After going through like 150 hours of JRPGs back to back at the end of last year, I was kinda tired of commitment, but I still wanted the satisfaction of getting games out of my backlog at a steady pace. So instead of my usual MO of alternating between JRPGs and anything else, I decided to turn things on their head and go digging for crap that could either pleasantly surprise me or be terminated from the backlog after like an hour of play.
I could do this because I've picked up a lot of freebies on Steam and GOG over the years that have been rotting away in my backlog for the longest time. Games given away for free for a limited time are often not the best for obvious reasons, but there were still some interesting stuff there. Alpha Protocol & Sleeping Dogs were interesting enough to earn themselves reviews earlier this month, but a lot of these are worth little more than a paragraph. So I decided group together the games as much as possible to talk about the ones I disliked and which ones were just delightful.
Horror is such a sad excuse of a genre these days. Gone are the genre-defining AAA-titles, replaced with a veritable tidal wave of indie crap that can rarely afford mechanics and doesn't know a jumpscare from a tension-building background shriek. That's ever so slightly hyperbolic, but tell me, what outside of Dead Space, The Evil Within and SOMA (more on that further down) has even tried to show the horror genre some money lately? There was The Medium recently, but that seems like a misguided flop of a title. And wouldn't you know it, the devs behind it did one of the games I'm gonna shit on now!
COLINA: Legacy starts off well enough, with you waking up in a old house full of eldritch artefacts that you use to solve puzzles. But as I went on and ran in circles trying to figure out which puzzles were actually solvable at the start of the game, I grew all the more frustrated with it. I applaud the realistic amount of game space, but it just felt like they modeled the house first and then randomly placed puzzles with next to no thought about direction or progression. And after cheating my way past a couple of puzzles, I was assaulted by an enemy that killed me because the tool-tip telling me what flashlight can deal damage was like 40 minutes ago. Suffice to say, I did not feel bad quitting after that.
The next game on the list, Distraint, was one I did complete, since it's so simplistic and short. It's a 2d horror game that depicts a man's descent into madness as he sells his soul to capitalism. That's about it, it's as basic as it sounds. There really isn't anything to dig into beyond the initial premise and it's not very scary either.
I had decent expectations for Yume Nikki, since it's somewhat famous, but I could not get into it at all. It's this aimless creepy dream simulator where you sort of have to find your own fun. There is allegedly a way to make progress, but I gave up almost immediately.
Then there's Bloober Team's Layers of Fear. What a joke. It's basically a metaphysical haunted house experience dragged out well beyond its means. I like the trick of warping space when you look somewhere else, but not when that's all the game is!
And then it came to my attention that the game is a PT clone full of stolen artwork and is a game in a long line of games built on the premises and mechanics of other games! I disliked the game itself, but now I kinda hate the dev team to boot.
Continuing on from Layers of Fear, there is also Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs to discuss. In a similar vein, it is also a wildly ineffectual walking sim horror game. The difference being that it's a sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent made by a different developer with most of the mechanics stripped out. I like it more than Layers of Fear, but it has so little bite. Not to mention that it's quite short and isn't as interesting as the original game.
Comparatively, the game Frictional made themselves after Amnesia 1 manages to be sorta scary on a visceral level, while being absolutely terrifying on a philosophical level. SOMA also strips out mechanics, leaving the player with little more than audio-based stealth and a mere 2 hit points to play around with. But just like the original Amnesia, it manages to maintain excellent pacing as you explore the story and learn just how bad things are. Goes to show what difference good direction and good writing makes.
I avoided chunky RPGs, but I still made room for a pair of smaller ones. The Last Remnant is a weird piece of software that I simply must talk about. If I understand things correctly, it's an offbrand Tactics Ogre game, but it also looks a hell of a lot like FFXII, so I have no idea what Square Enix were on when they made it.
And that's before I get to the mechanics, which are either based heavily on chance or completely obfuscated from the player. This is a tactical RPG where proximity determines what actions you can potentially take in which you can't fully control your movement. And leveling happens through some satanic mix of the Skyrim and FF2 leveling systems! Suffice to say, it's not a pleasant set of mechanics to engage with.
There are some cool aspects to it, like Emma's battle with the Conqueror and the way you unlock bonus areas through sidequests, but the whole thing is severly undercooked. What I wouldn't give for the ability to go back in time and show Square Enix how a regular human being outside of their demented dev bubble would react to the dumb shit they put into the game.
Look me in the eyes and tell me this isn't just Rabanastre from FFXII.
Shadowrun Returns was refreshingly focused and humane in its design in comparison. It's sadly quite limited as far as WRPGs go, as the options outside of combat are next to non-existant. But it was still an enjoyable linear peek into the Shadowrun universe and I should probably give the sequels a look later. I played Fallout earlier last year and this managed to sand down a lot of rough edges with the WRPG interface. Still wan't perfect though, as talking to people always took one more click than it should have. Why must clicking on the correct thing and getting the desired result be so hard in this genre?
I'm not the biggest fan of rogue-likes (or rogue-lites for that matter), as I'm very much in the "guided deterministic experience" camp. And my experience with RAD certainly did my opinion of the genre no favours. The hipster apocalypse aesthetic combined with the unengaging progression made me nope out real quick. But then I played A Flame in the Flood.
I thought this was some trippy narrative experience, but it's actually a really comfy rogue-like that lets you pass on a small amount of items between playthroughs and even has a checkpoint system since a single run is so long.
You play as a scout making her way down a giant river through a flooded USA. On the way, you need to manage food, clothing and your raft. After I got mauled to death by boars, the game finally clicked and I carved my way through the ravaged land. Once you've figured out the basics of survival and gotten a few upgrades, it's incredibly pleasant. Sadly, it's a bit repetetive, as there are only so many assets, but it showed me how the genre can work for me.
The other game that did that was the rogue-lite Ziggurat, which I thought would be something like Orcs Must Die. This was not the case, as it's an FPS about wizards, which is such an underutilized concept! It's really neat, but I quickly came to the conclusion that a run is doomed unless you get lucky enough to get enough defensive or offensive upgrades to beat the final boss. Everything else can often be dealt with without much trouble, but the final boss is such a wall unless you have the exact perks you need. Which is pretty hard, since there are tons of perks and you usually only get to pick between two. I'm curious about how the sequel is shaping up on early access.
So here's an interesting sequence of games I played. Stories: The Path of Destinies is a really lackluster games built from the bones of the other two games listed in that headline. It revolves around replaying routes and making choices (not unlike Shadow the Hedgehog actually) in order to reach a bunch of endings. Sadly, even though I accidentally guessed my way to the true ending really quickly, I still feel like the game is severely lacking in assets. I beat it in 4.5 hours and I still reran through a bunch of levels.
And the only thing you do in these levels is engage in counter-based Batman combat that's easily broken while listening to the poor narrator trying to play all the characters in the story. I like how each story branch really makes your choice seem like the smartest one through some very impressive mental gymnastics, but the actual story isn't very good. If they combined aspects from every branch, then you'd probably end up with a good story.
So after that debacle, I decided to play the source of the game's inspirations, starting with Arkham Asylum. I remember playing the demo back in the day and writing the game off as "just a dumb brawler" and moving on. This was before I had my action game revelation with Demon's Souls and Devil May Cry. But due to my affinity for Japananese action games, I had a real tough time adapting to the systems in Arkham Asylum.
There's a lot of fluff in the game that distracted me from the core of "do combo->counter->cash out combo for an instant takedown->repeat". It's a very simple system which randomly allows you to interrupt attacking enemies with your own attacks, which felt really wrong to me. That's obviously because the counter button exists and should be used instead, which is basically a legal cheat when compared to the parrying systems I'm used to. I've been told that the latter games refine the combat, so I'll give my copy of Arkham Origins a spin later and buy City for myself as well.
After Stories, Bastion's narration was a dose of fresh air. Instead of just going on about current events, the game weaves together player actions with some well-written backstory that paints this excellent picture of loss and grandeur and does the smart thing of never having the narrator voice the other characters in the story. Said story wasn't much to my liking, but I applaud the craftmanship and voice direction. The combat was good too.
So, here are a pair of beloved sequels I didn't like. And something tells me I wouldn't like the originals either. Hopefully I can explain myself before I summon any pitchforks and torches.
I've had a few run-ins with the Sonic franchise over the years, but nothing has really stuck to me aside from its excellent music. So when Sega gave out Sonic 2 for free, I was interested in giving classic Sonic a fair shake for the first time in 20 years. Sadly, my asumptions about how I'd feel about it turned out to be true. The focus on speed with such a zoomed-in camera just doesn't work. And the jump physics are so annoying that they made me quit in Chemical Plant zone. I'm still interested in seeing the ways Spark: The Electric Jester tries to modernize this school of platforming, but unless it has a camera that scales with speed I'll probably dislike that too. The 3d one aping after Sonic ADventure looked cool though.
In the whole Dark Souls difficulty discussion, Hotline Miami has come up as a counter example on how to do difficulty by minimizing retry time to almost nothing. But since it goes for an arcade setup that values perfection, I couldn't get into it at all. It's just so hard to manage the location of the enemies and react to them properly in time before dying instantly. The nonsensical vaporwave story wasn't for me either.
I'm of the opinion that the Ratchet & Clank franchise (alongside other platformers I should review this year) is an underappreciated series. The games are usually incredibly solid and provide a laid-back blend of platforming and third-person shooting rarely seen elsewhere.
It's not as solid as I want it to be though, as there are some stinkers in the series, particularly the spinoffs I have listed here. FFA isn't bad per say, but it's such a lackluster title. It reinterprets the shooting mechanics for a tower defence game, which is interesting, but holy shit did this game get no money. There are 4 stages in it (one of which is just a rebranded old level!) and one boss fight. That's it. I know it was a cheap Vita title, but it feels like it's the lost multiplayer component of Into the Nexus (which is actually pretty good).
All4One, the co-op game, has a worse reputation I reckon, probably due to it following the excellent A Crack in Time. But compared to FFA, they actually put some decent amount of money into it. There's a proper little story, some good gags and a lot of varied levels. I quite enjoyed the rundown fishing village. It's a very unique locale for the series.
Sadly, the co-op gameplay is nowhere near as good as the classic formula, no matter how many fun level gimmicks there are. A co-op game using the standard formula (like the co-op mode in Deadlocked) would be killer, but I'm glad the series seems to be back on track with Rift Apart. I may not be able to play it due to the damn PS5 shortage, but it sure beats the series being put on ice like I assume they would after the reboot game.
I call this category "3d platformers with obvious inspirations that are quite good". Said inspirations in order being Super Mario Sunshine, Banjo-Kazooie and ICO.
I'd heard a lot of good things about A Hat in Time, and it met those expectations quite well. The genre has been so stagnant that I was kinda weirded out by all the fresh ideas the had (like really unique world-specific gimmicks) even though none of them are bad per say. I think my only proper complaint is how huge the forest level is.
Barring how bad the PC settings are (the game was only playable in 720p for me) and how tiring getting every single collectible is, I was pleasantly surprised by Yooka-Laylee. I heard it was a soul-draining snooze-fest, but it does some fun things. The writing is decently funny (though the actual story is just kinda there) and it has some fun gimmicks for collecting Pagies and solving puzzles. It's a bit rough here and there, but it's a good foundation, so I hope Playtonic returns to making 3d games in the series later.
Rime was a really pleasant time, only undone by its ending, which reveals how boring the premise of the game is. But beyond that, it's some really good puzzle platforming with a delectable art style. Only thing I've played that comes close to ICO. If only the music and story were better.
I have a bit of an odd relationship with boomer shooters and their brethren. I think I like them, but I don't think I like them as much as I want to. I think I'm more in the immersive sim camp and just accept old-school shooters for being somewhat similar.
Bio Menace was interesting, as it's a PC platformer by the Commander Keen people that is much slower paced than its contemporary console counterparts. A lot of focus goes into very carefully using the correct strategies to defeat the horde of mutants in the game. Even on the easiest setting, it's quite rough, especially since ammo resets between levels. I understand why that's done, but I can only deal with not having the grenades I desperately need to defeat the enemies at hand so many times. It's also incredibly dorky in how it tries to be this super macho sci-fi adventure, but it's written with all the wit you'd expect from a garage's worth of 90s nerds.
I tried the original Shadow Warrior, but that was such a hot mess that I couldn't even beat a single level. Me and the devs have a very different understanding of how much damage enemies with hit-scan weapons should deal per second.
The reboot game is better, but only manages to be mediocre. The writing is ok, but the shooting is incredibly limp, which is very ironic for a series with a protagonist whose name is a dick joke. No matter what gun I used, the impact just wasn't there and the sword combat isn't any better. And when the game introduces its beefiest enemies, it just becomes a drag.
Serious Sam gets points for being so insane with its scale, both in how big enemies get and how many of them are on-screen at a time. It's the kind of experience only available on PC, which was quite novel to a console peasant such as myself. Sadly, much like with the first Shadow Warrior, it's kinda stupid hard in parts, as the designer expects you to carve your way through armies of goons for minutes on end, which was too much for me after a while.
I played The New Order years ago and put The Old Blood on the backburner for reasons I can't quite remember. But now that I've played The Old Blood, I think I figured it out. These games are stupid hard when played on a controller! And I bet they'd be just as hard with mouse-aim! Lethality is high and enemies are numerous, especially if you screw up stealth. You'd think it'd be more of a power trip, but you actually have to be careful at all times and be very efficient when shooting down nazis. It's good this game is a smaller affair, otherwise I'd probably have given up on it.
Unreal Gold was the winner of this group, I'd say. It still has sections where ammo is scarce, levels are confusing and enemies are plentiful, but the environments and music really brings it all together. The mish-mash of alien ruins and space ships gives it this ethereal quality at times which is unlike anything else I've seen in a shooter. The composer is the same one who did the soundtrack for Jazz Jackrabbit 2, which is probably why I liked it so much.
Get Even is such a weird game that I couldn't group it together with anything else. It starts as a British crime thriller, but is actually a sci-fi mystery game which uses some low-key horror sections as a framing device. It's as crazy as it sounds, which is more than I can say for the gameplay, which flipflops between walking sim and a basic stealth FPS. I kinda have to respect the hustle.
Sadly, the reveals aren't as brain-shattering as you'd see in something like Ghost Trick (the two games kinda use playable flashbacks in similar ways), so it's not as memorable as it should be for something that puts so much focus on its story. Still, it's a cool little experiment.
During seventh gen I played my fair share of Lego games, but I called it quits after Lego Batman. I thought I'd gotten all I could out of them and when I played the two Lord of the Rings games recently, my suspicions were confirmed as I found them to be kinda nightmarish when it comes to collectibles.
But then I played the Ninjago game and was absolutely floored by the improvements made to the formula. This game has a combo-based combat system, gives you the collectible detector in level one, has a less restrictive camera, makes stud collection requirements universal between levels, puts in Prince of Persia platforming and even uses scenes from the movie its based on. It's still a bit basic, but it's miles ahead of the LotR games I played beforehand. Good to see that not everyone making those games were happy to churn out mediocre drek all the time.
So, here we have a pair of downloadable twinstick shooters, one of which is good and one of which isn't. Let's start Temple of Osiris, the lame one.
Despite being so functional, what really drags Osiris down is how cheap and soulless it feels. It's very much a product first and a work of art second. The plot is bland, the birds-eye camera makes it feel cheap and it has a bunch of loot that doesn't really add to the proceedings. Square Enix just needed something with co-op to put on XBLA and PSN and this was good enough.
For comparison, Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate is damn good. The levels are varied, the fluid gimmicks are cool and from what I remember of playing the original, the co-op is fun too. I haven't played a puzzle-oriented twinstick shooter like this before, so I consider it well worth playing, if only for the novelty. The bosses should be shorter though, instead of the 30-minute marathons they usually are.
Here's the obligatory metroidvania section. Can't go a week without one of these getting unleashed upon the world. I like the genre, but not a lot of devs put in the insane effort required to make it shine. Sidenote: Please let Silksong come out this year.
Synchronicity Prologue is a Ladybug joint, very much like Touhou Luna Nights that I reviewed last year. Both are short and linear, but very polished, featuring great spritework and solid bosses. Only this time, it's a licensed SMT game which I think acts as a prequel to the Strange Journey re-release. You play as a pair of Jack Bros fighting their way through other demons on the hunt for a murderous Black Frost. It's really fun. I should really go give their KonoSuba MegaMan clone a try later.
I thought I wouldn't like Guacamelee, but it's pretty solid. The art is nice, the grappling combat is fun and it has its fair share of secrets. Sadly, it's a bit too linear to make the genre justice and the story isn't good enough to make up for it it.
I didn't even know the Strider reboot was a metroidvania, so it was a fun surprise to realize that when I finally played it. It's lacking in the art department, but the combat is pretty solid. Again, it's very linear and the story isn't engaging enough to justify it. I think Hollow Knight has spoiled me too much on the genre, it does too much right.
Here are some beloved games I thankfully did enjoy. Always nice when you don't have to go against the grain.
Speaking as someone with no ties to Warhammer, Space Marine was a fun romp. It successfully plays into the power fantasy of the Ultra Marines without getting bogged down by details. And hey, the shooting and slashing of filthy greenskins is pretty solid mechanically.
Katamari Damacy is a wonderful and bizarre classic for a reason. The music and the rolling mechanics are so satisfying in conjunction. To utterly destroy a cartoony Japanese neighborhood by rolling up everything between heaven and earth is such a delight. I wish there were more stages though, as it's just a bit short and the extra gimmick stages do not make up for it.
Little Nightmares takes the cliche setup of playing as a child in a 2d puzzle platformer and manages to do enough to make it unique. The addition of a 3d plane and solid setpieces helps in actually making it scary in parts, which alongside a game being funny, should always be commended. DLC is a bit overpriced, but seeing as I got it for free, maybe I owe the devs that much.
Last on the list are a pair of 2d platforming games with interesting combat systems.
I'd heard good things about Dust, but beyond it being "that furry game" I knew nothing about it. Turns out it's a metroidvania using the format of sidequests opening up new maps that I praised The Last Remnant for, so that was neat. But it also has a fun combat system based on simple combos and using projectiles in conjunction with melée in order to rip through dozens of enemies at once. It's pretty easy, but it was still very engaging thanks to the level design and all the work that went into the presentation.
I haven't beaten Fortune Summoners yet, but I totally get why it's known as anime Dark Souls. Strip away the sugar-coated aesthetic and you're left with an incredibly harsh game that demands planning, perseverance and respect to defeat. Combat is handled through simplified fighting game inputs and enemies are downright vicious. I don't think I've ever played a 2d game with enemies this fast and smart.
They're all basically input readers and will slap the shit out of you for daring to use the same attacks too often. I dig the game for the most part, but the slow leveling and hard encounters that respawn makes it really difficult to keep a good pace going. I found myself having to retreat out of dungeons constantly to recover and save. It's at least merciful enough to provide checkpoints for every room, so that's nice.
Wow, that turned out to be a lot of words. A lot of games too. I think I've managed to almost cut my backlog in half through this process, which is as empowering as it is scary. I only have 13 games left in my Steam library to beat, that just sounds wrong.
It was fun to see that there were so many gems hidden away in my backlog. When I buy games, I'm often quite picky, but I'm naturally less picky when there are free games on offer, which got me out of my comfort zone. I have a lot of sequels or similar games I want to give a go now once I've managed to play the 80 games remaining in my backlog.
Here's hoping I've managed to inspire the rest of you to slay your own backlog demons. As I've shown, it can be done. All it takes is months of dedication, a minimal social life, an international pandemic and extensive unemployment. No biggie.