over time, however. Episode 1 – Chrysalis is especially bogged down with introduction, and the early episodes’ default gameplay pattern of “Incorrect action >> Rewind >> Correct action” is gradually replaced with more unorthodox puzzles. The voice acting also inadvertently improves too, since events become more dire in later episodes and the side characters become more…well, sidelined.

Devil May Cry 2 HD

Devil May Cry 2 HD

Devil May Cry fans and I have our differences of opinion, but they’re totally right about DMC2. This game is fascinatingly bad. Despite being nearly identical to its predecessor both mechanically and aesthetically, it still manages to be vastly inferior in literally every aspect. The camera and lock-on functions are delegated to an incompetent AI, while the shallower combat makes the controls feel more overcomplicated than ever. The enemies are so brainless and easily stunned, and your ranged weapons are so overpowered, that most skirmishes are resolved by simply mashing or holding the attack buttons until everything else is dead. The exceptions are a handful of boss fights which swing the difficulty to the other extreme with bizarrely unfair strategies. The only worthwhile gameplay contribution here is a dodge button; the new wall-running ability is so spectacularly useless that it doesn’t even count.

The two campaigns share 90% of their content, most of which is aimless, interchangeable levels full of arbitrarily respawning enemies. Playing through both is the only way to have the story make any kind of sense, although it doesn’t get very far in that regard. The plot plays out without any regard for internal logic or coherent structure – there’s no real beginning or ending, and the events of the first game apparently never happened. Dante’s one-off dour personality here is a rightful sore spot with fans, because it erases the unique juxtaposition of gloomy gothic atmosphere and ridiculous anime action, on top of being boring. The HD port fixes nothing, only adding some anti-aliasing and widescreen presentation to visuals that mostly held up anyway. At least the voice acting is so comically horrendous that it lands in “so bad it’s good” territory.

GRIS

GRIS

GRIS is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful games ever released, but it doesn’t have much going for it otherwise. There’s the occasional esoteric puzzle that evokes memories of Braid and FEZ, but much of the gameplay is merely about finding a path through the elaborate level design. Though you’ll accumulate new powers as you progress, they’re all extremely ordinary – double jump, ground pound, swimming, etc. Additionally, while the audio is magnificent, neither it nor the movement controls are suited to a sense of urgency, so the game falls flat when it tries to invoke such a reaction. The lack of a failure state doesn’t help there, either. Most disappointingly, the narrative’s stunning imagery belies an overly simplistic tale that seems inconsistently conveyed.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

I can’t think of any developers I feel sorrier for than those of the Assassin’s Creed series. So much effort goes into their historical research, art direction, and level design, only for the big Ubisoft steamroller to come around and flatten it all into a watery paste. Fans often consider Black Flag to be the franchise’s last gasp of quality, and it’s hard to argue against a premise that’s essentially Red Dead Redemption meets The Wind Waker. But while the series’ dark age may have become overpowering with subsequent releases, it was still obviously on the rise in this installment. The new present-day framing device even comes across as a cry for help, being set in a Montreal-based game studio whose creative decisions are mandated by unseen corporate overlords.

Everything in Black Flag feels like it’s being torn apart by opposing forces. It should be both atmospheric and cinematic, but it can’t because the screen is so plastered with HUD elements.  The free-running feels amazing when it works, but there’s barely any skill to it. The combat is slightly better about the skill issue, but it also feels shallow and artificial beneath all its flair. The 18th- and 21st-century narrative threads complement each other nicely – the former is self-contained and follows a strong character arc, while the latter is an interesting continuation of the overall plot. Unfortunately, standard AC storytelling issues – arbitrary time skips, inconsistent progression, and an unsatisfying ending – still haunt the past segments, while the modern ones offer nothing to do but another timesink of asinine hacking minigames.

The expanded naval gameplay from AC3 is a well-advised focus this time. Ship combat is surprisingly deep and engaging, while harpooning and diving missions are novel additions. All of these things, along with all other things in this game, will become needlessly repetitive after only a few hours, however. I was actually astonished that there were no single-player microtransactions to be seen; the variety of grindy resource-accumulation tasks, particularly in the dreary fleet management minigame, seemed totally designed with them in mind. Bizarrely, ships are nowhere to be found in the game’s multiplayer, which is as clever a merger of stealth and deathmatch gameplay as ever, but is clearly just coasting on its predecessors’ foundations at this point.

Hundreds

Hundreds

Hundreds is probably the best mobile game I’ve played, which is absurd, because I played the Android version, whose final 2014 update caused unavoidable crashing beyond level 60-something (out of 100). I could list the exact ramifications and internal arguments that inform my overall opinion, but the gist is that, prior to that cut-off point (and presumably after it on iOS), this game was wall-to-wall quality, and I regret nothing about its purchase.

Realized through stunning minimalism, Hundreds is built, like many classic puzzle games, on a strangely compelling mechanic that doesn’t really click until you get it in your hands. Pressing numbered circles to inflate their total size to 100 without overlapping doesn’t sound special, but when those circles bounce around amid a variety of clever patterns and objects, it becomes completely engrossing. These tools and obstacles include sawblades, object-freezing snowflakes, and circles featuring pause buttons, negative numbers, and tethers, among other things. All of these mechanics work together with excellent use of a multitouch interface to create a stimulating experience for both sides of the brain. Touches and time used to complete each level are recorded, which seems like a missed opportunity for some kind of challenge mode, and there’s a small cryptology subgame that’s totally pointless, but those are my only complaints – crashing issues aside.

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is the best type of game – one that uses a solid template as a jumping-off point for a host of crazy ideas. The template in this case is Metroid, and the crazy ideas include weaponizing in-universe glitches, phasing through walls, and exploring caves with a rifle-mounted drill. It should be an amazing nostalgic love letter, but seemingly everything that makes it awesome has a caveat attached to it. There are over a dozen weapons, but none of them are remotely balanced. The aesthetics are a nearly flawless NES recreation, but that means the environments are a pixelated jumble and the audio is unbearably screechy. The controls are excellent, except for the later movement abilities, which all handle terribly.

Much has been made of Thomas Happ’s one-man development effort, and with good reason: he clearly knows what makes this genre tick. Between the setting and the enemies, I haven’t seen a game world feel so completely alien since the last Metroid Prime. Between that and the meaty challenge (excepting some uneven boss fights), this 8-bit side-scroller can be uncommonly frightening. The one sector where Happ should definitely do some outsourcing is storytelling, however. After an intriguing first half, the plot abruptly implodes, with nonsensical twists involving every imaginable sci-fi cliché. It’s possible this was meant as another layer of homage, because it’s the kind of stream-of-consciousness schlock that informed 80s video games. In that case, mission accomplished, unfortunately.

Kirby’s Dream Course

Kirby’s Dream Course

A contender for most underappreciated game ever, Kirby’s Dream Course is usually described as a Kirby golf game, but it’s more accurate to call it a full Kirby game that happens to incorporate golf mechanics. That’s an important distinction, because it makes Dream Course a complete, rewarding, and original title instead of a branded reskin of an existing product. A variety of terrain effects and unusual takes on the protagonist’s copy abilities make the single-player content here an unexpected treat. The level design in particular is sublime; the copy abilities that often ruin the structure of these games are deliberately laid out here to allow the execution of satisfying chain reactions.

Remarkably, Dream Course would be perfectly serviceable even if it was just a straight golf title. The presentation is clean, the audio is enjoyable, and the physics are far more manageable than the more complex 3D systems of today. This makes it possible to consistently pull off impressive shots but leaves enough unpredictability to prevent mechanical repetition. There’s also a surprisingly full-featured two-player mode that adds power- and point-stealing mechanics, inviting the kind of wacky fun you don’t normally get from turn-based gameplay. The controls can be a little confusing (it’s an isometric SNES game after all), and the lone boss fight at the finale is pathetic, but overall, this experiment paid off handsomely.

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods

I want to like Night in the Woods a lot more than I do. It’s basically Persona with all the anime sucked out, which should be the bee’s knees. Its story and characters are exceptionally well-written and memorable, not to mention unexpectedly topical (cosmic horror elements notwithstanding). It’s frequently hilarious, but it also understands when to get serious in order to grab our attention or make a point. It’s got a unique atmosphere that sways between pleasantly familiar, wistfully reminiscent, and decidedly creepy. Even its aimless, minimal gameplay avoids the trap of feeling token and instead reinforces the slice-of-life tone.

The problem is how inaccessible a lot of this quality is. Navigating the setting feels like a chore in every sense of the word. Slow player movement and inconvenient level design provide an inherently boring baseline, and an incredibly arbitrary distinction between foreground and background sprinkle a touch of frustration on top. Most problematically, the game’s system of missable daily character events demands the development of rigorous travel patterns, turning most of the experience into a veiled checklist. There’s definitely something special to Night in the Woods, but it’s going to make you work to appreciate it.