Since The Riobux Yearly Awards list last year, wow, things have occurred. Both good, and a bit of bad. I had stopped doing my analytical blogs as writer's block hit me hard as...well...as hard as an ailment hitting me harder and harder over time, making it impossible to work on the project alone. So it lies on the back burner still, as a project I hope to return to one day but not any time soon. Shame really, as I had hoped one day it would make the transition to video like a poor man's ExtraCredits.
I also had to turn my back on my first employer: Gamers Honest Truth. Truth be told, the most frustrating and disheartening part about it is the lack of closure. Just one day the work e-mail stops working, then my boss stops going on Steam. Just like that, gone, without being told. Instead I now partially work out of Bagogames who, well, less said the better.
Despite this, I had my first dabble into video work in the form of doing some Twitch streams. I had to stop though due to internet speed difficulties (apparently I kept buffering). Despite not returning yet, I still plan to make the transition to video in some form (Let's Plays or reviews, or maybe both!). I also got to do event coverage, which is just as messy and exhausting as it is wonderful. Games weren't that weird alien force hiding in the cellar and only for nerds when I was growing up, but I never came across the enthusiasm I did going to EGX Rezzed and EGX (the latter as press). Honestly, I highly recommend going to a convention if you can.
It really helps if your first convention is medium-sized. That way you have a lot of delicious games there, but none of the hour-long queues so you can get your bearings.
In addition I experimented with doing a written Let's Play series, which coincidentally turned out to be my first time getting paid for journalism content ($5 a week). Despite hoping to wrap the damn thing up by the year's end, being bogged down trying to level from 20 to 30 has really put a wrench in my plans. So I'll be trying to level that up in the meanwhile and see if I can complete it by the year's beginning. Who knows? Might even do a second series if people would like more, or maybe even go into video.
So, let's get on with the 2nd year edition of my Yearly Awards. In case you weren't about last year: I'll have a top five and, because you must take the good times with the bad (like cinnamon whiskey with 30 year old rusty Billy Beer), a bottom five of the year. Naturally, some games may not be on the list due to me not playing it or me not playing it enough to feel sold (e.g. I only played 20 minutes of Undertale, before realising I still need to work on Venture into the Borderlands which is always over-due and I'm sorry). I also have a Lifetime Award and Cautionary Tale Award for games who's excellence or foulness transcend time, space and logic. Last year Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward got my Lifetime Award for narrative prowess and Clive Barker's Jericho got the Cautionary Tale Award for being a monument to characterisation failures (because sexist/racist/homophobic banter is great and Clive Barker has never met a schizophrenic).
So, less yapping, more slapping...Of awards... GO! TOP 5!
5. The Witcher 3
Like finding out your chocolate coin is a real £2 coin.
Working out what made onto the list was a lot harder than last year. I had to boil it down from 10+ to 5 as well as some special recommendations, although the top 3 was pretty easy to work out. Just plenty of games either scratched just the perfect itch for me or managed to hit that type of atypical excellence.
The Witcher series has never been a kind friend to me in the past, the type to stuff dog poo into chocolate wrappers and tell me “NO, THIS TIME, IT IS REALLY GOOD!”. The first one was like an eugenics experiment of RPG and action games, with all the worst traits of both left in. I had tried to play the second one, but a mixture of hardware difficulties and awkward keyboard/mouse gameplay made me just shuffle off in want of something more enjoyable. So when I put down £50 for The Witcher 3 during my post-EGX shopping before I left Birmingham, it was a risk for me.
Yet, I admit I didn't expect how well The Witcher 3 plays out. The combat, cranked up to Death March (which I play at because I'm a glutton to having my skull hollowed out for a drinking vessel), feels tense as every single combat from minion grunt to boss could very well be your last. The narrative is surprisingly effective, always ready to gut-punch you more and more as though trying to drill their fist to your spine through the front. After I was done with The Red Baron (which, from beginning to end, is just a downer), I thought that was the high note of what the game could offer. While it was, it isn't by much as the game manages to constantly come close through its tragedies that fortunately avoid fatigue. Considering the game is 40+ hours, this is a hell of an achievement. While it doesn't manage to hit me on a personal level, as I never was into the series up to this point, it definitely delivers by the droves on a technical level.
4. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Like finding out that essay you wrote in a night just got 90+%.
A good game gives you something you want, a great game gives you something you didn't know you wanted. Ever since Hotline Miami exploded onto the scene with blood-soaked nostalgia, I've had three itches that makes me always purr gently upon being scratched: 80s music/references, ultra-violence and anything peculiar. I still listen to the 80s-inspired soundtrack, remembering the acid-trip-inspired rampages I'd go on. The sequel Wrong Number, coincidentally, matches it wonderfully. While it sagged in departments like glitchiness, AI problems and lacking the spontaneous improvisation of the first (as you are forced to a play-style on each level), it makes up for it with its narrative, greater gameplay style variation and length.
Would I want a third Hotline Miami game? Probably not really, as you can see how the developers tried perhaps a bit harder than they needed to and maybe didn't show as much care as they previously did (e.g. AI). Do we need one? Not at all, as the first and Wrong Number offer unique enough experiences that a third addition would likely fail to add anything wanted or unique. Would I buy a third one? God yes, especially with the brilliant soundtrack the games are able to bring thumping to the beat of my foot crushing a guard's skull.
3. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Like proposing to your partner, only to find out they were planning to propose to you too.
Speaking of finales to a series, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (for all its ills) is a perfect send-off. Sure it ends a bit abrupt with dangling plot-points, obviously is missing content and has a twist that on the surface is ridiculous. However, to me, that is okay. What is there is astounding in detail with enough content to make a sea look like a dusty barren wasteland, only outmatched by The Witcher 3. As empty as the story feels for veterans, especially fans of MGS 4 which water-boards you with story, I still enjoy it in its state. It feels sparse enough to not feel like I'm being assaulted with words, but often enough to feel like I'm progressing. When the story does happen, there isn't a wasted scene, as some form of characterisation is always happening. On top of this lies the tapes if you desire more.
The twist, without going into detail of what it is, is to me the cherry on top. The perfect send off a series as batshit as Metal Gear Solid is could want. It is closure, a heart-felt message and double-meaning in a way that makes Spec Ops: The Line blush. It feels sappy, but it works as not only an ending but a final departure message by Kojima. The series is now dead, it has moved on (as much as Konami is trying to make people believe otherwise), but it has left a monument where it once stood. Best of all, it has provided closure rather than ending abruptly; and that is something rare in an industry that is always looking at the horizon rather than admitting that perhaps the story has ended. It takes guts to say the story is complete, and I thank you Kojima (even if it was out of your control) for doing that.
2. Life is Strange
Like making a lucky investment and making trillions from it.
C'mon, you must have known this would be on the list. If you had heard me rambling in the various recaps, you'd know that Life is Strange is an episodic game series that has just warmed my heart in a meaningful way. Rather than going with the Hollywood style of writing that has been seen all too much, it went with a Garden State style that feels quaint, believable and charming.
Even as insane as the story is (and at times it does feel like paint huffing), it draws me in more and more with its heart-felt tale. It feels less like a story about time-manipulation and more focused in on a high-school girl trying to find her way through it while juggling school-politics, without feeling like a cheesy after-school special. It also has the incredible ability to provided commentary on real-world situations like suicide, euthanasia and date-rate, always managing to provide a viewpoint that feels complete enough while shuffling away before it dominates the episode. I still feel let down the final episode was as rushed as it was, not only in terms of time left to develop it but also time left in the game, but episodes 3 and 4 still excel enough to deserve a place on the list.
The lucky investment from before? That was a cancer cure, so you will go down in history.
I don't know if you remember the chat last year or a recap I did about GotY awards, but I did flit between giving technical best or allowing other factors to seep in like gas in a World War 1 trench. In the end, after a lot of pondering, I decided to allow other factors like personal enjoyment and “game I wish people actually played” to come into play. At that point, picking number one was rather easy.
Lemma, for the many of you who are still confused at the weird word I'm blurting, is an indie version of Mirror's Edge. Except swap out the cinematic nature, and in its place allow you to create your own ledges while on the move. The non-player aesthetic is like a parkour mod for Minecraft, complete with the occasional awkward animation, and the story is a bit short with a difficulty spike so sharp you could impale yourself on it out of frustration.
However, and this is a big thundering “however”, everything else in it works in ways that put Mirror's Edge to absolute shame. It has a free-roaming feel to it, telling you to solve the puzzle however you wish making whatever platforms you want, rather than the linear set-pieces. This platform creation is done on the run, allowing you to never break flow. It has a narrative that, while not entirely interesting, does allow for an ending choice.
On a more personal level, it was also the first time I ever felt an atmosphere had managed to oppress me hard enough to feel intense melancholy from it. One level in particular, Forest, managed to combine together the gentle pinging of an xylophone and heavy instrumental breathing with a forest that looks unnatural and dead. Addicted to just how nice the level was, in that haunting purgatory sense, I kept revisiting it over and over. Pushed away by atmospheric misery, but drawn in yet again to wander its woods. I even started trying to speed run, something I had never had any interest in doing prior, trying to beat the music before it gently fades away.
Considering it boasts not only the campaign but also a level editor (which I admit is as user-friendly as licking a live claymore is), you might have thought there was an actual team behind it. The truth is an overwhelming majority of the game was done by a singular person: Evan Todd. A game that might actually put Mirror's Edge 1, and possibly 2, in a tough competition was mostly by one person. Sure unpolished, it also definitely has faults, but it is a travesty how hard this game flew under the radar.
It would be nothing short of a shame if you allow this game to ride by, unnoticed and unloved. I can only hope there will be a Lemma 2 one day, a version with more polish and more resources.
Before we leap into the Riobux's Lifetime Award, there are a few (well, quite a few) games that sadly didn't make the list but deserve acknowledgement in no order:
Bloodborne: I am forever in love with From Software's ability to depict a grim dark fantasy world. While I have no hope to ever complete one, just the mere struggle before I turn hollow is enough to sate that love.
Steamworld Heist: This is the perfect example of a game that justifies why I always feel awkward making my GotY list prior to January. Released on the 10th of December for 3DS, it is a fantastic colourful steampunk game that challenges you to not only position yourself well but also to aim for the head of your foes. It seeps charisma with each gush of steam that comes out of its various valves, offers many ways to approach combat with a variety of team-mates and allows you to grind if you're having a tough time with a level. If I had to do top 6 rather than top 5, this probably would have made the list.
The Beginner's Guide: I admit I played this the same day I'm going to be posting this (the 4th of January, with a bit of luck), but got a 2015 release. This likely would have hit the top 5 if I wrote this list after I got a chance to sit down with the game by the writer of The Stanley Parable (rather than after the final draft was made), one that I'm still not sure is true or not. I don't want to spoil anything about it, just it made me feel horrid, ill and guilty in a good way.
Tales from the Borderlands: Funny how for the past few years Telltale Games has easily made it into my top 5, and now their best game of the year rests as a special mention. While humorous and dramatic, it also manages to balance these polarising sides with great skill. However, it falters on a few forced dramatic moments and never managed to connect on a personal level to me.
Tormentum – Dark Sorrow: While its narrative never goes beyond a light side of “good” in its depiction of an undying world that begs to be put down, it is the aesthetic that just makes it beam brightly from its foreboding lair. Even though the world is nightmarish and gloomy, it still manages to depict it with colour and an imagination that would make From Software blush in forbidden delight.
Grim Fandango: Remastered: A 27th of January re-release of an old classic that before I never got a chance to try, I recall finding it excellent on a level I didn't expect. I walked in thinking it will have aged badly, with awkward puzzles so obtuse that newcomers (e.g. me) can't comprehend it and a thoughtless narrative as a comedy/puzzle vehicle. Instead while its puzzles can be a stumbling drunk at times, garbling inane nonsense at you, it excels in every other way as it blends tragedy and silliness into a delicious writing smoothie. Aahh, delicious.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong: I knew it was going to be good. Despite never finishing it, I had a good time with Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. However, Hong Kong was the first time I was drawn in to see the tale to the end. I don't know what did it really. The cast of characters (including a particular salesman as a grim reflection of depression), the over-arching plot or maybe even the polished gameplay? It might have even been my review obligation to finish something before writing that did it. Either way, it kept me engaged from beginning to end, hoping for more like a Victorian orphan child.
Last Word: Fitting this is the last special mention. What it loses out in...Just about everything, it makes up for it with an unique approach to combat. Imagine fighting competitors off with words rather than with violence. I really hope the developer revisits the mechanic and expands on it.
Now we have those final stars of the year's constellation acknowledged, it is time we delve into the Riobux Lifetime Award. This can be rewarded to any game of any year. Last year I gave it to Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward for not only delivering on a narrative that had an astounding attention to detail, but also for what it meant to me on a personal level. This year was a bit more harder for me, I admit. There were a few games that sprung to mind for various reasons (personal and technical), but eventually I arrived at one game.
The 2nd Riobux Lifetime Award goes to...
… Mount & Blade: Warband!
While last year I celebrated a game that took writing to a whole new level, I wanted to this year celebrate a game that went above and beyond in a mechanic way that transcends time. This of course came with the predictable problem of “beyond design, technical details tend to age badly”. However, Mount & Blade: Warband has shown that it has lasting power.
The main campaign mode has you as a random individual who is plodded into a medieval field with vaguely historically-familiar countries and told “go”. Naturally this is as friendly as pushing a 2 year old off a boat in the middle of the sea and told “see you on land, bye!”. However, if you can crawl beyond it through the waves and not get ganked by the sharks, you are promised an adventure. No, this wouldn't be the type of adventure where the game tells you what you are, what you will become and what you will need to do.
Instead, you are allowed to do what you wish. Want to become a rich merchant? Go for it. Want to become a lord under a king, therefore earning land through wars? Nothing stopping you. Want to even become king/queen of all the land? Then sharpen your sword, pick your favourite crowd and ride on you cunning bastard. There is no end-game (except maybe conquering the land, but the game wouldn't announce you won) and you wouldn't get any story beyond vague inter-character banter written with the same enthusiasm you use for writing shopping lists. Rather, you pick when the game ends and you venture out to forge your own story.
Although, just like the Cblog Editor currently, Mount & Blade: Warband isn't known for being glitch-free.
If this was the extent of the game, as well as a relatively okay multiplayer, then it would be an alright game. Something to pick up on the cheap, dawdle with it and stumble off to the latest Call of Battlefield game. However, the modding scene in Mount & Blade is astounding. Imagine fighting off waves of waves of orcs using a Space Marine machine-gun, or maybe instead killing each other with Napoleonic weaponry (including musicians that increase the abilities of those around you), or perhaps even a multiplayer mode where from match to match you earn money and XP to level up and buy better gear with. There are over 300 mods, each catering to single player, multiplayer or both. Some may say there are too many mods, that you have too much choice and that some choices are too small to differentiate, but I think those people are tossers.
So, for being able to allow players to forge the tale they wish to tell in a sandbox medieval land, as well as for harbouring a mod scene gigantic in size, Mount & Blade: Warband gets my second Lifetime Award.
Now with the good news tucked away and delivered, it is time we get to the sour points of the year. These are the games who only serve for me as a reminder of a tedious time spent with something twisted and malformed, like the Christmas Day meal with the family. It is fortunate most of the games on this list are somewhat obscure ones, and it is my hope they stay that way.
Like finding out your £2 coin is actually a chocolate coin wrapper with faeces inside.
While I knew my top 3 easily, it was the bottom two that seemed to exist as “technically okay, but still worst of the year” territory. RONIN was one such game, where even the £9.99 price point encourages “um”s and “ah”s. The story is generally uninteresting, the gameplay at times punishing rather than difficult and the levelling up mechanic begged for more polish. The only thing that it had going for it was the aesthetic style, and even that seemed born from outside the developer than from within. As a game published by Devolver Digital, I definitely expected much more than a dull slog.
4. There Came an Echo
Like spending months upon months on your 10k+ word dissertation, only to get a 39% (1% under a pass).
It was definitely an ambition game, one that experimented with vocal commands to control your troops in a real-time strategy scenario. While it wouldn't change the world as it still is an inaccurate form of gameplay, you can really tell they worked hard on getting voice commands to work. Even going as far as to include options such as what regional accent you may be sporting to aid the voice recognition, which is wonderful.
Everything thing else, however, is a cynical disaster. From a voice cast who offers absolutely nothing except a cold reminder that the videogame industry is sometimes more about “who you know” than ability; to a story that attempts to do something more but suffocates under bland writing (e.g. the characterisation can be summed up as a non-offensive version of Clive Barker's Jericho). Everything feels cold.
This doesn't hit the list as hard as it does due to some terrible mistake, as even the failings aren't bad enough to doom it (well, maybe that characterisation...), but due to how much of a corporate project it feels like beyond the voice communication. The characters feel like Joss Whedon on an off-day as they're all smug argumentative twits competing in a “who can be an archetype the hardest” competition, the plot is a generic blockbuster film and the simplicity of everything else reaches beyond accessibility to sanding down the corners so the children don't fall over and crack their skulls open. By the end, I wondered if anyone looked at the script at any point to proof-read it (at least beyond the writer themselves), and I hope in the future they do a QA on ideas so everything doesn't feel like a sociopath's brain child.
3. Evoland 2
Like opening your anniversary gift from your partner, only to find divorce papers within.
Evoland 2, summed up to its rawest materials, is like a stand-up comedian who spends the entire set reminiscing about “the good old days”; except they begin to veer off-course violently and starts to speak with whimsy about something six months ago as though it was a decade ago. While Evoland used its nostalgia to make a point and story, Evoland 2 used older games for no purpose except as a crutch. Even then, on top of this, each mini-game recreation of something older offered at least one flaw that trampled over fun like what few plants still exist in Glastonbury.
While it could be seen as more value for money, as it is a lengthy game, the question gets raised of “do you prefer 8 litres of acrid lard slosh to gulp down or a steak meal?”. I would have preferred it to be significantly shorter if the quality per moment was better, but Evoland 2 disregards such a concept to the winds along with its dignity.
2. Valhalla Hills
Like investing in an eugenics/gay-conversion therapy program under an alias, hoping to get rich, only to instead become bankrupt and known in the public as an absolute pillock.
One of the worst things a game can be is dull. It can be buggy, obnoxious or perhaps even offensive, however if it is boring that is the moment it gets shoved into a coffin and the nails hammered down. Valhalla Hills, beyond its dreadful AI, tedious challenges and lack of a structured campaign mode, is one such game. Ten minutes felt like an hour of my life had been sucked out violently, as I could never sense any progression or if there was an end. Instead it was meaningless drivel as you used the same tactics over and over with mild alterations, and only manages to remind me of the fun I could have with the Tropico series. So well done with the advert for their game.
1. Corpse Party: Blood Drive
The owner of the eugenics/gay-conversation therapy program you invested in has now used the money to run for leadership. Which on the back of the money you invested in the original program they get elected and usher in an age of bigotry, violence and totalitarianism that would have made Stalin, Pol Pot and Yoweri Museveni blush.
I admit, I perhaps walked into this one. I played through the first Corpse Party and had a really good time, bathing in the insane gore it had going on and lavishing in how bleak the story was. After playing through the sequel, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, I was already peeved by what felt like an absolute narrative mess compared to the first. However, knowing Blood Drive would be the finale, I was curious about getting it. First I tried to obtain a review copy with no luck. Then, during the Christmas Sale, I bought Blood Drive for myself.
I knew it was a bad sign when five minutes in the game seems to forget details about Book of Shadows's ending, as though it was a bad dream. However, I persevered. Then the other things begun to bug me. There was the inappropriate aesthetic (because nothing says tragedy like a smiling chibi character debating jumping off the school roof to kill themselves so they may join their non-existant friend), the lack of any real gore like the art work from prior parts and Wrong Ends that felt cut off compared to previously where your mistake was brutally drawn out.
What confirmed this as the worst game of the year was its narrative. You have new characters who act like anime tropes, old ones that are flanderised and some from either camp behaving in ways that do not make sense to their development. You have a plot that struggles to find a reason to drag itself out longer after the first game wrapped everything up, convenience to ensure it does last for the full game and way too much time spent outside the horror segments.
The removal of the gore art-work, the inclusion of inappropiate chibi aesthetic and a narrative so lazily written it is likely coincidentally the plot of twenty other animes renders Corpse Party: Blood Drive an absolute mess that forgets its strong points: Its gore and its coherant bleak horror narrative. If Corpse Party: Book of Shadows killed the series through its unfocused narrative, Blood Drive digs up the corpse to have its way with its rotting organs before trying to raise it from the dead as a fragile falling-apart intellectually-useless golem creature.
The true tragedy of the failure though are the small brief windows of clarity from it. Naomi/Seiko still proceeds to be the highlight since Book of Shadows, and with Naomi driven half insane out of despair, grief and frustration it makes for an interesting tragic tale. However, for what seems to amount to half an hour of a 20 hour ride, it is far from enough to save this game from being a disaster designed not even for Corpse Party fans. I can only hope this series dies, stays dead and never re-emerges from its unhallowed grounds. If it does reappear, then I really can only hope it will be reborn as something new like a phoenix; rather than something akin to Frankenstein's Monster's unholy mimicry of its older forms.
Before we jump into the award, I would like to extend a special mention to Aviary Attorney for the unique situation of releasing a full game without the ending. It was a gutsy move, one that was an alternative to just delaying it until it was ready, but I feel it paid off in successfully leaving players bewildered.
And now we arrive at the final part, awarding the 2nd Riobux Cautionary Tale Award. This doesn't necessarily go out to the worst game to grace people's gaming devices with the dignity and elegance of a nuclear strike. Instead, this goes out to games who failed to such a colossal extent in at least one department that it will be remembered in the future as less of an example of a gaming experience and more ways to inflict psychological warfare. So, without further ado, let's get to the reveal of who wins this award.
The 2nd Riobux Cautionary Tale Award goes to...
Just like with the Lifetime award, I thought I'd go with something more mechanical in its failures rather than the writing wreck that was Clive Barker's Jericho (as written unironically and non-nostalgic in the style of an 80s horror film). That isn't to suggest Vampire Rain is competently written by any stretch of the imagination, just it manages to succeed at the lofty goal of “not being offensive to everyone”.
What distinguishes Vampire Rain as an absolute mess is its bizarre stealth mechanics. I like to think we're at a consensus of how stealth in a game should work: You either give me no tools so I am helpless against a monster that absolutely hates me (thus recreating times when I used to be babysat), or you give me tools to neutralise the threat that for whatever reason is discouraged (e.g. score, limited resources or Dishonoured's ending system). Either system creates different moods and atmospheres depending on different degrees of powerlesssness, while also informing us on the narrative in the process.
What we definitely don't do is get given tools for the job that may as well be a straw and some chewed up paper against Azathoth. We don't get given an assault rifle, told we're a special operations group and then find out all-too-late that assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and other military-grade weapons we have just aren't powerful enough to combat vampires. This ends up giving the an illusion of power that quickly evaporates when you try to use it, something that feels disjointed next to how you're a professional squad against vampire threats.
“But Riobux, what if they're holding onto all these weapons in case something else crops up, something they can combat with said assault rifles and shotguns? Like a Lovecraftian investigator?”. Interesting you use that specific example my hypothetical friend, as it only serves to make being given military-grade gear ever more jarring. The idea of a Lovecraftian protagonist having a handgun tends to be more of a symbolic power idea, a form of protection, with the knowledge it can never be practically used against Lovecraftian abominations (except to blow your own head off with if you go too nutty). So instead, in the Vampire Rain scenario, the characters have weaponry that only serves to weigh them down and make stealthily sneaking by vampires oh so much harder.
At this point, I'm not even sure what the hell I'm looking at.
The rest of the game is a diabolical slog as well. Plot is dull, multiplayer had power-imbalance problems and the sneaking mechanics were awkward to handle. Just the idea of giving you something that holds little to no use just adds a cautionary tale about the deployment of weapons: If you're going to have them, please make them of some remote use.
And like that, 2015 is gone and we're entering into the wonderful world of 2016. I admit, I struggle to think how 2016 will top 2015 for having a large selection of games that are not only fun but as well interesting, thought-provoking and unique. Who knows though? Part of what made 2015 exciting for me was the amount of wondrous games that suddenly appeared or turned out to be more up my street than I originally thought it would (especially Metal Gear Solid 5 and Witcher 3). Plus, 2016 has Zero Escape 3: Zero Time Dilemma which I'm incredibly excited to see.
Was there any games I forgot or didn't include because I didn't play it (or play it enough)? Leave a comment telling me off for it. Who knows? I might visit it during this year. Until then, I'll see you next week for the Sunday Recap.