No, I didn’t play Bloodborne, okay!?
At the start of 2015, I was basically done with video games. I’d made myself a promise to read more books and play fewer games, which lasted all of two months before I read Willy Vlautin’s utterly depressing Northline and became a contributor for Destructoid. Hmm, bugger.
Off-site, I’d been going through a bit of sea change, or a midlife crisis depending on your point of view. My friends were finally doing the things they wanted to do, either through acting, singing, or teaching abroad. So with baby steps in mind, I pushed the reset button on my life and started all over again. I didn’t want to be stuck in front of a computer all day, my unpublished novella was as ready as it was going to be (though, the follow-up novel needs another draft), and that trip to Portland was being put off for far too long.
Yep, things had to change. So by the time 2015 was drawing to a close, my novella was still unpublished and Portland was pushed back to 2016 due to my missus’ knee injury. Double bugger. But at least I’d seen Akira Yamaoka play live, met my first Dtoider since joining the site in 2009, finally played Arkham Horror, and became the biggest cliché on the internet: a part-time barista who writes about video games.
Baby steps, yeah? Anyway, here are some games I liked, y’know, to prove my worth as some guy blogging his disposable thoughts on a cult gaming site. Be warned, I didn’t play many games for the reasons above, so relax if you don’t see Bloodborne, The Witcher 3, or Undertale on here. I’m sure they were all good and you have a solid reason for seeking out personal validation on the internet.
HOTLINE MIAMI 2: WRONG NUMBER
I get why this isn’t on many writers’ lists, I really do, but it’s my GOTY, bar none. Wrong Number is the Ying to Hotline Miami’s Yang; taking under-utilised elements of the original and pushing them to the forefront of its sequel. Left Shift/Look Ahead became essential, guns were integral, and the safe reliance of mask powers were replaced by changing character tactics.
Wrong Number is a reactionary game, using its cast of oddballs and misfits to represent Dennaton Games’ reflections on critics, fandom, and its own legacy. It’s a surprisingly affecting game at times, humanising perceived antagonists or showing poignancy in its uber-violence by a mere change in setting. Look past the combo kills, the shock value, and conspiracy theories and there are wonderful messages to be told.
It also happens to be blissfully nihilistic, throwing any complaints you had about the plot retcons or broken gameplay to the wind. As the final fire rises, there’s a conversation about how very little matters as long as you enjoyed yourself. And I certainly did, even during the times when a dog would warp through a wall and kill me.
The more I think about STASIS’ plot and puzzles, the more it falls apart. But for that initial run, it was definitely one of the best old-school adventure games I’d play in a long, long while; totally deserving of Patrick Hancock’s plaudits. STASIS is relentlessly grim, yet lovingly detailed with its audio/visual designs. It’s Sanitarium by way of Event Horizon/Pandorum/Dead Space, if you will.
Puzzle-wise, it’s rarely obtuse, mostly a case of using everything in your inventory until something works, and only becoming a problem when the puzzle is technobabble-centric. But overall, STASIS works best when you’re allowed to pass through its story of unethical medicine and human spirit at a brisk, unnerving pace.
It’s pretty easy, though, to see how the similarly themed SOMA stole its thunder. STASIS is a pulpier take, narrower in scope, and lacking a good cast; which explains why it’s been left at the wayside after getting some praise earlier in the year. But for a solid point-and-click adventure in an era where the puzzles have given way to dialogue choices and morals, this horror throwback is well worth a look.
D4: DARK DREAMS DON’T DIE (PC VERSION)
Much like the excellent Deadly Premonition, D4 has big ideas on a small budget. The whole game is basically one man wandering around his apartment or in a plane aisle, and yet it manages to tell an involving story about love and loss, not to mention fashion and gourmet cooking.
I love Swery65. He and his games always remind me of my film school days, where hard work on a good script would overcome real-world restrictions. That’s why I see him as a filmmaker at heart, a genuinely good one who understands the importance of characterisation in storytelling, and I don’t doubt that’s been shaped by his low-budget experiences throughout the years.
Sure, D4 might not be on Deadly Premonition’s level, due to the lack of resolution and breakneck absurdity of David Young’s investigation, but it’s a wonderful slice of Japanese weirdness mixed with a memorable set of characters. I also absolutely adore the idea of getting into Young’s head and asking questions as he would to get the best possible answer. It’s a rewarding way of playing detective without ever having to worry about penalties. They’re all right responses, but the best ones show you how close you’ve grown to David, crazy Bostonian accent and all.
I know I’m cheating by using the PC version here (released in 2015), but that’s the only version I’ve played and it’s thoroughly deserving of a second season. Mouse controls during the action scenes need a little work, though.
Liev Schreiber impersonator Zack Furniss wasn’t a fan of Hard West, and while I agree with his points, I’m a little more forgiving. Yes, it’s a buggy experience (I had to contact a developer for an upcoming fix, yikes) and the lack of character progress is off-putting, but there’s potential under the initial shock and disappointment. Once you get over the fact there’s no Overwatch and learn how the Luck system works in its place, it’s a dynamic little six-shooter, where you’re encouraged to flank enemies and take risky maneuvers.
I’d actually compare it more to Shadowrun and FTL than XCOM. In between the shootouts, you get some tough dilemmas to mull over, where nothing is black and white, and every helping hand comes with long-term consequence. The main story is incredibly slight, but the low-key Weird West/Deadlands vibe works well, smirking away at every choice you make.
With a little more time in the oven, maybe a better explanation of the gameplay, or bigger crowdsourcing funds, it could’ve been universally liked. The potential is there, especially for an expanded sequel, though if you’re currently interested in purchasing Hard West, I’d strongly recommend waiting for a patch or two.
BREACH & CLEAR: DEADLINE
I’m going to be honest, here: Deadline is not GOTY material, far from it, but I did enjoy my time with this tactical zombie shooter. Think an isometric Left 4 Dead-meets-SWAT with a bit of looting thrown in and that’s Deadline in a nutshell.
Deadline is more than rough around the edges, and despite having the Breach & Clear preface (it’s a horror spin-off), the tactical planning rarely comes into play. For what it’s worth, Deadline is a co-op arcade shooter, only slowing down when you have to root survivalists out of a gas station or suburban household. That’s not to say there’s no tension, though. Its finer moments come from surprise sieges, like you’re re-enacting the Operations attack from Aliens. It also happens to be a highly customisable game, from the look of your squad and weapon upgrades to the levelling up of their skill trees, with the RPG elements being pretty useful as the combat scenarios get tougher.
I suspect if you bought Deadline for the full price, you’d be pretty disappointed, even with the co-op incentive, but considering how I picked it up for £3/$5, I got my money’s worth. If you’re still interested, my advice is to wait for a sale and completely avoid the pointless dungeon crawling maps, unless you loved the Chrysler Building in Parasite Eve. You sycophant!
WAY OF THE SAMURAI 4 (PC VERSION)
Alright, I’m cheating again since I’d played this one on the PS3 and eventually bought it on PC, which was ported over in 2015. But my cheekiness is worth it to say this, and only this: Way of the Samurai is a criminally overlooked series.
Under its exploitation cinema veneer and the bawdy Japanese humour lies an incredible complexity, from combat stances to the swords, from mini-quests to branching storylines. Sure, every instalment is exactly the same – you’re the next Yojimbo looking to play off all the different factions for personal gain or selfless heroics – but its one of the few games where your choices will drastically change the direction of the plot (and back again, given the right circumstance); like if Yakuza wasn’t so tied down by its soap opera narrative.
WotS 4 is probably the most audacious and comical one, yet; vibrant in colour and tone, a far cry from its maudlin predecessors. It’s more Samurai Champloo than 13 Assassins (an effort to stand out more, perhaps), but that doesn’t take anything away from your Machiavellian actions and lone wolf skills. The only thing that would elevate the solid PC port (save for the 30 FPS lock) is if every massacre ended with you walking away to the Shogun Assassin theme.
DR. LANGESKOV, THE TIGER AND THE TERRIBLY CURSED EMERALD: A WHIRLWIND HEIST
As a troubling peek into how my mind works, there was a random bit in A Whirlwind Heist that instantly took me back to a school production of Grease. The snooty girl playing Sandy had just done her big solo number, did a bit of sad acting, then turned around to exit through the curtain. She tripped on her nightgown at the last second. Her feet were the only thing left on stage, lit up by a spotlight brighter than the sun. As a stagehand, I remember wincing through the slow dragging of her body through the curtains, like a victim being dragged into a dark alley.
Then I burst out laughing.
A Whirlwind Heist is all those horrors of stage production, like a hundred It’ll Be Alright on the Nights, rolled into a perfect 20 minutes. It’s also one of the few genuinely funny games I’ve ever played, both layered and sharp as it pokes fun at the thankless hard graft behind your favourite artistic endeavours and player defiance. Simon Amstell is perfect as a stage manager barely holding it together. Justin Roiland of Rick & Morty fame does some optional improvisation, but his rambling is probably the weakest part and also fairly intrusive of the real-time humour.
Tim Kasher of Cursive once sang, “We all know art is hard,” and as a film school graduate, I totally agree with him. But behind the scenes, it can also be an extremely enjoyable adventure of its own accord.
I’d never even heard of Clandestine until Patrick Hancock (him again!) splurged all over it in a recent review. So thanks to him, I was totally sold on this Splinter Cell throwback. I’m still in the midst of playing it, but I already love what’s on offer.
Clandestine looks and plays like a stealth game from the early ’00s, but it’s also quite astute when combating its own technical limitations, like setting the whole plot during the mid-’90s as a way of covering for the lack of in-game gadgets and an emphasis on real-time hacking. I’m sure the whole game worker smoother in co-op, but even in solo play, there’s real tension to be found when stalking the corridors as rookie spy Katya, only to hit “H” and disable cameras as her stationary partner, Martin. Though, honestly, I have more fun playing as the latter because Clandestine is not without some major faults in the stealth department; think more along the lines of Pandora Tomorrow than Chaos Theory, because the stealth really is that archaic at times.
But you know what really makes up for it in my books? It’s like every spy show and conspiracy movie that cropped up in the paranoid ’90s, with its chunky monitors and modem connections, a needlessly angry boss, and a cool spy duo that ticks every post-Grunge look known to fashion. Part-Alias, part-The Lone Gunmen, part-Spy Game with that guy who played Johnny Cage, all badly acted and jarringly animated.
I already want a sequel.