Like, duh, of course Kathy Rain is in here!
“Well now everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” sang Bruce Springsteen on “Atlantic City,” and while everything that dies likely won't come back, save for a zombie apocalypse, I hope you take solace in knowing all your passing icons live on in every song, photograph, and movie.
But hey, enough with the sourpussing. Let's talk about video games (or more specifically, why I’m skipping the likes of Uncharted 4). While I did play some big names this year, I thought it was best to pick out the underrated and the forgotten. I mean, let's face it, your favourite game probably dominates every list on the internet, so don't worry if you don't see the usual suspects posted here.
Not everything here might be worth your time, but rest assured, every rough gem has its own shiny allure. And, sometimes, that’s all you need to catch one's eye.
Kathy Rain is my GOTY 2016, bar none. It’s a meticulously written adventure game, with a real adoration for its protagonist, to the point where they breathe as much life into her as possible. Even now, when I think back to Kathy's many quirks, its easy to trace their origins back to some line or relationship established early on; including the reason for her oddball surname. Kathy's not like most female leads where if you take away their defining tragedy, they’re nihilistically empty without it.
Kathy Rain also understands the makings of great crime fiction, noting how it should always be about an investigation of the self, with the mystery being this reflective backdrop of their issues. During your amateurish investigations, characters bounce off each other thematically, all leading back to Kathy’s mistakes and regrets. And if you don’t buy into any of that, you’ll still have a fun time playing detective; flicking through phone books, listening to heart-breaking confessions, and tasering asshole bikers in the balls.
Sure, it’s not the most difficult adventure game ever made, and I'm fully aware that I'm selling it like it's bigger than 10 Superbowls, but it's only because I really think you should play it. Kathy Rain remains my only 9/10 review for very good reasons.
The Silver Case: Remastered
The Silver Case is dark and violent, vulgar but considerate, reflective of the time it was released. It’s the voice of a genuine punk rather than the brand he’d eventually become; sticking it to government and commerce, while embracing the revolution of 56K modems. For a game made in ’99, The Silver Case remains incredibly relevant today.
Unlike Goichi Suda's later work, The Silver Case is a fairly straightforward mystery thriller, as its cast of dysfunctional cops and journalists track down a seemingly comatose serial killer, his crimes suddenly capturing the public’s imagination. And that’s just the first half of the plot, with the social commentary touching on pop idol fanaticism, police fascism, and the true meaning of individualism.
If you’re tired of big-eyed visual novels clogging up Steam, love Satoshi Kon and MPD Psycho, or just big into hardboiled noir, then you’re going to find something to love about The Silver Case.
The Final Station
I wasn’t expecting much from The Final Station. I just needed something quick to review since my barista job was taking up too much time. Except sometimes, that's when the biggest surprises happen to you. The Final Station is a little survival horror game with a big heavy heart; balancing pick-up-and-play thrills with a surprisingly deep lore. Much like this year’s DOOM, you can take away as much or as little as you want and still feel satisfied.
What really haunts me to this day is the pre-apocalyptic setting. Very few games deal with the panic, the worry, the naïve hopes and inevitable shattered dreams, preferring the calm and quiet of the aftermath, but The Final Station goes all in; using its train journey as this metaphor for the defiance and acceptance of death. I’m glad I took a chance on it.
“You are a being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour, every day...”
Orwell is a fantastic nail-biter, taking all the best parts of Person of Interest, The Conversation, The Lives of Others, and putting them in a post-Snowden world. As a government contractor, it’s your job, along with an anally retentive partner, to track down the perpetrators of a terrorist attack using a spy program called “Orwell.”
Emails are hacked, phone lines are tapped, and profile pages are scoured in an effort to profile your suspects. It sounds cartoonish, but Orwell’s biggest strength lies in its subtly. Rarely does it ever tell you there’s a choice, an alternative path, if your Tory/Republican-led country is truly ominous, or if you’re giving out too much information. The terrorists obviously need to be stopped, and your actions ride the line of being justified, but your suspects aren't exactly run-of-the-mill. They're everyday people; a sad group of disillusioned punks, ex-college lovers, spoiled brats, and turncoat vegans (basically, your Facebook friends list).
Of course, as the investigation intensifies, so does your exposé to an increasingly paranoid and desperate lot. At times, you feel like one of those panicky CIA analysts in the Jason Bourne movies; especially when the game switches to a real-time manhunt. The fact I felt the pressure over a scrolling wall of text goes to show you how brilliant Orwell can be with nothing more than good writing and minimalist looks. I highly recommend it.
Every year, there’s a game which gets overlooked, either because it was released too early, too late, or something similar steals its thunder. Oxenfree is definitely one of those games.
I’ll be honest: Oxenfree isn’t an exciting game to play. It’s a walking simulator with snappy conversation choices, but, and this is why it deserves a mention, the script and voice direction is stellar. Oxenfree does everything Life is Strange failed to do, by getting teenage characters to sound like real teenagers. Sure, all the actors clearly are clearly in their 20s/30s, but their dialogue flows naturally, their reactions are always on point, and they feel real enough to earn your sympathy during every personal dilemma.
Gameplay-wise, it's very shallow and clipped, but I do regard it as an excellent example of ensemble cast writing and layered characters. Hopefully, more developers will look to it for future reference.
Batman: The Telltale Series
Batman games aren’t about Bruce Wayne. They’re about his alter-ego punching goons in the moment. So just when I’d grown fatigued by them, Telltale Games gave us a refreshing spin on The Caped Crusader, or more specifically the man behind the mask. Throughout its season, you see Wayne deal with the public fallout of his vigilante ways and having to fight a white-collar war without his cowl.When he does become The Bat, it’s purely for the sake of action, making it feel in line with the modern comics.
Story-wise, this loose reinterpretation of Wayne's early days doesn’t always hit its mark, what with the Rogues Gallery often being side-lined for a fairly muddled antagonist, but there’s some nice twists and turns all the way to the end. And while the choices boil down to “What would my favourite Batman writer do?” it caters to all the familiar shades, from Bruce Timm and Scott Snyder to Frank Miller and Jonathan Nolan.
Still, what stops Batman: The Telltale Series from being truly great is Telltale Games itself. The studio's improved engine is terrible, animations are unabashedly reused, and some of the choices have little payoff. But not once did I wonder when an episode would end; something I’ve been doing a lot since The Walking Dead: Season 2.
This is The Police
Not many people liked this one, and while I agree with their criticisms, I’m a little more forgiving of the way it tackles the subject matter. Personally, way too many reviewers focused on some non-message about policing when it’s really just aping Breaking Bad.
Admittedly, This is The Police is too damn long, exposing its repetitiveness early on. It’s best played in episodic doses, as every story arc brings fresh new ideas into play, like playing both sides of a mob war, tracking down a serial killer, or busting gang members, in addition to regular street crimes. Your effectiveness depends on the ratings of your officers and logical decision making, making every callout a life or death gamble.
This is The Police is a flawed game; unfairly maligned and justifiably critiqued in equal measure. I’ll always have a soft spot for it though, solely for the odd inventive spark, its intriguing anti-hero, and a career-best performance by John St. John.
Day of the Tentacle Remastered
Another remaster, but this one deserves a mention as it’s exactly how all the LucasArts games should be treated. Do you want hi-res graphics and mouse wheel interaction? No? That’s okay, you can play it old school, too. What’s that? The pixels are rougher than you remember? Not to worry, you can play it with the verbs bar and in faithfully created HD! Not like those awful Monkey Island remasters. Why did they make Guybrush’s head into a banana? Oh, the humanity!
Hats off to Double Fine for covering all the angles, and turning this snooty jerk into a true believer. Even without the fresh coat of paint, DoTT still holds up today, thanks to a great script and memorable puzzles. And why are those puzzles memorable? It’s because they had genuinely funny punchlines. I’ll always prefer Sam & Max Hit the Road, but DoTT: Remastered is a lovingly restored reminder of a gaming classic.
Virginia is a beautiful-looking game, what with its cinematic hard cuts, mood-changing palette, and a soundtrack to die for. Sadly, that aspirational presentation comes at a hefty price. It’s such a tightly controlled experience, you feel like the developers lack faith in their audience, that your improvised acting will break the immersion. All of which results in a poor third Act, full of exposition because you weren't trusted enough to play detective.
But Virginia is less about the crime and more about the loneliness of two different women, all perfectly told without a line of dialogue. It’s an homage to '90s thrillers that also happens to be a melancholic indie movie. For that, I can’t really fault Virginia too much because aside from the gameplay, it does exactly what it sets out to do.
My old film tutor once told me, albeit paraphrased, “If you can make a story without dialogue and still make people care, then you’re a good filmmaker.” So when I think back to the bar scene where Anne and Maria dance the night away and drink beer until sunset, bonding without a single word between them, I can’t help but think that way about Virginia’s developers.
Daily Chthonicle: Editor’s Edition
Look, it’s Arkham Horror. Aside from some tweaks and a lack of fiddly tokens, it’s exactly the same. That's okay, though! Daily Chthonicle: Editor’s Edition is a fun and ridiculously cheap experience (don’t bother with the free mod, it’s outdated). As a newspaper editor of the Fortean Times variety, you'll send a group of plucky reporters out on promising leads, where they’ll encounter all sorts of Lovecraftian foes and disturbing clues.
Daily Chthonicle has this MS-DOS charm about it – a pixelated, lo-fi look, crammed with menus, and maybe-maybe-not public domain images – along with the very same archaic annoyances from that era. You'll need a couple of dry runs to grasp how everything works, and the procedurally generated stories rarely make sense, but when things finally click, it’s actually a strategic game of risk and reward as bigger scoops mean more sales, which in turn pay for the equipment needed to tackle tougher foes.
And anyway, where else are you going to see Joseph Cotton fight the alien from Pitch Black?! Exactly, I rest my case!
White Noise 2
While it lacks the looks and budget of its asymmetrical horror peers, White Noise 2 proves that if you have a sound concept and a good price point, you can hold your own against the big boys. Sure, it’s a Slender clone with added co-op, but even in its Early Access state, the evolving gameplay is slowly creating a good-natured alternative to Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th.
Though the community is lacking in size, it’s friendly and helpful to new players. The developers also listen to feedback; refining the monsters and putting an emphasis on skill-based teams. They've even managed to make death an engaging experience. That said, I find the investigators far more fun to play, since you need to master each monster for a memorable session, but if you’re into gameplay over graphics, then White Noise 2 is a commendable effort.